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Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

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Persephone book no. 97

Published in 1934, Harriet fictionalises a cause célèbre and in this respect is in a long tradition of ‘real life' crime novels, of which The Suspicions of Mr Whicher describing the 1860s Constance Kent case about the murder of a child is a recent, bestselling example. Harriet is based on the 1877 'Penge Murder Mystery’, the death by starvation of a wealthy young woman called Harriet Richardson, who had led a protected life because her very limited intelligence meant that her mother kept her at home (‘my daughter was a very simple-minded girl’ were her words in testimony at the trial) in the belief that she would never be able to lead a normal existence. But one day she has the misfortune to meet an attractive, unscrupulous young man who decides to marry her for her money.

The novel describes the years from 1875-7 during which Harriet changes from the sheltered, beloved only, if grown-up, child of a comfortable middle-class household, with beautiful clothes and an orderly life, to an abandoned, abused wife unable to look after herself and at the mercy of her uncaring husband. Whether the Staunton family plotted her death or whether they were only guilty of wilful neglect is the question at the heart of a book, which, although it could loosely be called a crime novel or horror story, should really be called a psychological novel, since an unspoken question runs throughout its pages: how on earth could this happen?

REVIEW

"What makes Harriet so haunting and memorable is the way in which Jenkins brings the gifts one would expect from a devotee of Austen, and the sensuous delicacy hinted at by Woolf and Mantel, to bear on such a cruel story. Her measured and elegant style does indeed evoke Austen, and the grace of the writing makes the book all the more chilling. With pitiless clarity, Jenkins limns the process of self-deception by which four people, for the most ordinary of motives, bring themselves to commit murder by deliberate neglect." - California Literary Review

"Like a cold hand clutching at the heart." - Observer

"It is superb. Every word grips." - Manchester Evening News

"So exciting that I could hardly read it." - James Agate, Daily Express

PRODUCT DETAILS
Publisher: Persephone Books
ISBN: 978-1903155875
Pages: 320
Endpaper: 'Small Syringa' 1875, a woven silk by EW Godwin for Warner & Ramm.