Monday 26 October 2020


Finished October 23
Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

This dark novel is an older one I found on my shelves. It is set in the late 1870s in England. The title character, Harriet Woodhouse is a woman in her thirties, but who mentally is younger. The exact nature of her developmental delay is not clear, and she is described here as a natural. She seems to show in a lack of understanding of more complex ideas and a lack of social skills, although she is outgoing and can be exuberant about some things. She has been trained to look after herself and her clothes and always presents herself well. However, she is a woman who is sometimes not easy to be around, and so her mother regularly boards her with other distant relatives who host her for the money her mother pays. It is at this point that the story begins. 
Mr. Ogilvy, Harriet's mother has remarried to a quiet man, a Unitarian minister who does care for both his wife and Harriet, but likes a quiet life. Since Harriet was left an income by her late father, she can afford to buy clothes that present her to her best advantage. 
Harriet spends the next month at a cousin of Mrs. Ogilvy's, Mrs. Hoppner. Mrs. Hoppner has two adult daughters, one, Elizabeth, married to an artist, Patrick who barely provides a living for her and their two children, and the other, Alice, single and still living at home. The money from Harriet's visit will partially go towards a new dress for Alice, something she looks forward to intensely. Of late, Alice has been seeing Patrick's brother Lewis who works as a clerk for an auctioneer. The brothers have a very close relationship, in some ways more close than a marital one. All the young people on the Hoppner side of the family are quite self-centered, focused on themselves and their own needs above all else. Elizabeth and Patrick have a young woman, Clara staying with them to help with the children and other household tasks, but although they agreed to give her some money when they can afford it, they never do in those few times of being flush. Clara is also a distant relation whose parents were glad of the opportunity to get rid of another mouth to feed. 
When Lewis meets Harriet and learns of her independent income, he focuses his sights on her. The time that Harriet spends at Mrs. Hoppner's allows him to get her confidence and thus when she returns home engaged, her mother is hard put to dissuade her or find another means of preventing the marriage from taking place. 
This book is a dark one, that show society's failure to protect the weakest amongst us. As we watch Harriet fall into the clutches of this family and get taken advantage of, we despair for her and her future. This is a very disturbing story, but very well told.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I will look for it on Amazon.