Back in 2009, in a state of awe and wonder having read The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, someone suggested that I wrote and told her how much I had enjoyed the book. Though approaching her 104th birthday, infirm and in a care home, I learned that Elizabeth still appreciated hearing from readers and knowing that her books were much-loved.
So I did write to her and received a lovely reply from Lady Hylton, who dealt with all Elizabeth's correspondence, and who assured me of the author's gratitude and I tucked the letter in the book where it sits to this day. And now I wonder why I don't do this more often...or maybe why any of us don't write to authors, and maybe it's because e mail has abolished the whole notion of the personal literary letter.
Anyway I treasure my reply from Elizabeth Jenkins who sadly died the following year
Harriet (and I have tried to be very careful but there may be spoilers) was the first book I picked up in my project to read The Great Unread on my Persephone shelves. Think of this book, published in 1934, as laying down a benchmark for a genre that has now become very popular, fiction based on a true crime. Having been given a copy of The Trial of the Stauntons by her brother, a solicitor, Elizabeth Jenkins decided to write a novel that would utilise the details as accurately as possible but with added fictional background, whilst the name of the victim would be the title of the book. Elizabeth Jenkins's attention to details of people, dress and decor to say nothing of events really do furnish the reader's imagination creating a credible and gripping read.
Set in 1875, a wealthy and as yet unmarried young woman of thirty-two, Harriet, is described by Elizabeth Jenkins as a 'natural', with the 'mentality of a young child', Harriet is vulnerable but 'deriving great enjoyment from small pleasures' is happy when engaged in outings and purchasing but can, by all accounts, be quite demanding company. She therefore spends a month at a time with relatives various who tolerate her because they need the money paid for her board and lodging, whilst her mother and step-father take a break.The omens are not fortuitous when Elizabeth Jenkins suggests that...
'Everybody in their heart of hearts, had rather that she were not there.'
When Lewis Oman, 'with the ruthless cruelty of an adder' proposes marriage to Harriet whilst sidelining Alice, his own intended, Harriet is deeply and instantly impressed and of course blissfully unaware that the attraction is of course the £3000 a year that she brings with her along with another £2000 when her aunt dies.
Women are pawns to be manipulated in Lewis's game and that includes Harriet's mother who, desperate to intervene, suddenly finds herself powerless to do so, her way blocked by a combination of Harriet's free will and a failed attempt at legal intervention. The trail goes cold as Harriet, and by this time her baby, are spirited off by Lewis and his extended family to what effectively becomes a rural 'prison'. Everyone involved loses track of their moral compass and what follows should actually be very harrowing, though I felt Elizabeth Jenkins was kind to this reader and allowed for some objective detachment...the book didn't give me sleepless nights, put it like that.
I won't go into the details because to do so would be to completely spoil the book, but suffice to say that in the actual case on which the book is based, Louis Stanton is convicted in 1877 and serves twenty years imprisonment in Dartmoor Prison.
I took this picture of the forbidding entrance to the prison the last time I was looking around the museum there...
Imagine Louis Staunton, a model prisoner by all accounts whose repentance appeared genuine, emerging from these very gates in September 1897 wearing a suit made for him by fellow prisoners. I'm thinking he probably walked along the wide main street to the station (the very same one I would walk up and down when Princetown was my health visiting patch) and boarded the train which would have chugged along that branch line down to Plymouth, the route which I now walk so often...
Thence to London where Alice, who had been exonerated in the original trial, was waiting for him. They married though Alice would die soon after the outbreak of the First World War. Louis would marry again, father thirteen children and forge a moderately successful career as an auctioneer.
Harriet would win its author the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse, (beating A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh and Frost In May by Antonia White ) the award presented by E.M Forster, though Elizabeth Jenkins feared, in years to come, that she may somehow have transgressed the unspoken rules of fiction by using such intimate biographical details. As the Persephone Biannually (No 11Spring/ Summer 2012) quotes in the author's own words...
'I began to imagine how, if you started at point A, you could possibly arrive at point B. I would not write such a thing now, because I feel that we want fewer horrors, not more; but then one hadn't heard about the Nazis.'
Meanwhile, how glad I am that Elizabeth Jenkins did write this book, and how good it is to remember that The Suspicions of Mr Witcher et al are not such a new phenomenon after all, Harriet paved the way.
And at the other end of her life, how revealing is her obituary to inquisitive readers like me...
'Elizabeth Jenkins did not marry, but late in life confessed that eminent doctors such as Dr Gully are “always attractive”. The men in her life, she said, were not free to pursue any relationship. The love of her life, she said in 2004, was the surgeon, Sir Eardley Holland.
“He was very distinguished, handsome, charismatic. I worked during the war in the Ministry of Information with one of his daughters, Chloe, and she engineered a meeting with him.
“He took rather a shine to me. He wasn’t faithful to his wife. I wondered why she didn’t value him more; so many women, including me, would happily have changed places with her. I offered him my heart on a plate. He made me unhappy, but it was worth it. My feeling for him lasted after his death. It is still going on now.'
If you have read Harriet I would love to know your thoughts..
I must admit I read it with a rising sense of horror and helplessness...
Or have you read any other books by Elizabeth Jenkins....I have two lesser known titles unread here, Brightness and Robert and Helen.
And if you have read some of the latter-day equivalents in the true-story-to-novel genre, well...do they work for you...and please do mention titles, there must be far more than I can think of.
And I wonder how you think Harriet fits into our discussions last week here on the subject of First Name Terms...