- Persephone Books, 320 pp.
The Domesticity of Evil
This April, Persephone Books republished Harriet, a disturbing tale of true crime written by one of the founders of the Jane Austen Society. Not only was the writer Elizabeth Jenkins instrumental in saving Austen’s home at Chawton, she published a biography of the novelist in 1938. Jenkins’s own first novel was described by Virginia Woolf as “a sweet white grape of a book,” and more recently Hilary Mantel called her writing “as smooth and seductive as a bowl of cream.” These epicurean metaphors take on a bitter irony in the present context. In Harriet, first published in 1934, Jenkins fictionalized the so-called Penge Murder of 1877, in which mentally disabled heiress Harriet Staunton was starved to death by her fortune-hunting husband and his family.
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.
I first read Harriet a couple of years ago, after I came across a surprisingly sturdy Bantam paperback from 1946 in the bargain cart outside a used bookstore. When I learned that Persephone was republishing the book, I pulled it out again and found myself rereading the entire thing in a matter of hours. A bestseller in its day, it won the French Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais; it’s easy to imagine the countrywomen of Flaubert and Choderlos de Laclos responding to such a book (the Prix Femina is awarded by an all-female jury). Jenkins may well have been alive when I read Harriet; she died in 2010, at the age of 104.
The figures in Jenkins’s book share their first names with their real-life counterparts, though Louis becomes Lewis, and the last names are changed. The real-life Harriet Richardson was a Victorian heiress with the mental and social functioning of a child; pampered and sheltered by her doting mother, she had acquired passable, if gauche, manners and a taste for fancy clothing. When well over thirty, she was courted and quickly won by an auctioneer’s clerk and small-time fortune hunter named Louis Staunton. Her mother made a last ditch attempt to keep her safe by having Harriet declared mentally incompetent, but it was too little, too late.
Not quite two years later, Harriet died of malnutrition after months of confinement in a small upstairs room in the house of Louis’s brother and sister-in-law, Patrick and Elizabeth (Harriet’s baby son had died a few weeks earlier). Louis paid the two a small sum for Harriet’s care while enjoying a lovers’ idyll with Elizabeth’s teenage sister, Alice, in a nearby country house purchased with Harriet’s money. Hoping to obscure the true state of affairs, the four transported the dying Harriet to a boarding house in the London suburb of Penge, but soon found themselves on trial for murder.
Jenkins’s Lewis is honest with himself about his motives in courting and marrying Harriet (though he leaves Alice in the dark), and clever in his exploitation of her weaknesses. Once he realizes she can barely read his letters, he woos her with cheap candy and greeting cards “frilled with paper lace and ornamented with sparkles and roses”, thrilling novelties to this naïve daughter of privilege.
Lewis prides himself on being a good caretaker to Harriet’s fortune, now his. The first year or so of the marriage is spent in a rented house whose furnishings Lewis is reluctant to spend much money on, until Alice arrives to “help” with the housekeeping. And once he is ready to move on, Jenkins relates with sly irony his plan to pay Elizabeth the sum of one pound per week for Harriet’s room and board: “This would, he knew, be very welcome to Elizabeth; at the same time, seeing that he had received three thousand pounds with his wife and was going at some future date to get two thousand more, his conscience acquitted him of any undue extravagance.”
Once Harriet becomes part of the family, so to speak, installed in Elizabeth and Patrick’s spare room, the foursome feel justified in seeing her as a tiresome relative, an imposition on their natural happiness, a burden no one could blame them for resenting. They have other priorities. And the more Harriet’s appearance and behavior deteriorate, the more tempting it becomes simply to put her out of sight, and out of mind.
For her part, Elizabeth just wants to make the best life possible for her two small children and her moody husband, a painter of nature scenes with titles like “Autumn Tints”:
The pound a week which Lewis provided, Elizabeth was always meaning to do something definite with, which might include Harriet in being to the general advantage; but every week some pressing claim presented itself – boots for Patrick, clothes for Alfred or the baby, cod-liver oil, or curtains for one of the rooms.
The gradations of light and dark which Jenkins is willing to discern in her characters can be seen in the following passage, in which Elizabeth punishes Clara, the teenaged maid, for provoking Harriet:
She took Clara by the shoulders and, opening the side door, pushed her out on to the frosty, twilight path. “You don’t come in till you’ve done making that noise,” she said, and clapped to [sic] the door. “What’s wrong with you, Alfred?” she asked, feeling a tug at her skirt.
“I love you,” said Alfred.
“That’s a good boy,” she said, relieved that that was all. “Now, if you’re very careful you can help me carry in Papa’s tea.”
Alfred jumped about at such a splendid prospect. The noise of his little shoes on the flags made a happy sound in her ears, such as more romantically minded people find in the notes of larks and nightingales. She felt, “We’re all so happy when nothing puts us out. It’s a shame other people try Patrick so.”
Few writers, I think, would be willing to link maternal love so easily to a capacity for what prosecutors call depraved indifference.
Young Alice, Elizabeth’s sister and Lewis’s mistress, is essentially shallow and self-absorbed, yet her private torments and ecstasies bring forth some of Jenkins’s most voluptuous writing. In her mind, her new life is a just reward for the suffering she endured while Lewis courted Harriet: “She had not forgotten that she had once sat up in bed in the transparent gold light of the moon, enduring a wild, unbelievable misery…she was glad, consciously and determinedly glad, that these fine, expensive things had been brought to her.” The house Alice shares with Lewis, a short distance from the place where Lewis’s wife is imprisoned, is in her view a fairy-tale bower:
Everywhere was luminous, bewildering, endless green, and the front parlour was papered with a Chinese wallpaper of ash-pink roses on a green ground; the windows of this room were half-smothered with a growth of jasmine and honeysuckle, and barricaded at a little distance by the apple trees in full leaf; so that the pale light came in with a watery hue, and Alice sometimes had the feeling, as she paused here, that she was asleep and would never wake up.
Meanwhile, Harriet’s sole remaining pleasure is in eating some of the condensed milk with which she feeds her fading infant, and “when the ecstasy was over, she found herself scraping with her finger inside a jagged tin, in the midst of shabbiness and coldness and desolation.”
Even relatively minor figures are shown in all their complexity. This is Jenkins’s portrait of the dominant figure in the foursome’s trial:
His reputation as a criminal lawyer was truly appreciated only in his profession, for in his dealings with the world at large it was the warmth and humanity of his disposition that made the chief impression. Cruelty was not, to him, as to respectable people in general, a disagreeable and shocking thing: it was an obscene horror that almost took away his presence of mind. He had once while at Harrow come upon another boy tormenting a dog, and he could still recall the voluptuous satisfaction with which he banged the fellow’s head into semi-stupefaction on the asphalt pavement.
Jenkins does not merely juxtapose the man’s “warmth and humanity” with the “voluptuous satisfaction” he felt in giving out a beating, she leads us from one to the other by logical steps, letting the contradictions and ambiguities speak for themselves.
Thirty years after Jenkins first published Harriet, novelist Angus Wilson wrote an essay for the Kenyon Review entitled “Evil in the English Novel,” in which he criticized what he saw as English writers’ failure to grasp the possibility of evil. One of those he finds guilty is Jane Austen. He cites the moment in Northanger Abbey when the hero, Henry Tilney, scolds the heroine, Catherine, for believing that Tilney’s father had killed his wife: “Remember the country and age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” This is “not a good enough answer,” says Wilson; “it is quite possible for General Tilney to have murdered his wife.”
In Harriet, Jenkins uses Austen’s techniques to show how it was possible for Louis Staunton to murder his wife, in a quiet country neighborhood, without doing too much violence to his own self-image, or arousing too much suspicion in his neighbors. Cruelty becomes another aspect of domestic routine, like tending the hens or the vegetable garden. In what may be the book’s most chilling image, we see the house in which Harriet is slowly dying through the eyes of a policeman sent to watch it, after Harriet’s mother has finally alerted the authorities to the way her daughter has dropped from sight:
The wet slates burn[ed] with a blush of silver. Everything was silent as the grave. High overhead the remaining clouds raced, and higher still, in a field of transparent aquamarine, the polished silver moon poured out floods of light; the purity and calmness of the universe seemed altogether free of any stain of human grief, a serene radiant repudiation of pain and misery.
In Jenkins’s hands, true crime is not sensationalism, but a meditation on the ordinariness of human cruelty, and all the mysteries and contradictions of human life.
(Note: All quotations are taken verbatim from the 1946 Bantam edition, rather than the current Persephone edition.)