“Harriet came with little bouncing steps towards the tea table and looked into the teapot. “This is do Mama,” she said; she sometimes confused small words, though she could always make her meaning clear. At the age of thirty-two she had a sallow countenance, with strongly marked lines running from the nostrils to the corners of the lips; her chin receded, and her eyes were the glutinous black of treacle. Apart from her expression, and the slightly slurred enunciation of her words, however, her appearance was one of rather particular neatness and cost.”
In real life Harriet Staunton nee Richardson lived and died very much in line with the events in Elizabeth Jenkins’s 1934 novel. Like the Harriet in the novel, Harriet Staunton had what today we would call learning difficulties, she had been well brought up by her mother, who had taught her how to care for herself, but she had difficulty expressing herself and was prone to making sudden unexplained noises and flying into rages. She also had a legacy of about £5,000 – something like half a million in today’s money. Only one photograph exists of Harriet Staunton, taken upon the occasion of her engagement.
Despite being based upon real life events, I must stress that Harriet, is a novel, though there are I believe non-fiction works written about the famous case too. Elizabeth Jenkins was fascinated by what was known as the Penge mystery of 1877. Publishing this novel in the same year as F. Tennyson Jesse published ‘A pin to see the Peepshow’ which was also based upon a famous murder trial, Jenkins decided to take the unusual step of calling her characters by their real Christian names. Harriet Staunton became Harriet Woodhouse, Louis Staunton, Lewis Oman, Patrick Staunton, becomes Patrick Oman, sisters Elizabeth Staunton (nee Rhodes) and Alice Rhodes are in Jenkins novel Elizabeth Oman and Alice Hoppner respectively.
The story of Harriet is a desperate one, and Jenkins telling of it is a masterly piece of subtle storytelling, Jenkins had no need of gratuitous descriptions – the slow downward spiral of this unfortunate young woman’s life is enough in itself. The selfish greed which leads to Harriet falling victim to Lewis Oman’s handsome charms is brilliantly portrayed. A vulnerable young woman, who had previously only been in the company of her mother and step father with occasional visits made to relatives, easily has her head turned by the attentions of a handsome young man. Lewis the elder of two exceptionally close brothers is already becoming close to Harriet’s cousin, Alice when the two meet. Much to Alice’s horror, Lewis’s attentions switch to Harriet when he learns of her fortune. Lewis’s brother Patrick a surly bad tempered artist, is married to Alice’s elder sister Elizabeth. Lewis and Harriet become quickly engaged, Harriet’s mother is immediately on the alert and does all she can to stop her daughter marrying Lewis; however Harriet is over thirty and with Lewis’s contrivance sets herself against her mother, removing herself from the family home when her mother tries to make her a ward of chancery to prevent her marrying. Harriet and Lewis are married, and from there on there is a terrible inevitability to the events that follow, with Harriet isolated from her mother, again thanks to Lewis’s contrivance, and removed to the country to board with Patrick and Elizabeth, she becomes the unwitting victim to terrible cruelty and neglect.
This is a wonderfully readable novel, though it is a terrible story, made so much more poignant by the fact that the reader knows that it is a pretty accurate recreation of actual events. In his fascinating afterward to this edition Richard Cooke discusses the trial verdicts and Elizabeth Jenkins’s career and her obvious fascination with this case.