We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.
My dear Fanny,
I just finished Elizabeth Jenkins’s Harriet, a little stunner of a novella. It’s of interest to someone studying Jane Austen and as a novel in its own right. Katie Trumpener in her "The Virago Jane" (Janeites, ed Deirdre Lynch) cites it as one of those many books by women which, while books in their own right and not sequels as these are usually defined, nonetheless grow out of deep reading of Austen’s books. Trumpener describes these as consciously reworking Austen’s terrain (milieu, types, themes, plot-designs, motifs) to bring out the "grave undertones of Austen’s serious vision. In the case of Jenkins’s Harriet Trumpener’s right. Harriet is a horror gothic, one which grows out of the quiet more dreadful currents or insights in the terrains of Jane Austen.
Jenkins had the original insight to see that were we really to take Austen’s Harriet Smith (from Emma) seriously and not half-regard her (as we do) as caricature, we would see she is a moron. Actually this is true of many of the innocent and often seduced simpleton heroines of 18th century literature and caricature in general. I include in this Cecile Volanges in Les Liasons Dangereuses as the first of the many seduced and abandoned naive simpletons found in novelists from George Sand through the latter 19th century. It seems novelists thought such a presentation would partly excuse the "fallen" pariah.
Jenkins asked herself what would happen to a "natural" (in our sense, not Austen’s who when she calls Harriet Smith a "natural daughter" means she’s illegitimate) if she were given a legacy placed in a real hard world of desperate men and women where sexual longing is gussied up by convention as love. Jenkins called her below average woman Harriet Woodhouse. She does not idealize her: Harriet Woodhouse is dense and easily swayed away from anyone who wants to deprive her of vanities and things that please her appetite. She is indeed a "natural," a portrait of humanity not susceptible to much cultural training.
What happens is an unscrupulous attractive young man, your typical ne’er-do-well gay rake of many a 19th century novel, Lewis Oman, marries her and then with the help of his desperate artist brother,Patrick Oman, the brother’s half-starving wife, Elizabeth (and referred to as Lizzie so she’s connected to Austen’s Lizzie), her deferring fearful servant, Clara, and a rival woman, Alice (the wife’s sister), gradually bully and starve and beat Harriet until she’s near the level of a dog and then dies of neglect and filth and despair. As does a baby she gives birth to.
This book is frightening because the gradualness of verisimilitude has been held to, and all probable details. It feels like a fable about how easy it is to slip into totally victimizing someone who will let you. Its psychology can be seen as an anticipation of public events in the 1940s in a private house.
Harriet has a number of themes which recall Austen’s, the milieu is the same (as set in the 19th century), the names (a Lizzie), the character relationships (two sisters married or in a liasion with two brothers). A mother whose second husband is a clergyman. All in a state of unacknowledged but exploited dependency. Jenkins has Austen in mind in some of her details: the use of a portrait to flatter. When Lewis decides to marry Harriet and Alice is left alone, Alice runs through the fields and despairs, considers degrading work in the way of Jane Fairfax. We learn here (as we do not in Austen), that such periods embitter and harden people: "She did not forget those days of ravening torment in the fields, when she had wanted the earth to cover her because she could not bear the relentless mockery of the oncoming summer (Ch 9, p. 90).
People’s real distance from one another is one of Austen’s fundamental perceptions, what Austen’s sister and sister-in-law types and lover/husband/brothers try to overcome. That’s here in spades, with no one overcoming it. The chilling behavior of the men to the women and everyone to Harriet is in understated currents of Austen’s stories. There’s an unstated comedy too, though the humor in context has a chilling effect. Harriet is in the early part of the novel ludicrously eager for her fate—to marry Lewis. And how submissive. The portrait is a damning indictment of submissiveness as both Lizzie and Alice are equally submissive to their men, Lizzie who is quietly semi-starving herself so the husband can be an artist who makes little money, and Alice who becomes Lewis’s dog-like eager paramour.
Reading Harriet has helped me understand other novels of Austen’s era. Jenkins’s Harriet throws light on other supine and easily submissive and realistically speaking impossibly naive heroines of the era. She brings out how desperately the women in these set-ups need men; her men are implicitly menacing, their violence just held in check. They also cling to one another and we see them together and apart from the women. When all are sent to prison at the end, the two men sigh with relief as freed at last when sleeping next to one another. No need to perform or pretend now. So I suppose the women audience counts.
Jenkins does take her materials beyond what Austen hints is possible. You might say she has expanded the quietly implicit gothic terrain in Austen herself. I’ve come across descriptions of Harriet as a mystery or horror novel. Until about half-way through you don’t know how it’s going to end, and even then it’s not quite clear. It’s a kind of gothic without the extravagance. Jenkins is also influenced by the women’s traditions in novels in general. Harriet is finally kept in a room high in a house deep in the country; one of its windows is boarded up.
Her novella is a scary horror-house mirror of our world too. Among the most convincing and yet dreadful realities of the book is how Patrick, the man in whose house Harriet ends up, takes out his anger and lack of power outside the house on Harriet. He is the first to die in prison, in fact the weakest of the gruesome foursome. He also is the most easily irritated by Harriet, the one who boards up the window, who goes up to the room to presumably insult, terrify and then beat her into submission. We are never allowed to see these scenes, only hear them from below through his wife Elizabeth or Clara or Alice’s perspectives, none of them sympathetic to Harriet (who herself treated them as servants and expected kindness without actually knowing how to reciprocate it consciously), but all of them ashamed and vaguely guilty because half-identifying. There is something both creepy and believable about how Harriet never complains openly, just every once in a while objecting in order to demand something. Her cowed-like silence, together with the complicity of the others around her and Patrick, gives the novel its dreadful feel.
It’s said horror differs from terror in gothics because horror is less based on suspense and nuances, more on gruesome body iinteractions, and breaking down of taboos. Harriet’s body becomes a filthy dirty object. As the four try to transport her to a doctor at the end in an attempt to claim she died naturally, the descriptions made me again think of people in concentration camps in the 1940s.
Jenkins apparently wrote other novels focusing on people others will victimize if given the opportunity One she called Honey. In one letter Austen professes to despise certain kinds of honeys, cli nging women, and in an early perceptive article on her relationship to her father (identification) and mother (alienation), the phrase was picked up ("poor honey"). I sense Jenkins got the phrase for her novel from her reading of Austen’s letters.
Jenkins’s other better known books are her pro-family (complicit but perceptive) Jane Austen, brilliantly psychologized Elizabeth I and lucid sensible The Mystery of King Arthur. Harriet won the Femina Vic Heureuse Prize for 1934. She just published an autobiographical memoir, The View from Downshire Hill.
Harriet is a tight absorbingly written book. It ought to be better known. It is one of many unrecognized or unacknowledged sequels to Austen. Among those who read Austen well and follow her followers, these are known but not to the wider general public. They are by the authors and publishers themselves half-hidden since to be labelled a "sequel" is to lose respect from the get-go.
I hope to read more of these Virago Janes. On our holiday I’ll try E. H. Young’s Miss Mole.
Posted by: Ellen
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