Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Harriet: A Cold Hand

When I tried the page 117 trick the other day to see what 2017 held for me, the book that came to hand was Harriet, the latest novel by Elizabeth Jenkins (see here and here) that I've tracked down.
 Like Dr Gully, Harriet is a fictional treatment of a Victorian murder case. Unlike Dr Gully, it is one of the most harrowing books I have ever read. The case it is based on - dubbed the 'Penge mystery' - caused a sensation at the time, involving as it did the apparent starving to death of a young woman by members of her family eager to get their hands on her inheritance. The worst of it was that the young woman, the Harriet of the title, was a 'natural' (or, as we would say today, had 'learning difficulties'). Her mother had raised her with care and affection, encouraging her to dress well and present a good front to the world (that's her in the photograph, posing for her engagement portrait), and she spent a good deal of time staying with various family members, who were glad enough of the money they were paid to look after her. All was well until a handsome and utterly ruthless fortune hunter with connections to the family found out about her inheritance, wooed and married her, in the teeth of fierce opposition from Harriet's mother, who could do nothing to stop him...
 The facts of the real-life 'Penge mystery' are not entirely clear-cut (as evidenced by a successful appeal against the initial death sentences on all the defendants), but Elizabeth Jenkins sees in the case a stark and terrible lesson about the depths of evil to which outwardly normal, quite decent people are capable of sinking. She drives the lesson home by establishing the comfortable milieu in which Harriet, when we first see her, is settled, and by depicting the characters around her as normally, humanly, fallible, with normal human weaknesses, no more. There is a hint of danger in one of them - Patrick, an aspiring painter, self-centred and short-fused - and, more obviously, in Lewis, the brother who hero-worships him. Lewis it is who single-mindedly sets his sights on marrying Harriet and getting his hands on her money. Once he has done so, that comfortable milieu dissolves away and Harriet is gradually drawn into a wholly alien world of deprivation, degradation and suffering.
 The events that unfold are, as they draw near their terrible denouement, almost too painful to read. The pain is less in the details of Harriet's ordeal, hideous though they are, than in the depiction of the steady growth, in those supposed to be looking after her, of an ability to regard her as something less than human, something whose suffering and fate are a matter of indifference. The novel was published in 1934, and reading it I couldn't help but think of how a similar process was about to unfold across Europe ('and the seas of pity lie, Locked and frozen in each eye'), as quite ordinary people found it easy enough to believe that certain of their fellow humans were untermenschen who could be mistreated and killed without compunction. I also found myself thinking of more recent events, particularly of the horrific cases of child neglect, starvation and cruelty that are continually coming to light...
 In Harriet, Jenkins's vision of humanity is bleak indeed - which wouldn't be so unbearable if she wasn't such a damned good writer, with the gift of drawing you into an entirely convincing world. A review in The Observer described this novel as 'like a cold hand clutching at the heart' - and that, for once, is no overstatement.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Pooky Alert

A piece I wrote about the extraordinary Linley Sambourne House (now officially 18 Stafford Terrace) has come up on Pooky, the splendid interiors and lighting website.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Found - and Lost

A while back, I passed on a comment from an alert reader who pointed out that, despite the evident Dutch love of flowers and flower painting, the painted interiors of the Golden Age are strangely lacking in flowers, with not so much as a bowl of tulips or a few blooms from the garden in evidence in any of the paintings any of us could think of. We kicked around a few theories about their absence, but no one came up with an exception to the rule.
 Well, yesterday I was in the marvellous Dulwich Picture Gallery and I found one - a Golden Age Dutch interior painting featuring a bowl of flowers. It was Gerrit Dou's Woman Playing the Clavichord, a lovely piece of work in which colours, textures and the fall of light are all perfectly harmonised - and there, on the windowsill, at the far left of the picture space, is a vase of flowers. It's a glass vase full of quite humble-looking white, blue, red and yellow flowers, catching the clear strong light of the world outside. Is it on the windowsill for artistic effect, or was this standard practice, at least on fine days? Who knows? The fact remains that Dutch interior paintings rarely show flowers on display - but I was glad to find this beautiful exception.
 After the Picture Gallery, I walked to the library where, in an earlier life, I spent the best part of fifteen years working in the reference department. I hadn't revisited the place in at least ten years, and was pleased to find that the library was still in business and apparently doing a brisk trade. The lending library was impressively full of books - something you can't count on these days - sensibly classified and well displayed, with thematic selections, recommendations, etc. The only staff to be seen were two dejected men and a 'Saturday girl', whereas in my day there would have been eight or ten dejected persons of both sexes - but that was before barcodes and scanners took over. Otherwise, this was still recognisably the same library I had known a quarter of a century ago.
 Upstairs, however, in what had been the Reference Library and was now a Study Area, all was changed, change utterly. What had been quite a complicated layout was now but one large open space, lined with books and filled with tables at which students toiled away, with no sign of the kind of people who used to haunt the old reference library, reading the papers, scanning encyclopaedias, muttering to themselves, snoozing, keeping warm... I could no longer work out the interior geography, not even where the desk had been at which I spent so many hours working (mostly, I must admit, on my various extracurricular projects). No need for an office desk now, in this unstaffed space.
 Somewhat disoriented and unable to work out quite what had been done to the old place, I made my way downstairs, and out into the chilly dusk.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Dabbler alert

A book review I wrote for The Dabbler is up today...

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Your 2017

Want to know what 2017 has in store for you? The smart way, I hear, is to reach for the book nearest to you, open it on page 117, and read the second sentence. That is your 2017.
 Naturally I had to try this latest form of bibliomancy, and here's what I found:

'Behind the stretch of wood, and about half a mile distant from Patrick's house, was a small property consisting of a comfortable little eighteenth-century dwelling house, to which had later been added a small byre and dairy, the cows of which pastured on what had once been the pleasure grounds of the house.'

Well, that sounds most agreeable - a nice little 18th-century house with dairy attached (and, as it turns out, a resident dairyman to do the work). The year is shaping up well.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Somerset Maugham Incident

Yesterday, in one of my local charity shops, as I drew near the book shelves, I heard a conversation going on between a man and a woman of a certain age (i.e. around my age, maybe a bit older). The word 'Landor' (as in Walter Savage) came into it - a name not often heard in these parts - so my ears pricked up. As the overheard conversation developed, I realised that the woman was on the phone to someone, perhaps her son, and was conveying the message from the man that he'd found a Somerset Maugham first edition, if he (the one at the other end of the phone) was interested. He wants to know what it's called, the woman reported back. As she couldn't catch the title, he held the spine of the book towards her. Ah, wait a minute, she said down the phone, it's A, H... A.H. King, it's a book about Somerset Maugham by A.H. King. No, the man with the book gently corrected her, it's a volume called Ah King. He turned to me at this point, having noted my interest. No, I've never heard of it either, I said...
 They bought it anyway - it was probably a bargain - and I bought a selection from Mayhew, edited by Peter Quennell, to replace my rather ugly edition from the Sixties. But that strange name - Ah King - stuck in my mind, so I duly checked it out. It's a collection of short stories about colonial life, and it really does sound rather good, especially the story called The Book Bag, which is rated by Maugham fans as one of his best. I'm beginning to wish I'd found it first, but at least it's reminded me of Maugham, a writer I've barely read anything of (and that a long time ago) - I think I'll seek out a selection of his short stories...

Monday, 9 January 2017

Drif Footnote

If you want to find out more about the enigmatic Drif and his infamous Guide, there's a fascinating piece here...