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by Elizabeth Jenkins
Persephone book no:

96 97 98

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155875

Published in 1934, Harriet fictionalises a cause célèbre and in this respect is in a long tradition of ‘real life' crime novels, of which The Suspicions of Mr Whicher describing the 1860s Constance Kent case about the murder of a child is a recent, bestselling example. Harriet is based on the 1877 'Penge Murder Mystery’, the death by starvation of a wealthy young woman called Harriet Richardson, who had led a protected life because her very limited intelligence meant that her mother kept her at home (‘my daughter was a very simple-minded girl’ were her words in testimony at the trial) in the belief that she would never be able to lead a normal existence. But one day she has the misfortune to meet an attractive, unscrupulous young man who decides to marry her for her money.

The novel describes the years from 1875-7 during which Harriet changes from the sheltered, beloved only, if grown-up, child of a comfortable middle-class household, with beautiful clothes and an orderly life, to an abandoned, abused wife unable to look after herself and at the mercy of her uncaring husband. Whether the Staunton family plotted her death or whether they were only guilty of wilful neglect is the question at the heart of a book, which, although it could loosely be called a crime novel or horror story, should really be called a psychological novel, since an unspoken question runs throughout its pages: how on earth could this happen?

Virginia Woolf described Elizabeth Jenkins’s first novel as a ‘sweet white grape of a book’ Elizabeth wrote: ‘Her [Virginia’s] critical acumen had led her to put her finger on my inherent weakness: a lack of strength. This has always, I fear, come out in any novel I have written purely by imagination: a fictional version of a real story of real life, a transcript of experience or a straightforward biography, has been needed to supply my deficiency.’ Rachel Cooke comments: ‘Elizabeth Jenkins was right about this – and this is why Harriet is so masterful. Forged from the unpromising prolixity of a Victorian courtroom, a powerful synthesis of truth and imagination renders it indelible.’

Harriet was a commercial success and won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse (the runners-up were Antonia White’s Frost in May and Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust). But Elizabeth Jenkins always had ambivalent feelings about her book: ‘the horror of the story weighed on my mind and became more acutely painful as time went on.’ Rachel Cooke writes in her Afterword: ‘Elizabeth Jenkins’s story grips because the horror takes place in familiar surroundings, and to a quotidian beat... To call it the stuff of nightmares really is no exaggeration... Harriet is a remarkable and singular achievement: highly controlled, deeply revealing, quite brilliant.’ We recommend this bleak, wonderfully-written book very highly; but the palpable sense of evil means it is not for everyone.


'Small Syringa' 1875, a woven silk by EW Godwin for Warner & Ramm.  

Picture Caption

Harriet Richardson (later Staunton) at the time of her engagement in 1875

Read What Readers Say

The unsettling atmosphere of ‘Harriet’ is further enhanced when one realises that it is based on a true story. It is perhaps an early example of the contemporary desire to foreground victims rather than perpetrators. Rarely do I read a book that gets under my skin in the way that Elizabeth Jenkins’s ‘Harriet’ did. The building sense of claustrophobia, the way the reader is unwittingly, and all too easily, drawn into the world of the protagonists, the sudden shock of its worst revelations... Some might criticise the book for the way in which – despite the victim’s name as the title – Harriet herself gradually disappears: perhaps it is just another instance of true crime placing the murderer(s) in the spotlight? What elevates the novel above such a simplistic reading, however, is the way in which Jenkins makes the reader crave for a glimpse of Harriet. We are so successfully drawn into the domestic spaces of the story that we feel we could run upstairs or peek around a doorframe to see where this woman – so vivid and engaging at the start of the book – has gone. We are encouraged to care deeply for Harriet without necessarily being aware of our feelings. Harriet is an expertly crafted book, whatever your taste in fiction: a must-read for fans of Victorian culture and crime, as well as those drawn to the interwar novels that constitute much of the Persephone catalogue.

Daily Mail

[The novel] follows the case so closely, detailing the greed and astonishing barbarity of Harriet’s tormentors and the extraordinary quirk of fate which brought them to justice, that it has brought this cruel episode terrifyingly to life.

Categories: History Thrillers

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