Harriet, Paperback
4 out of 5 (1 rating)




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I first came across this story when I heard a snippet on the radio a very long time ago, perhaps as much as thirty years ago. I didn't hear all the book and I'm not sure that I even knew what book it was but I remember being shocked by the events recounted. But as soon as I saw Persephone's description of their new publication [Harriet] I realised that it was the same book and that I should read it. An only slightly fictionalised account of a notorious and shocking murder trial in nineteenth century London, [Harriet] tells the story of Harriet Woodhouse (in real life Harriet Richardson), a thirty-two year old woman with learning disabilities who lives comfortably at home with her mother and step-father. Harriet can make herself understood (although she sometimes gets her words wrong), can read and write a very little and finds many things difficult to understand. But she has a loving mother and a prosperous home, with the money to indulge her love for pretty clothes and trinkets, and an inheritance of £5,000 (about £500,000) in today's money. Looking after Harriet day after day is something of a strain so Harriet's mother occasionally pays for her to visit some poorer relatives for a few weeks: on one of these visits Harriet meets Lewis Oran who on learning of her fortune (and it is a fortune to someone earning 25 shillings a week as an auctioneer's clerk) hatches a plan to marry her and obtain her money. And marry her he does, despite the horrified protests of her mother who attempts to have her made a ward of the Court of Chancery to prevent it. But once married and in control of Harriet's money Lewis sees little reason to keep Harriet in his own home, so she is farmed out to his brother and sister-in-law who receive a pound a week for the upkeep of her and her child. But her sister-in-law finds so many other things that a pound a week can be spent on other than providing for Harriet's maintenance ... Harriet's fate shocked the Victorian public when it became known, and the events related are still shocking today. But this is not a book that goes into graphic details: much is implied and much is left to the imagination which is a far more effective way of conveying the horror of way was going on in the Oran household.Although obviously society has changed a great deal since the 1870's there are issues raised in this book that are still relevant today.  By not painting the Oran's as deranged monsters, but rather as selfish, greedy and obsessive people who have convinced thensekves that their actions are justified, Jenkins shows how a culture of abuse could grow up among people who would otherwise consider themselves decent and respectable members of society. And it is worth thinking about that when considering the cases of neglect and abuse that have been in the news in the UK recently, both for old people and for people with learning disabilities. Also, it made me think about the issue of freedom of choice for people with learning disabilities: as I work for an organisation supporting people with learning disabilities I'm aware that the focus has changed very much to one of supporting them to make their own choices in life, rather than the paternalistic attitude that prevailed in the past. But how far should this go, even if the choices made are arguably not in the best interest of the person involved. In this book, Harriet clearly chooses to marry Lewis of her own free will, but if someone has the mental capabilities of a child is it right to allow them to make choices which a child would very much not be allowed to make. Or should the freedom of the individual be all important? I'm not sure about the answer to this, but the book has made me wonder.