Virago Modern Classics, 2013
originally written 1961; published 1972
(read earlier this month)
"It was all his fault. We are not to blame."
Harriet Said ... is neither horror nor thriller, and after looking at several reader reviews, I do feel badly for those readers whose cover blurbs promised them either one of the other, and I can understand the low ratings given that expectations based on said blurbs didn't match up to what's actually in this book. I also get that people may have been expecting a rehash of the Parker-Hulme case of 1954, since publicity re Bainbridge's book made the comparison. There are readers who also expected something along the lines of Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" and this book didn't go there.
But hold on a second -- perhaps there is a tie-in here. In 1994 Jackson noted that he wanted his movie to "focus on the incredibly rich friendship between the two girls, rather than the end result," -- as he says, "an intense relationship that went terribly wrong." While very, very different, this same sort of thing happens in Harriet Said... a dark, psychological portrait where the focus is on two very young teens (13/14) who are trying to make an entrance into the adult world while still in many ways just children, and who have no idea what they're about to get themselves into. In that sense, they're at a time of transition -- as Linda Grant says in her excellent introduction, they are "young girls in the confusion of puberty." Harriet is the older of the two girls, much less innocent than her friend who is the narrator of this tale; she is extremely manipulative, and has a "chilling disdain and ignorance of youth for the complexities of adult life."
The beginning of this book is actually its ending -- obviously something terrible has happened, and Harriet tells her friend (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) that they "are not to blame." She goes on to give the other girl instructions while they walk home:
"When I say run, you start to run. When I say scream, you scream. Don't stop running, just you keep going."However, it's not until our narrator sees her mom on the porch of her house that her screaming begins (and after finishing the book and going back to the first chapter, the significance of this particular moment really hit me), after which Harriet's parents are brought in and the police are called. We have no clue as to what's happened, just that it has something to do with a certain Mr. Biggs. The remainder of the book (which I'm not going to reveal in much detail because once again, telling is spoiling), leads us to this moment as the story goes back in time, beginning with our narrator having "come home for the holidays," while "Harriet was away with her family in Wales." Without Harriet, we discover that the narrator was "irritable and bored," is friendless without her, and significantly, that she was kicked out of private school when younger, and that "they," as she says, "were scared of me and Harriet being so intimate."
It's when Harriet comes home that certain decisions are made that set the girls on their course toward the ending. The narrator has seemingly developed a crush on the very married Mr. Biggs, whom the girls refer to as "The Tsar," and as the novel progresses, Harriet develops "a good plan" to help her, as she says, "get over my active love for the Tsar." Even though the narrator isn't sure that she wants to "get over it," she can't tell Harriet, who at a certain, pivotal time decides that the narrator must actively go after him, and "humiliate" him. The narrator does what she can to place herself in his vicinity, opening up another line of inquiry here -- she seems to be pursuing Biggs, but the reader has to ask, given other hints that are thrown out here and there, if Biggs wasn't pursuing her at the same time, a possibility about which the girls have absolutely no clue.
To this point, I once again turn to the introduction of this edition where Grant notes Bainbridge's understanding of
"the men whose marriages, jobs, homes have led them to the beach, to look out to sea with hope, longing and despair, their backs against the land. Part of what they have lost is their own youth, life has slipped past under bowler hats and heads rested against antimacassars. They are lost and lonely..."and this description describes Mr. Biggs in a nutshell, as we find out here and there throughout the book.
There are a number of telling moments about the relationship between Harriet and the narrator, one of which comes when the narrator decides to stay at home to be "nice" to her little sister since she's had to "push her from me for her own sake, because of Harriet and me." As she states,
"I did not want her to be like us. God willing she would grow up normally and be like everyone else."According to Vicky Janik in her Modern British Women Writers: An A-Z Guide,
"...there are implications that the narrator harbors secret erotic desires for Harriet..." , (10)which may explain her willingness to allow herself to be so horribly manipulated by Harriet, but then again, after I'd finished this book, I seriously had to question the narrator's own reliability. Once I read it through the second time, thinking about this story as the product of an unreliable narrator, well, it changed quite a bit.
I'll end there, except to say that unlike several readers I enjoyed this book very much, as I have also enjoyed a number of novels written by Beryl Bainbridge in the past. It's not an easy book to read for sure, but certainly well worth the time it took me to read it twice. I suppose it all depends on expectations, but as I am so fond of saying, going into a novel with no expectations is what I do and it generally works out well.
fiction from Britain