I read Harriet said… (written in 1958; published in 1972) during yet another sunny trip by bike, to which your dark coming-of-age novel offered a pleasantly disturbing contrast.
At the beginning of the book, we are thrown outside, in the middle of the night, surrounded by screams and very much in the dark, like the protagonists themselves. We can only dimly sense that something terrible has taken place. The narrative then jumps to the recent past, right to a point where the school summer holidays are about to begin. What follows is a retrospective account of the events leading up to that drastic night.
The unnamed 13-year-old narrator, an English schoolgirl, has just returned home from her boarding school, where she had been sent because of her somewhat unruly behavior. In her small seacoast hometown, shortly after World War II, the narrator meets her best friend Harriet, who is back from Wales. Together, the girls set themselves out to collect experiences (particularly sexual ones) and register them in their journal.
Fueled by Harriet, the narrator develops a crush on Peter Biggs, an unhappily married middle-aged man, whom they nickname “the Tsar”, after Peter the Great (“The thought came to me that if I touched his mouth with mine it would taste salt from all the years he had walked up and down, up and down the lane to the sea.”). As they notice that Mr. Biggs seems to respond to the narrator’s infatuation, the girls devote the summer holidays to catch him in a trap, and humiliate him. Led by Harriet, the two friends follow the man around, carefully study his life and spy on his relationship with his wife. With scientific detachment, Harriet devises increasingly dangerous ways to throw her friend, as a bait, towards Mr. Biggs, luring him to his final descent.
The action takes place in an extended flashback, and then, like its protagonists, it goes forward unrelenting, building momentum scene by scene, until it reaches a climax that represents, for each character, a disturbing moment of innocence loss. The narrative voice is difficult to place: (a) the narrator seems to be simultaneously relating an event in the past, as well as an incident that is happening at the same time as she is herself narrating it to us; (b) as it happens when the girls write on their shared journal, this could be a case where Harriet is the one really dictating the story, as the narrator writes it as if she was the one who is speaking; (c) the narrative is not an internal monologue, nor a confession, and oscilates between the voices of a woman and a child. We soon notice the narrator is not exactly reliable, nor completely naive. Her voice is as dispassionate as Harriet’s malevolent plans.
As the narrator becomes gradually obsessed with Mr. Biggs, we sense a haunting undercurrent to this adolescent infatuation: this crush seems to be simultaneously a form of attraction and repulsion. Is the narrator being led by Harriet? Or is she the one who is leading her friend, luring Harriet to a increasingly violent desire to hunt Mr. Biggs? I could not help but to read the narrator’s crush as a complex and perverse erotic game, in which she responds to her jealousy over Harriet by inflicting in her friend – through Mr. Biggs – this same feeling of jealousy. Moreover, who is targeting whom here?
As the girls’s current summer prey, Mr. Biggs seems to be simultaneously targeting them: the Tsar is constantly found in the same place where the girls are, as if he was the one following them, placing himself in their way. Rape is always close at hand here: “It was clumsy an action when he stood up and placed his arms round me, that I had to close my eyes tight and cling to the words to keep the beauty there. ‘Please’, I said inhappily, hating the sour smell of skin against my cheek. ‘Please let me go.'” It might not so much be to the Tsar, but to Harriet that the narrator gives her consent. The girls’ attempts at seducing the Tsar quickly evolve into cruel games of domination, in which the power shifts itself constantly between three axes, in a dark ménage a trois.
The complex relationship between the two girls is what truly impels your novel: as the erotic and unresolved sexual tension between them grows stronger, so does the narrative tension, getting worse and worse, darker and darker. While there was no strong sense of eroticism in the girls’ pursuit of Mr. Biggs, there is a strong eroticism in the relationship between the two friends, locked as they are in a folie a deux. You subtly convey the power struggles between them, as they experiment with sex, and thrust to one another their sexuality: their love-and-hate dynamics is placed as the lively pulsing heart of your book, and of what happens in the end.
The girls’ repressed eroticism towards each other gradually erupts as a strong current of anger against “the grown-ups” and their imposed order; and, finally, this anger twists itself once more, into the need to control and destroy, in the person of Mr. Biggs, the adults who are repressing the two girls (“Harriet told me that in other lands,, in other cultures, in other times, both past and in the future, we would not be thought abnormal (…)”). If the girls’ pursuit is corrupted from the beginning, so is the order under which they pretend to yield to, the order they rebel against: the violence hidden beneath the social dynamics of acceptance and disavowal. Defenseless and exposed to what they begin to sense as a violent order turned into normality, the two girls can only respond to this order by enacting the same violence they are victims of.
In the end, as the violence of this order’s rationale unfolds itself through the girls’ own hands, everyone – adults and teenagers – suffers a form of innocence loss. This is a loss whose foreshadowing you manage to convey as subtly as a change of weather, a passing cloud: “The shadow crept steadily up the lawn, extinguishing the roses, the holly bush, the apple tree beside the fence. Only Mother and Harriet lingered, glowing in a corner of light; then they too wavered, struggled with invisible shutters, and turned grey. I waited. The cloud disintegrated in the sky, the grass brightened and Harriet enveloped herself in the warmth againg.” Rereading it in hindsight, I can almost feel the chill of the cloud, the chill of the loss yet to come: “At thirteen there is very little you can expect to salvage from loving someone but experience.”
The disturbing quality of your writing is not to be found on the character’s actions themselves, but on the banality of those actions, and on what is hidden beneath them: what they reveal about the rationale those characters are forced to submit to, the horrifying quality of what is considered normal (“The world was so desolate and darkening that it seemed swept by violence. The sea behind me yawned, a gigantic yawn that never reached its climax. The mouth of the world opened and the rough tongue of the sea licked the shore and tried to suck us down into the depths”). Your matter-of-fact and detached narrative tone only contribute to increase this frightening sense of being prey to an irrational rationale, in the same way as we find ourselves prey of what Harriet says.
This was the first book of yours I have read, and the first one you wrote. Having experienced the chilling way you turned childhood sins and fantasies into a horror tale, now I cannot help but to be eager to delve into your following novels, to see how your eerie writing has since then evolved. So do expect to hear from me soon, dear.
“He called me ‘a dirty little angel’. Adolescent tremblings, swirls of nerves gone gold. The pain of the moment, the awful uncontrolled joy; that was innocence.”
– Beryl Bainbridge, “Harriet said…”
“When we sat on the grass, Frances between us, I hoped for a moment the camera would not work.
‘Look up, Frances.’ My mother waited and the shutter clicked.
What if the film exposed not three children in the sun, but one between two spectres, wearing childish smiles. Faces that crumbled like bread in the fingers, and showed a fearful disintegration.”
– Beryl Bainbridge, “Harriet said…”
About the Book
- Virago Modern Classics, 2012, 175 p.
- First published in 1972, written in 1958
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- The book was inspired by newspapers reports on the Parker-Hulme murder case, which happened in 1954 in New Zealand. This case was also the basis of (a) the film Heavenly Creatures (IMDb, 1994), directed by Peter Jackson; (b) the unproduced screenplay called The Christchurch Murder, by Angela Carter; (c) Evie Wyld’s novel All The Birds Singing; (d) the film Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal (Don’t Deliver Us From Evil, IMDb, 1971), directed by Joël Séria.
- This book was read for Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, hosted by Gaskella over at Annabel’s House of Books; as well as for 20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy over at the 746 Books blog.