Day 1279: Harriet

Cover for HarrietHarriet is a novel written in 1934 based on a true crime that occurred in 1875. As such, it is suitable for the season as well as for the R. I. P. Challenge and the Classics Club Dare.

Harriet is a woman in her 30’s who has her own fortune of £3,000 with prospects of 2,000 more. She is a “natural,” which I take to mean having some sort of mental incapacity. Although her mother, Mrs. Ogilvie, cares about her, she boards her periodically with poorer relatives, allowing them to make a little money and giving herself and her husband a little break from Harriet, who can be difficult.

Mrs. Ogilvy sends Harriet to stay with her cousin, Mrs. Hoppner. Mrs. Hoppner lives with her spoiled daughter, Alice. Visiting her are her older daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s husband, Patrick Oman, an artist. Also visiting is Patrick’s brother, Lewis, a clerk. Patrick and Elizabeth are devoted to Lewis.

Although the charismatic Lewis is courting the delicate and beautiful Alice, he turns his attention to Harriet. He is soon engaged to her and marries her despite Mrs. Ogilvie’s objections. In fact, Mrs. Ogilvie tries to get Harriet made a ward of the court to block the marriage, but this backfires when Lewis finds out and tells Harriet she wants to have her committed. Once they are married, Lewis proceeds to strip Harriet of her money and possessions.

After Harriet has a child, he boards her at his brother’s house and moves into a nearby house with Alice. Up until then, Lewis’s actions are marginally legal if morally repellent. It is after this that the behavior of the two brothers and two sisters becomes criminal.

This novel is chilling in its psychological depictions of the two sisters and brothers. Jenkins was fascinated by the case and uses people’s actual Christian names, imaging the thoughts and activities of the characters. This novel was one of the first fictionalizations of a true crime.

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Day 1276: The Haunted Hotel

Cover for The Haunted HotelWilkie Collins’s The Haunted Hotel was the spooky book I read for the Classics Club Dare that will also do for the R.I.P. Challenge.

* * *

His family is shocked when Lord Montbarry jilts his gentle cousin, Agnes, and marries the infamous Countess Narona. Agnes herself cannot explain the behavior of the Countess when she meets her in London. The Countess seems horror struck by Agnes and says she will be her undoing.

Lord Montbarry and his new wife go off with her brother, Baron Rivar, to live in Venice. It is not long before the family hears, first, of the disappearance of Ferrari, Lord Montbarry’s courier and the husband of Agnes’s former ladies maid, and then of Lord Montbarry’s death from bronchitis. Lord Montbarry’s fortune is entailed, but he leaves a large life insurance award to his widow. Although the insurance company conducts an investigation into the death, they can find nothing wrong.

Lord Montbarry’s younger brother, Henry Westwick, has been trying to court Agnes, but she is still in love with her former fiancé. In the meantime, he occupies himself with investments, including in the hotel that used to be the villa where his brother died. After the hotel opens, one family member after another stays there, in room 14, all having bad experiences. What happened in that hotel?

Frankly, this short novel has neither the entertaining narratives of The Moonstone nor the intriguing plot of The Woman in White. It is a potboiler, not one of Collins’s best. The hero and heroine aren’t much more than cardboard figures. The only character of interest is Countess Narona herself. The plot is predictable, the novel not scary, and the truth, although creepy, is not told to maximize the effect. On the scary scale, it gets a low mark.

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Day 1267: Alas, Poor Lady

Cover for Alas, Poor LadyBest of Five!
A Footman for the Peacock was a strange little book, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from the much longer Alas, Poor Lady. It turned out to be an astonishingly feminist novel for being published in 1937.

At the beginning of the novel, Miss Scrimgeour, an elderly woman, receives the charitable gift of a two-room flat and an annuity for life. One of the women involved in the charity realizes that Miss Scrimgeour is a gentlewoman, of the same class as herself, and that she previously had no income at all. She exclaims, “How did that happen?” This novel answers that question.

It begins in 1870, when Grace Scrimgeour is born into a wealthy family. She is the youngest of six sisters, born almost a generation behind her last sister, but she is not the youngest child. Two years later, the Scrimgeour’s only son is born.

All the girls are raised to become wives and mothers. At least the oldest girls are sent away to school, but after Charlie is born, Grace’s upbringing is neglected and she is left to be educated by a governess who is not very competent.

The two girls marry, but it becomes clear that Mary and Queenie will not. Mary attempts to be useful by offering to teach Grace and Charlie, but her attempts to find herself an occupation are rebuffed by her parents.

As biddable, affectionate Grace nears her debut, Captain Scrimgeour spends more and more of his money on Charlie, selling out of stable financial funds to do so. Grace’s unmarried sisters become a problem once she is “out,” because most hostesses don’t want to entertain six Scrimgeours, so they leave Grace off their invitation lists. Her parents are now too elderly to see she has proper opportunities to meet someone, and neither of her married sisters take her in hand.

The novel follows the downward trend of the family’s finances, especially after Mrs. Scrimgeour is left in charge, herself having never received any instruction about finances. Clearly, tough times are ahead for the three unmarried sisters.

This novel shows painfully the origins of the destitute lady spinster—how everything in her upbringing works against her ability to support herself. Painfully ironic for the reader, who can see where things are trending, is a scene in which the newly widowed Mrs. Scrimgeour, blithely pledging £500 for a bed in the hospital for children, money she cannot afford, ignores a plea to help indigent gentlewomen, thinking the women are shiftless.

This novel is touching and eye-opening. The two most sympathetic characters are Grace, even more so her valiant sister Mary. But there is also a delightful family Grace goes to work for later.

Although I found this novel sad, it was enthralling and affecting. I highly recommend it. Another great novel from Persephone Press.

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Day 1245: Moriarty

Cover for MoriartyDespite not being a fan of Sherlock Holmes-based contemporary mysteries, I read Moriarty because I recently enjoyed Magpie Murders. In this case, Sherlock Holmes does not appear, and the only link to the older mysteries, aside from a few characters, is Moriarty himself.

The novel begins right after the Reichenbach Falls incident, when both Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, are assumed dead. The body of one man, identified as Moriarty, is found.

Shortly after the incident, two detectives arrive on the scene. One is Frederick Chase, an investigator from Pinkerton’s in the United States. The other is Inspector Athelney Jones from Scotland Yard. Chase reports that he has been following Moriarty with information that he was meeting with Clarence Devereaux, a criminal mastermind from New York who purportedly wants to join forces with Moriarty. No one has ever seen Devereaux, but the Pinkertons understand he suffers from extreme agoraphobia. Chase and Jones team up to find him.

This, however, is not an easy quest. Every time the two men get a lead, someone is murdered. Soon, the two investigators must fear for their own lives.

I found this novel clever, but there was something missing from it. I don’t know how else to describe my reaction. I was just a little underwhelmed, even though there were twists and turns.

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Day 1242: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary

Cover for Lady Rose and Mrs MemmaryLady Rose and Mrs Memmary is an odd little book. It shows its naive heroine in the grip of Romanticism until she learns what the real world is like.

The novel begins in the 1930’s, when it was written. A couple and their friend are touring the area and come upon Keepsfield, a beautiful old Scottish house, which is available to let. They ask if they can tour the house and are taken around by Mrs Memmary, the old caretaker. As they tour the house, Helen Dacre gets Mrs Memmary to tell her about the life of Lady Rose, the Countess of Lochule, who owns the house.

Lady Rose has been brought up on stories of Rob Roy and Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. She is an extremely romantic and enthusiastic girl from a life of privilege but not luxury, the daughter of an Earl. Her parents make no bones during her debut in 1873 that their job is to marry her to a man of equal fortune and position in society.

We see little vignettes of Lady Rose’s life from the age of six until she marries Sir Hector Galowrie when she is seventeen. Her parents don’t pay attention, however, to the idea of matching Rose in temperament.

By the time the visitors appear at the house, much has changed for the aristocracy of England and Scotland. The owners of fine mansions can no longer afford to live in them. This is the story of the attitudes of her peers once Lady Rose decides she has done her duty, but it is also the story of the fall of the aristocracy.

For such messages, the novel is written in an extremely sentimental style, with gushing descriptions of the house and landscape and chapters ending in poetry. I don’t think it is altogether successful, but it is interesting as a document of the times.

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Day 1229: The Streets

Cover for The StreetsIt is Victorian London. David Wildeblood has obtained a job as a gatherer of information for “The Labouring Classes of London,” a weekly paper owned by Mr. Marchmont. He is assigned the neighborhood of Somers Town, where he observes what is going on and makes calls to gather information about the households.

David doesn’t do well at first, because he doesn’t understand the dialect spoken in Somers Town. He is also robbed twice and almost killed when he tries to pursue the second robber. But an encounter with a young coster, Jo, saves him.

Slowly, David begins to realize that something is going on in the neighborhood. First, he helps protest against the landlords, who are charging the poor exhorbitant rents for ruinous quarters, by finding out who the owners are. As it turns out that the owners are on the council in charge of taking tenant complaints, that raises the storm. But eventually, David learns that something even more corrupt and disturbing is going on.

The blurb of this book compares it to Dickens, and that comparison has some validity. Although this novel doesn’t teem with humor and colorful characters, it does contain effective descriptions of London neighborhoods and the city’s poor. It is well written and nicely paced, and I enjoyed reading it. This book was another one I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 1223: To Kill a Tsar

Cover for To Kill a TsarI have such a struggle with reading eBooks that I often put them aside while I’m charging my iPad and pick up a paper book, only to not return to the eBook until I finish the paper one. This is what happened with To Kill a Tsar, which was the paper book I picked up. Sometimes, the reason for continuing with the paper book is that I’m engrossed in it, but this time, it was just because I was finding the eBook no better.

The main character of To Kill a Tsar, Dr. Frederick Hadfield, is a Russian of British ancestry whose uncle is high up in Russian political circles. Hadfield has recently returned from studying in Switzerland and has liberal tendencies, which in Russia makes him a radical.

At a radical social event, he meets Anna Kovalenko and agrees to help her on Sundays at a free clinic. He is drawn to her, but he realizes very soon that she is part of a political group who just attempted to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. Does he avoid her despite his belief in nonviolence? No, of course not.

For me, this is one of the many places where the novel breaks down. To keep us interested in this story about terrorists, we are presented with a wholly unconvincing love story. Then, there is the question of what the author is asking of us. Are we supposed to sympathize with these people, who don’t care how many people are killed, as long as they make their point? Certainly, Williams doesn’t spend enough time revealing the characters of the police for us to sympathize with them. In fact, there is a subplot of an informer inside the police, but when his identity was revealed, I didn’t even know who he was.

I honestly couldn’t figure out what Williams was thinking when he made his choices. There were lots of things he could have done to make this novel interesting. He could have, for example, worked more to make us sympathize with one side or the other instead of assuming, in this age of terrorism, that we would think “No rights? Of course, kill the tsar!” never mind that, as tsars go, Alexander II was one of the most liberal. If Williams simply wanted to report what happened without following a side, he could have left out the lame love affair and spent equal time with both sides. If he wanted us to sympathize more with Hadfield, then make his reactions more understandable.

This is one of the books on my Walter Scott Prize list that I didn’t enjoy that much. That has happened before, but in this case, I also didn’t think it was a very good novel. I don’t think that has happened before.

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