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.