Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge
Harriet Said was Beryl’s first work written in the late 1950s. However it ended up as her third published novel, as its darkness struggled to find a publisher initially. It is the story of two teenaged schoolgirls and what they got up to one summer holiday…
The two girls are an odd pairing. Our narrator, who remains unnamed, is the thirteen year old ‘stout’ follower of Harriet. A boarder, she longs for the school holidays and being able to see her friend again back on the Lancashire coast. She looks up to Harriet who is slightly older than her; indeed she loves her in a schoolgirl way, and will do anything for her. Harriet, you sense right from the beginning, is a wicked girl – always scheming, endlessly nosey about their neighbours.
You know that something has happened, right from the first pages of the book…
Harriet said: ‘No you don’t, you keep walking.’ I wanted to turn round and look back at the dark house but she tugged at my arm fiercely. We walked over the field hand in hand as if we were little girls.
After the short opening chapter, the story flashes back to the start of the summer. The girls latch onto a man, Mr Biggs, that they see out and about, getting some time alone from his wife. He seems flattered by the girls’ attention, and the narrator begins to have rather a crush on him. Together, they dream up a scheme to humiliate him and his wife, but like all ill-conceived plans, it goes dreadfully wrong.
Bainbridge’s style of dropping the reader straight into the action, without much scene-setting is evident right from the off. This always gives an initial challenge in getting to grips with the characters, but pays off dividends in getting into the story quickly, and the lack of padding gives space for some lovely detail.
It is hinted that the girls, while still under-age, are no strangers to being a tease, one reason why the narrator was shipped off to boarding school. Their parents though, appear to have no idea what they are getting up to. The narrator’s mother is more concerned with her younger sister; Harriet’s folks are nowhere to be seen. The freedom the girls have to be out and about is shocking to us these days, but they didn’t have TV of course.
Adolescent fantasies take on an air of horror, as the girls’ grooming in reverse takes its course. This is a dark debut indeed and doesn’t exhibit the black sense of humour that Bainbridge’s novels later developed, but it is a powerful story that hints of greatness to come. (8/10)
According to Wikipedia, the book is based upon a notorious murder case which happened in 1954 in New Zealand. The Parker-Hulme case was also the basis of the film Heavenly Creatures.
* * * * *
Source: Own copy.
Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge – new VMC pbk with intro by Linda Grant, 192 pages.