Friday 22 June 2012

Harriet Said

Harriet Said - Beryl Bainbridge

This is my contribution to Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week which is being hosted at Gaskella. There are already (at least) two reviews of Harriet Said posted here and here. I look forward to reading them after posting my own thoughts here.

As mentioned in an earlier post this book was initially turned down for publication in the late fifties and was eventually published a decade later after Bainbridge had published two other books. It is a loose riff on the murder case that formed the basis for Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures.

This reminded me in many ways of In Cold Blood. It is clear that Bainbridge was imaginatively fascinated with the girls in the murder case and there is almost sense of glee at the way they defied perceived wisdom and a fascination with their motivations. How could two young girls commit such a horrible crime? It's not a 'sugar and spice' act. More "slugs and snails" methinks. The two girls are Harriet (13) and the unnamed narrator (14). Their main dance partner (for the whole book seems like a dance) is Peter Biggs a.k.a. The Tsar, a tired, unhappily married middle aged man.

Bainbridge wields her pen with iconoclastic fervour.  The voice of the narrator is a wonder, carrying a wide range of emotions while also being like riding a fun fair ride which kicks and stomps its way across the respectable streets of fifties England. It reminds me of the vigor with which she undermines the myths of Empire in Master Georgie. This drab seaside world seems faded and tired, underwired like one of Howard Hughes cantilevered bras by religion, golf, fear and a wan, sickly sexuality. This is the world of Bainbridge's own childhood and she welds the two stories of the murder in New Zealand and her own childhood in the white heat of creative passion.  "Let’s go back to Harriet Said, which would be a true story of me and these two girls who had killed the mother of one of them. That already had a plot—the story and the murder were widely reported in the newspapers. I added the landscape and my childhood, which is what really interested me."(from an interview with Beryl Bainbridge in The Paris Review)

The shadow of the war still hangs over this world, trenches near the beach, and it's gifts to the world, the Holocaust and the BOMB. ("I was alive during the war. What happened to the Jews changed me forever." - interview in The Paris Review) It is almost possible to imagine that the bomb has already been dropped in some passages of the book, and all that's left is the shadows where people used to be. Everything seems tired, or false, or both. In the world of the two girls, it is as if they are the only vital beings. "Then her mother joined us on the step, talking pleasantly and emptily. Harriet put an arm around her waist and looked fondly at her, but it was unconvincing. We both tried very hard to give our parents love, and security, but they were too demanding."

Appearances are very important, but also meaningless. The narrator feels that she and Harriet inhabit a different world to their families and neighbors.  "I could see the next door neighbor looking through the kitchen window into our garden. We must have made a charming group. Tea on the lawn, the mother surrounded by children, the clear voices. At least we looked real. Even if Harriet and I were alien it could not show." the manipulation of appearances will become extremely important as the book comes to a close.

There are still bomb shelters in gardens, but they can only offer the appearance of safety - "Harriet said it was pathetic, a hole in the ground with a lid of tin. Like going to sea in a matchbox." The book echoes with a sense of the failure of the adult world to live up to its responsibility to protect children.

The book opens at the end of the story we will be told, with the girls walking from the scene of something. Like Lot's Wife, the narrator wants to look back. "Harriet said: "No, you don't, you keep walking." I wanted to turn around 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."

They are heading home, but "The word home made my heart feel painful, it was so lost a place." What has happened? What have they done. We are soon told that it involves Mr Biggs.

We then go back to the beginning of the summer, with the narrator feeling abandoned because Harriet has gone to Wales for a couple of weeks. They are clearly inseparable and the litany of characters they meet on 'the lane' are recited in a childish sing-song language. The adults seem very childish, the memories are of things like catching tadpoles. The Tsar enters: "Slightly unsober, slightly disheveled, always elegant, he swayed past us all the days of our growing up." Their dance partner.

We find that the narrator has been sent to boarding school - "I was a disgrace owing to the dirty stories found written in my notebook." This costs more than her family can afford, and means she has no friends in the area but Harriet. She make sure now that dirty stories are committed to memory, not paper. "However I did speak nicely and I had a certain style."
(On a complete aside, I once was asked to write the words of a dirty song in a girls notebook while at the Gaeltacht (Irish language summer camp). It was found and I was hauled up before one of the teachers who told me he would have sent me home early if it wash't the last day but that he would be sending a copy of the offending page home. For weeks I rose with the dawn and checked through the post every morning. Eventually I figured the teacher had only been bluffing and stayed in bed. That morning the page arrived. I regretted that sleep in!)

(Just for atmosphere I thought I'd include this version of a song the narrator sings to herself while out walking.)

When we meet the Tsar two things are quickly established, that he hides his meetings with the narrator from his wife - "It was alright me and Harriet having such qualms about our parents, we did have to pretend to conform, but at his age it was awfully flabby." - and that his skull is "vulnerable in its fragility."

Although he has experiences of life that the girls have yet to collect, he has also paid for these experiences and seems a spent force. A visit to Greece seems to have been the highlight of his life."I thought of Athens and watched his face; the lines at the corner of his mouth, the dryness of his skin as if the moisture had run out with his youth, the droop to his eyelids as if he were tired. I tried to look right inside him but nothing stayed fixed."

Bainbridge writes descriptions that bring the subconscious thoughts of the narrator to the surface. Has there been a more disturbing vision of human fertility than this - "There were no end of things Harriet and I had found. Whole crates of rotten fruit, melons and oranges and grapefruit, swollen up and bursting with salt water, lumps of meat wrapped in stained cotton sheets through which the maggots tunneled if the weather was warm, and stranded jelly fish, purple things, obscene and mindless."
A metaflowerical description of the sexual act - "I stared at the poppies by the fence, the stiff hairy stems that wavered when the flower burst. In bud they stood fierce and firm; once wanton in the sun they flowered and grew weak." After a scene where they peer through the window at a couple being intimate we get a wonderfully denigratory description of sex: "Besides, the scene on the couch had shown the unimaginable to be pitiful; a function as empty of dignity and significance as brushing one's teeth."

The flotsam and jetsam has left the bitter mark of illicit knowledge on the girls - "I tried to think what innocence meant and failed." The whole book is steeped in the vinegar of unfulfilled desire, and all the signs are that this is the desire the narrator feels for Harriet. Her feelings for the Tsar and her increasingly desperate acts can be seen as attempts to recapture Harriet's full attention.

The two girls collect feelings which are saved in a diary that Harriet dictates but the narrator writes. Like addicts it seems they need greater and greater doses to maintain their equilibrium.  "A year ago, to be called a Dirty Little Angel would have kept us going for months. Now it was not enough; more elaborate things had to be said; each new experience had to leave a more complicated tracery of sensations; to satisfy us every memory must be more desperate than the last." The narrators 'love' for the Tsar is put into this category by Harriet: "At thirteen there is very little you can expect to salvage from loving someone but experience." The narrator's voice doesn't really see any harm in her actions, or those of the Tsar but we can read between the lines. After her and the Tsar kiss she notes - "the dry calculated embrace of the Tsar might almost have been given by my father, except that it was so sad." The mention of her father is a reminder (as if any were needed) that any relationship here is not right.  She puts herself in the role of caring for him but realizes afterwards that it should be different - "It did not occur to me till later that the Tsar should feel responsible for me."

 As well as meeting the Tsar on the laneway they start to penetrate his home life. Harriet pays him a visit and talks to Mrs Biggs. When she tells our narrator about this, and about a photograph of the Biggs on their wedding day she says - "I imagined the woman's heart laid bare, the cancerous growth of bitterness dissected coldly; as for the photograph, why that was no more the Tsar than I was the frail golden girl I dreamed of being."

Family life is not shown in a positive light. On top of the grim picture painted of the Tsar's relationship the home lives of the girls hardly idyllic. Observing Harriet's family from outside their house we are offered a disconnected version of the holy trinity -  "Three people of one flesh, all alone in separate rooms, one chewing sweets and reading the evening paper, one chanting out his tom-tom message of doom, and the third motionless on her bed, dry eyes wide open under the electric light."

A night spent at a fun fair and a trip on a ferry seem to suggest a demonic edge to the realism at play, something I also noted in Master Georgie. The fair is seen as dingy when they bring the narrator's little sister there during the day but night brings it to life: "I could not explain that when it was dark a new dignity would transform the fair into an oasis of excitement, so that it became a place of mystery and delight; peopled with soldiers from the camp and orange-faced girls wearing head scarves, who in strange regimented lines would sway back and forth across the field, facing each other defiantly, exchanging no words, bright eyed under the needle stars."

Here are two short descriptions of events at the fair: "It was growing darker above the spread-eagled trees; multi-colored lights began to flicker along the Hoop-la stall. A string of pearls, slung from the top of the dynamo van to the roof of the roundabouts, glowed palely against the sky." I love the way the trees are "spread-eagled".

 When we meet the Tsar later he too, it appears, has been altered by the dark: "I stared at the hunch-backed dwarf he had become, his brow like a pale dome, the smile that twisted the black mouth utterly mocking and changed. When he moved to meet us, he bulged hideously under the chain of pearls, his raincoat flapping shroud like in the rain.

In one scene at the church the atmosphere is as in a horror story where the gates of hell open up.  "Everything seemed damp and sallow, the horizon was flushed green, so that there was no longer a division between earth and sky. The whole world looked sickly and weak; tombstones, slate church and pebbled path tinged with a green unhealthy light."

Harriet too, can seem demonic at times - "When Harriet appeared the peace of the evening seemed destroyed; she danced with fearful energy on the pavement, eyes bemused and restless, a figure that jerked and pranced with impatience before me." When she asks "How could one be evil who walked every day the lane to the sea?", it seems a flimsy defense of her friend. And she doesn't leave herself out of this demonology - "The smell of beech and pine mingled in the woods. We inhaled its sweetness with every breath we took. It did not seem to matter that every breath I exhaled poured forth poison and evil."

I don't want to say much more about plot for fear of giving too much away, although this is a book that you primarily read for the writing. Harriet gives us a clue as to how to read - "'You see I've read so many books now which just tell a story that I begin more and more to go after style, rather than dramatic content.'" As noted in the Bainbridge quote towards the top of this post, it was the atmosphere of her childhood that really interested Bainbridge and she talks in a similar way about some of her other early novels. Plot is simply a wooden horse within which you can smuggle your fascinations into the world.

There is much else in this book to savor. The Canon, a minor character is first met riding a tricycle and described as babyish. Later he is described in a wonderful mix of Hebrew and German fairy tales:
"Harriet had said that he was like the witch in Hansel and Gretel who had a house made of sweets and candy, only instead of a house it was he himself who was made out of sugar.
'If we broke a piece off him,' she said, 'even a bit of his little finger, it would be sweet through and through.'
And now when he smiled I felt against my tongue a fearful cloying stickiness, as if I had bitten his fingers."

As the story heads towards it's inevitable dénouement we have to remember that the book is told from one side only, and that as well as being very young our narrator is also quite untrustworthy, so much so that when telling the truth - "Even that would have sounded a lie, so long ago had Harriet and I forgotten how to tell the truth."

I won't be forgetting this too soon. A strong contender to be my book of the year.


A wonderfully languorous Beryl plays a proto-hippy art student in Coronation Street. Trying poster paint as eye make-up she pre-empts Joe Strummer by more than a decade "We're marching in a torchlight procession, tomorrow night, with guitars."*
The exchange between Ken Barlow and his mum could have been lifted from Harriet Said...
"You know whats wrong with your generation don't you? 
Yea, we had children like you."

* "This is a public service announcement, with guitars"" Know Your Rights, The Clash


  1. Great review! It sounds just hypnotically, darkly good - I really must read this one.

  2. Oh, you found so much to say about this very intriguing book! I have just finished it, putting up my review this morning, and I'm off to link yours to mine. Wonderful job!!! "Slugs and snails" rather than "sugar and spice" for certain!

    1. Thanks for the link, and kind comments, particularly about my inability to edit!

  3. This sounds tremendous, straight on the list it goes. That quote about the rotten fruit is so visceral. I hadn't fully appreciated the link to the Jackson film, Heavenly Creatures. It's been years since I last watched it, but I do recall it being pretty disturbing (in a very impressive way, if that makes sense).