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it is a sad thing that Jenkins' 1934 novel is not better known! perhaps the darkness, realism, and tragedy that form the basis of this novel's insights on humanity's often predatory nature has precluded it from being embraced.
the premise is simple enough. take a "natural" from any given Austen novel - those simple-minded, childish, often greedy, but also often innately sweet women who the central heroines usually have to protect or at least work around - and set her in a starkly realistic setting approximately 50 years later, filled with characters who truly will do what they feel they have to do to obtain money and comfort. although the language is similar - charmingly nuanced and understated dialogue; descriptive passages that are wry and subtle; characters who are pleasingly well-spoken and well-mannered - the result is very far from a comedy of manners. Harriet's narrative is instead a grueling series of escalating predations and degradations, politely told... because most people with no sense but some money do not have a Jane Austen heroine around to guide and protect them.
the discomfort this novel creates comes not just from the horrors that are visited upon the heroine but also from the inclusion of classic characters and situations that are instantly recognizable from the range of light comedies of manner that have been read and re-read over time. greed is a killer and predators will do anything to rationalize their predatory behavior (even to themselves) - particularly in a milieu where polite conversation and manners are as important as currency.
a dark and forgotten classic, one that is pitiless and passionless in its depictions of human cruelty. the novel is both subtle and furious in its underlying assessment of the avariciousness that can drive that cruelty.
'At half-past five on a January evening of the year 1875, Mrs Ogilvy's drawing room was a pleasant place.' Yet from such a cosy outset - Mrs Ogilvy living a luxurious life with her retarded 32-year-old daughter Harriet - who could guess the horror just around the corner? While staying with relatives, Harriet is noticed by the charming and unscrupulous Lewis Osman. At once turning aside from his true love, the sulky but beautiful Alice who yearns for nice things, he starts courting Harriet. But his marriage proposal is not for romantic reasons: 'He did not shudder now, as he had done on the evening of their first meeting, at the idea of marrying her, but he was in no hurry to do it.' Yet Harriet's wealth propels him on, much to the anger and frustration of her loving mother, who comes to realise her impotence in the face of this 'pert, undersized, vulgarly good-looking person of the lower middle-class, he impressed even her stalwart bosom with a sense of foreboding.' How the story works out makes for a shocking and unputdownable read. Based on a real-life case.
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Whether a romance reader or a mystery reader, this reprint of Jenkin's book is nothing short of great. Rarely do I pass up a favorite tv show and DVR it, to read, but with this book, I just had to know, what is next. If you want to find great books check out Persephone books.
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