Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Lock up your daughters…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Our unnamed narrator (I shall call her Elsie, just because I can) has returned from boarding school for the summer and is excited about getting together with her closest friend, Harriet. The girls have been in trouble in the past, and this is the reason Elsie’s parents sent her away to school. It’s quickly apparent they intend to get into just as much trouble in the future – constantly seeking new experiences they can record in their diary, each experience must top the one before. They are at that age, thirteen or fourteen, when their fantasies run to men and sex. And with Harriet’s encouragement, Elsie has developed a fascination with an unhappily married middle-aged man whom they call ‘the Tsar’. She sets out to tempt him and he is open to being tempted, but we know from the beginning that things aren’t going to end well…

Please God (I could feel the Tsar’s hand on my shoulder) please God, send Harriet. Then I turned to face the tiger. So dingy he was with his sallow skin and thin hair brushed carefully back. For all his elegance, and graceful walk, the delicate way he moved his head, indefinably he lacked youth. Later I was to remember the stillness in the woods, the evening in an avenue of light between the tree trunks, and the Tsar with his hand on my shoulder. I did not know I loved him then, because as Harriet wrote later in the diary, we had a long way to go before we reached the point of love.

This is an intriguing look at the secret lives of adolescent girls, set in the ’50s, at a time when many parents still demanded obedience rather than offering guidance. Both sets of parents care about their daughters in their own ways but clearly have no idea how to handle them, so that Harriet and Elsie are left to navigate their own way through their burgeoning sexuality. The thing that makes the book so disturbing is that their thoughts and behaviour will be recognisable to any woman, since we all went through that difficult stage when our physical selves were maturing far more rapidly than our emotional selves. It’s also a reminder of how female friendships at that age can become obsessively close, to a point where they can take precedence over all other relationships, even family, and can develop their own secret codes of communication and behaviour. In the end, Harriet and Elsie go much further along the path of acting out their fantasies than most of us did (I hope!), but their first steps feel like ones any one of us might have taken, perhaps with similar consequences.

The book was famously inspired by the case in New Zealand where two teenage girls murdered the mother of one of them, but the story isn’t a slavish copy of that, so knowing the original case is not a spoiler for the book. It was also apparently Bainbridge’s first novel, though it was rejected at the time, and was only published much later once she had become an established name.

I haven’t read any of her later books, so can’t compare the quality of the writing, but I felt this one was a little patchy. Some of the writing is wonderful, but for such a short novel I still found the pacing rather slow, finding myself wishing it would hurry up and get to where it was going. Perhaps this was because I had more or less gathered the major points of the plot from the many, many reviews I’ve read of it, or perhaps it was because the end was so blatantly foreshadowed at the beginning – I’m not sure.

I had tried to explain to my mother that it was awful to go so early; that one looked so silly when the field was full of small children. 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. I could not explain how all at once the lines would meet and mingle performing a complicated rite of selection; orange girls and soldier boys pairing off slowly to drift to the far end of the field and struggle under the hedges filled with blackberries.

The characterisation of both girls is somewhat vague, but I felt that fitted well with the first-person narration. Elsie’s obsession with Harriet and desire to impress her is portrayed excellently, but Harriet herself remains something of an enigma because we only have Elsie’s account to go on. Elsie also hints that she, Elsie, is the submissive one in the relationship, but sometimes the reader is made to wonder if this is a true representation of their friendship, or some kind of deflection so that Elsie should be seen as the more innocent of the two.

Beryl Bainbridge

Times change and attitudes change with them. It may be harder for a modern reader, having lived through all the horror stories about paedophiles and grooming, to feel as sympathetic towards the Tsar as I suspect a reader was expected to feel when the book was published in the ’70s. It’s also less politically correct (though no less true) to see young teenage girls as potential temptresses, using their sexuality as a game, only half innocently, testing their new-found power over men. All of that rang true for me, though, however much we like to gloss over the sometimes dark complexities of teenage sexuality these days.

So while I wasn’t quite as blown away by this as I’d hoped, I think it’s a fine example of a story that becomes very dark while still retaining a chilling level of credibility. Recommended, and it will certainly encourage me to seek out more of Bainbridge’s work.

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45 thoughts on “Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

  1. This does sound very interesting, it’s a good subject matter – although, as you say, seen as quite dark in these so-called enlightened times – and something us ladies can certainly relate to. I’m a little bit intrigued by this, if I’m honest, and if it’s not too long I’ll probably give it a look.

  2. As you say, I wasn’t blown over by this one, although I normally like Bainbridge – the pacing did feel slightly slow in parts, repetitive, although it showed the psychology of the characters rather well.

    • It was certainly good enough to have left me wanting to read more of her work, and I did think the psychology felt very credible – for all the characters, not just the girls. But the structure needed a bit of tightening up or something…

  3. And people ask me why I don’t want kids xD I like the depiction of how close and obsessive relationships can become at that age. I remember my best friend was my everything! But I was a well-behaved girl! The book sounds intriguing, I can’t say if I’d enjoy it or not! Great review!

    • Hahaha! I know! All these crime novels would put anyone off parenting! 😉 Yes, I think friendships at that age can be so intense – and though I never murdered anyone either(!) I can see how these girls kinda talked each other into worse and worse behaviour – almost like dares…

  4. Now I liked this rather more than you did,. Great review, of course. It’s easy to see why back in the day it was seen as too much to handle, and was rejected – I very much suspect for its uncomfortable subject matter. Unlike Lolita, which of course was published, earlier, this must have been doubly shocking – written by a woman, and with the narrator being a young girl. It’s one thing to have a grand man of letters write a book about this subject matter, and quite another, when the author is a woman

    • Thank you! Yes, you and Cleo and, I think, Ali were all a bit keener on it than me, though I did enjoy it. My reaction to the two books is quite different too, now you make the connection – I was willing to symathise with the Tsar and hold the girls chiefly responsible in this one, whereas I was disgusted by Humbert and held Lolita to be pure victim, rather than the ‘nymphet’ he tried to make us believe in. Perhaps it was the different perspective… or maybe a different tone? Intriguing…

      • I wonder whether a woman author can talk more easily about what I think of as both the knowing and the unknowing seductiveness young girls exercise, testing their power and allure. I think, if we are honest , many of us had a awareness of this in our early teens, and perhaps were fortunate not to come across those who exploit it. Of COURSE the onus must be on the adult to realise this is a child, not a consensual adult, and the child is in the thrall of powerful new emotions and does not really yet understand them. In some ways the onslaught of raging (literally!) hormones, is almost like going back to a kind of emotional toddlerhood, where strong and changeable feelings and desires take over. Managing those desires – whether it is the raging toddler in the supermarket queue wanting sweeties, or intense feeling of a kind of semi-conscious sexuality, is part of mental and emotional development at both stages. In both cases, the toddler and the adolescent needs wise adults, not weak or exploitative ones, in their lives.

        • Yes, you’re right and maybe that’s what makes the difference here. Humbert didn’t ever seem weak but the Tsar did, so one felt like the manipulator while the other feels like the manipulated. And back in those dark days when it wasn’t openly considered such a terrible thing for a man to have sex with a teenaged minor, (she being a slut, obviously, as all woman were, apparently, except maybe nuns, and you coudn’t even be sure about them… 😉 ) it would have been possible to see him as the victim in a way that wouldn’t be possible now.

  5. I’ve heard mixed things about this one, FictionFan, It sounds as though Bainbridge did a fairly good job with the coming-of-age element in the novel, which sounds compelling in its way. But when the pacing and time are off, that can throw the novel off a bit, too. And it’s interesting how the times we live in also impact what we think of a book. Hmmm…..’food for thought,’ for which thanks.

    • I think it’s well worth reading, but even though it was short somehow it felt a bit stretched – great premise, but maybe not enough in the middle to hold the interest fully. Plus the foreshadowing at the beginning didn’t leave much to the imagination, I felt. One of the few benefits of ageing – trying to remember how my younger self would have viewed things differently from my… ahem… more mature self… 😉

  6. I was less thrilled about this one than you were, FF, and felt that I had to work pretty hard for my reward, especially since the novel is really quite short by today’s standards. On the other hand, the fact that I can still remember a fair amount about it some fair while later says something in the novel’s favour, I guess.

    • Yes, I did find the middle a bit of a slog which is odd in such a short book. But I think the psychology of the teenage girls carried me through – I thought she did that very well. It was good enough to make me want to try some of her other stuff sometime, which is always a good sign…

    • I’m often not keen on especially women writers of that era so that’s probably why I’ve missed her. But I enjoyed this enough to at least try some more of her stuff sometime…

  7. Hm, wasn’t there a movie about that case in New Zealand? I think so… I also think that I will maybe pick another book as my introduction to Bainbridge. The subject matter is not all that appealing to me at the moment.

    • Yes, indeed! Heavenly Creatures with Kate Winslet – I loved it, though it’s many years since I watched it. I went for this one because of that connection but I think I might have been better with one of her later ones too. Some day…

  8. I think part of what I liked was the honesty about the two girls testing their power which as you say has become something of a forbidden topic with all the recent news about paedophiles etc. As you say it clearly isn’t a reproduction of the crime in New Zealand although the friendship between the two girls recreates that obsessive closeness which again is so true of some teenage girls relationship. I did enjoy this more than you although perhaps no less aware in the direction we were heading. Great review as always.

    • Thanks, Cleo! Yes, our attitude to teenage girls has changed a lot over the last few decades, probably rightly – but I think sometimes we paint them as TOO innocent these days. Though I’ve just been reading the latest Megan Abbott, and her teenage girls are always delightfully awful! 😉

  9. Sounds interesting and I do love Beryl. I’m always a bit wary of novels that only see the light of day after later success, when they weren’t considered strong enough for publication when the author was unknown. I’ll definitely read this but maybe not go in with Bainbridge-high expectations!

    • Yes, me too, and I didn’t know this one had been rejected until after I’d read it. But other people – LF and Cleo for two – loved this one so don’t let me set your expectations too low. It was good, just didn’t hit me quite as strongly as I’d hoped. But I’ll definitely read more of her stuff in the future…

  10. You are probably already aware of this, but the crime in NZ that you are referring to was committed by the famous mystery novelist Anne Perry. I met her a few years ago, lovely old lady who has turned her life around after that brutal act and is quite religious now. She made me carry her book around before readings though, that was kind of annoying 🙂

    • I knew about Anne Perry – it was kept dark for years though. It was known she had become a bestselling author but not who – I have speculated about nearly every woman crime writer in the past! How interesting to have met her. I must admit, knowing about her past has put me off reading her books – it’s odd, if she wasn’t writing about crime I’m sure I’d feel differently, but because she is, it kinda creeps me out a bit. I’ve read a couple but I always end up feeling strangely uncomfortable. My sister likes her books though.

      • Yes I know what you mean, it’s sort of like someone getting famous off of a horrible act, like she has first hand knowledge of what it’s like to commit murder. Can give you the creeps for sure

    • Yes, our attitudes have changed a lot, which is good! But I do think as part of that we now tend to make teenagers out to be a little more innocent than they sometimes are… not that that’s to let the adults off the hook in any way!

  11. I don’t think this is BB’s best book and I rated it 3.5 stars on my blog (rounded up to 4 on Goodreads). I’ve read a few of Beryl Bainbridge’s books and each one has kept me engrossed, including Harriet Said. I really enjoyed The Birthday Boys – very different from her other books – based on Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition. An Awfully Big Adventure, semi-autobiographical based on Beryl Bainbridge’s own experience as an assistant stage manager in a Liverpool theatre in the 1950s is also fascinating.

    • This is the only one I’ve read so thanks for the recommendations! The Birthday Boys sounds appealing – I’ve always been fascinated by explorers who go off to the extreme parts of the world. Was An Awfully Big Adventure done on TV a few years back? It seems to ring a bell…

  12. There’s a newer novel called Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter that looks at these dark teenage girl friendships that I would like to read soon. I’ve read some reviewers write that they’re tired of the gritty teen girl friendships, but really, those friendships keep happening!

    • I think it depends on how well they’re done. I’ve just read Megan Abbott’s new one – she does teenage girls brilliantly! However she often gets sidelined as a YA writer because she writes about young girls, but in my opinion they’re most definitely books for adults that just happen to be about teenagers. I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed them half as much if I’d read them when I was that age myself – too honest about the dark side of being an adolescent…

  13. Agree with Margaret above about Birthday Boys which is brilliant. There was a film of Awfully Big Adventure which had Alan Rickman in it. I think her best books are the historical novels. Also recently a very good biography by Brendan King, Love By All Sorts of Means, is very entertaining. No one writes quite like her and I love the darkness of her humour.

    • Oh, Alan Rickman is always an added bonus! Maybe I should do the book of the Birthday Boys and the film of Awfully Big Adventure! I will try more of her stuff, though – the writing in this one was certainly enough to tempt me…

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