“I don’t know if we were ever innocent.”
Harriet Said, Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel, is inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder which took place in New Zealand in 1954 and involved two, closely bonded teenage girls who murdered one of the girls’ mothers. The incident inspired the wonderful film Heavenly Creatures. And of course, most of us know that one of the girls, Juliet Hulme, is now the author, Anne Perry. Apart from the bare bones of the real-life murder case, any other connections vaporize in Bainbridge’s book which explores the rich fantasy life of two teenage girls who obsess, dangerously, over a middle-aged married man.
Harriet Said takes place in England and the story is narrated by an unnamed 13 year old girl who has just returned home from boarding school to Formby. She was sent away thanks to her relationship with Harriet, who’s a year older, and the much more dominant of the pair. “Dirty stories” were found written in the narrator’s notebook, and then a neighbor, Mrs. Biggs, reported that the girls were behaving inappropriately with Italian prisoners of war. So the narrator is packed off to boarding school as a time-out move, but the girls reconnect when Harriet returns from Wales. And, of course, they return to their old patterns of behaviour….
Unfortunately, what none of the adults in this story understand is that Harriet, and not the less attractive, lumpish narrator, is the true trouble maker here. Harriet dictates the diary, but it’s the narrator who writes the diary in case it is discovered. It’s Harriet who comes up with diabolical plans with the narrator passively agreeing. Harriet is dangerous because she is so charming; she’s the more attractive of the two girls, and even though she’s a known bad influence, she still manages to sway people in her favour. Self-possessed Harriet is much more dominant, taking the lead, controlling the action, creating meaning, and devising the rules in various transgressive events, but she’s also the leader because she’s more attractive, and the other girl, our narrator, always plays catch up and admires Harriet for her sangfroid and her “calm refusal to be blackmailed into submissiveness by parental grief.” Here’s an example of Harriet rewriting events:
“What’s that got to do with it?” asked Harriet, but not crossly. “I wrote that after we met those boys from the remand home when I took my clothes off and you wouldn’t because your knickers were filthy.”
“They weren’t filthy,” I protested. “I told you, they were my mum’s and they were pink with awful lace.”
These two girls are cocooned in their own fantasy life. Reality, in the form of their parents (and Harriet’s parents are a bit odd), is minimally intrusive, and as the weeks spin out, gradually the girls’ fantasies become increasingly dangerous as they begin to focus on Mr Biggs, a man they call the Tsar. All teenage girls have fantasy lives (well to be honest, it’s part of the human condition, isn’t it?), but in the case of teenage girls, fantasy can take on a more dangerous edge especially if they experiment with sexuality and their newfound sexual power.
While the subject matter is intriguing, and the author does an excellent job of showing how these girls create, and exist, in a separate adolescent world, I’d place Harriet Said on the bottom of the Beryl Bainbridge stack read so far; the pacing plodded at times with little tension. I kept thinking of Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters, the tale of another teenage girl, and Harriet Said faded in comparison. Cleo, however, loved the book. So see Cleo’s review for a different opinion.