Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Reading group: Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Warning: partial plot spoiler (or improver).

This was Jenny's suggestion, a book she had on her shelves but had never read, the story of two thirteen-year-old girls in a small Merseyside town just after the war, an unnamed narrator and the malevolent Harriet, who during the school summer holidays set out to beguile then humiliate Peter Biggs, an unhappily married middle-aged man they have encountered all their childhood on their forays to the beach, and whom they call the Tsar. Initially, as she waits for Harriet to return from holiday, it is the narrator who first encounters the Tsar on the beach this particular summer and becomes obsessed with him, simultaneously attracted and repulsed, but once Harriet returns, the campaign begins, motored by Harriet's insistence. Right from the start we know that something drastic happens in the end, as the first chapter opens with the two running from 'the dark house' screaming and the narrator's mother asking 'if I was sure it was Mr Biggs', and what follows is a retrospective account of the events leading up to that.

However, we all found that on a first reading, this narrative trajectory, and the motives of the girls, weren't as clear as I have made them above, and a lot of the meeting was spent actually working out those motives (since everyone but me had read the book only once). Introducing it, Jenny said that although it was such a short book physically, in the experience of reading it she had found it quite long, and most of us nodded. Mark had said beforehand that he thought it was very obviously a first novel (it wasn't Bainbridge's first published novel, but it was the first she wrote, originally turned down for its 'disgusting' characters, later of course published for that very reason, its transgressive characters). I thought that there was indeed a lack of narrative focus, as did John. John thought that even though adolescents experiment with formal language, the overall narration was too formal, which is a novice writer's error, and there was an uncertainty of tone. The narrative isn't an internal monologue, but it's not clear from what vantage point it's being addressed, or to whom. Everyone agreed with this. I said that in addition there are basic errors in story-telling: I wasn't even clear on my first reading that the book wasn't entirely linear, that the second chapter moves back in time. Immediately after the dramatic escape which forms the first very short chapter, the second chapter begins thus:
When I came home for the holidays, Harriet was away with her family in Wales. She had written to explain it was not her fault and that when she came back we would have a lovely time.
The simple insertion of an 'earlier that summer' would have prevented me from reading this as an aftermath scenario with Harriet explaining that whatever had happened with Mr Biggs was not her fault (rather than making a simple apology for being away when the narrator comes home from boarding school), and forming the notion that both girls had been sent away because of the incident concerning Mr Biggs. Once I realised my mistake, I needed to go back and start again, which inevitably contributed to my sense of a lengthy and somewhat rambling narrative. Perhaps as a result of this, a significant past event which is mentioned near the beginning - the fact that the girls have already been in trouble for going in the sand dunes with Italian prisoners of war - didn't seem to me to be mentioned until much later on  in my reading, which surprised me: indeed, I wondered why it hadn't been mentioned earlier, and it was only on a second reading that I realised that the mention did come early. As a result, its narrative impact was reduced for me. I wasn't the only one: Trevor, too, thought it was mentioned much later, and the group were generally muddled about when certain events had happened, ie in what order.

We were all clear by the meeting that the novel was precisely about that transition period in girls' lives when they are becoming sexually focussed and intellectually strong yet are still in many ways children - an important topic to address at the time Bainbridge was writing, as Mark and Clare pointed out, since up until then adolescence hadn't been recognised as a developmental stage, and children were expected simply to turn overnight into adults. However, we are not told until a good way into the book that the girls are at that significant age, thirteen, and I was much exercised at the start in trying to work out what the protagonist's age was as she veered between on the one hand gnomic pronouncements and subtle observations (was she an older teenager? There's an early reference to their leaving school) and, on the other hand, childlike behaviour, becoming sure I was reading about a small child when a two-page description of the alternative walks to the sea is presented in terms of a child mapping her environment and includes this line conjuring a picture of innocence: 'I sang as I began to climb the slope among the trees, "All through the night there's a little brown bird singing, singing in the hush of the darkness and the dew ..." It was practically the only song I knew all through...' If I had known the simple fact that the protagonist was thirteen years old, I would have been able to read her behaviour as adolescent ambivalence rather than the possible result of author inconsistency, and my experience of the book would have been much smoother. A consequence of this uncertainty was that I was unsure of the tenor of the narrator's early lone encounters with the Tsar, plumping for the idea of her as an innocent and consequently entertaining the notion that the first chapter depicts a drama of innocents violated by a paedophile. Reading then the girls' campaign with the Tsar through this lens, I was less aware of their sexuality and the strength of their obsession which motor the narrative trajectory, constantly unsure of their motives at any given point, as I think were most people in the group, and missed thus a sense of narrative thrust.

Most people said similarly that they hadn't been grabbed by the book, Ann summing it up by saying that although the subject matter was extremely interesting in theory, somehow the book didn't grip or convince. The one exception was Trevor, who had really enjoyed it. We were exercised by the girls' attitude to their parents, inevitably in adolescents ambivalent but seeming on occasion not to ring true. Harriet's father is violent, and no one in the group found convincing Harriet's matter-of-fact attitude to that, her superior view of him as needing to be handled and pathetic in his anger, nor the fact that both girls use, without irony or comment, his epithet for her mother, 'Little woman.' Indeed, both girls at moments have a protective and superior attitude to their parents which didn't seem realistic. However, having read the novel a second time, I suggested that this was meant as an illustration of their naivety - they are in fact misinterpreting their parents and their own situation. Initially people didn't seem convinced by this, but as the discussion progressed they came to embrace it. Although it was clear to everyone by now that the girls set out to target the Tsar, I suggested the possibility that there was a conscious authorial irony about this; that the narrator is meant to be unreliable, and that - as Jenny, accepting the idea, said - he is simultaneously targeting them, a fact of which the girls are unaware. Everyone in the group then thought of moments pointing to this, such as the way that at the start the Tsar constantly seems to be where the girls are walking, as if placing himself in their way (which, when I first suggested it early on, drew the comment that he was just a bloke out walking there anyway), the fact that he tells the narrator about his unhappy marriage, and various actions betraying his selfishness. I have to say that on a second reading this last irony seemed quite obvious (and the Tsar quite manipulative), and the narrative arc much clearer and more dynamic as a result. John now said that he wondered if the writer was trying to show through the girls' attitude to their parents that the parents, wrapped up in their own concerns and leaving the girls very much to their own devices, had left them vulnerable to the Tsar. Harriet's father's bad temper could be taken as an effect of the not-long-finished war, as well as the less than even temper of the narrator's father who cleans the house manically and bad-temperedly in his old ARP uniform, and one could extrapolate that the parents (and the Tsar himself) are thus damaged by the war and incapable of protecting the girls. The trouble is, however, that the narrative focus of the novel is so narrow - sticking closely to the perspective of the thirteen-year-old narrator - that there is little indication of this. The whole thing takes place too faithfully in the enclosed bubble of childhood, with little of the social or political contextualisation a more expert writer could indicate. All we know of any of the adults' backgrounds or pasts is that once upon a time the Tsar glamorously visited Greece, and the war is presented solely through the girls' consciousness as 'a long time ago', which contributes to the air of vagueness and lack of focus. Jenny now remarked that, having discussed the book, she felt it was a better book than she had thought, with a lot more in it, and people agreed. However, we couldn't escape the fact that it had lacked focus for us, and, although the prose is snappy and lyrical, there really is something about the nuts and bolts of the composition that defocuses everything on a first reading, we found.

People noted too that there was really no sense of eroticism in the girls' pursuit and campaign of humiliation of the Tsar, although there was eroticism in the relationship between the two girls, which seemed like a lack and left the girls' motives and feelings towards the Tsar unclear. People did think, though, that, as Clare said, the relationship between the girls was beautifully and accurately depicted -  the power of the one (Harriet) over the other, the love-hate dynamic tinged with sexual and existential longing. John said that overall, however, he found the book emotionally cold, and others agreed.

It's a book, in other words, that is better read in hindsight, through a knowledge of the end. It's interesting in this light that it's often written about as having been inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder case concerning two New Zealand schoolgirls similarly locked in a folie a deux, on which the film Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet, was based. If you approach the book knowing this connection (which I didn't at first), you know from the start that the girls have committed a murder, and the whole thing is imbued with a far greater urgency than if you lack this expectation. In fact, I'd say that it's a tall claim that the book is based on the real-life story (rather than vaguely inspired by the general idea of girls in an intense relationship murdering an adult): the Parker-Hulme story is really very different, with an entirely different dynamic. In fact, Harriet Said suffers from the comparison, since the Parker-Hulme murder was committed, and planned, to prevent the girls being separated, thus making the erotic relationship between the girls the pulsing centre, and the murder itself more organically inevitable than it is here. One wonders therefore if that somewhat spurious connection was flagged by an editor, author or publicity department aware that the book is indeed better when read in the light of it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

No comments: