The Corruption of Innocence
I surrendered into reading Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel with great delight. Harriet Said shows Bainbridge’s lush, dark, comedic writing was perfectly placed from the start. Originally written in 1958, the book did not find a publisher until 1972, because its story-line and characters were thought to be repulsive. It was only because later written and published books – A Weekend With Claude, Another Part of the Woods, in the late 60s had established Bainbridge as a class, unique voice, that this earlier book found its publisher
A shocking crime had been committed by two teenage girls in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1954, the Parker-Hulme case. It was the nature of the crime, the fact that it was premeditated, and that two girls, aged 15 and 16, who should, according to the thinking of the time, have been innocent, sweet young things, which was so deeply disturbing. Bainbridge takes this into her rather different story, which nonetheless has supposedly innocent girls with a corrupting friendship, a potential power struggle for supremacy between the two, and the involvement of lonely, weak, predatory men.
She drops the ages of her protagonists by a couple of years, making events still more shocking. Set on the North-West coast, shortly after the end of the Second World War, it is the long summer holiday. The un-named narrator is 13 years old, She is not the favoured child in her family. Her mother gives all her love to her youngest child, and there are clearly tensions between her parents. Her best friend is the prettier, more knowing 14 year old Harriet. Harriet looks younger, more girlish, less womanly than her 13 year old friend. Harriet is hugely manipulative, not just of her friend, but also of her own mother. She too comes from a family where the dynamics are not particularly healthy. The relationship between the two girls causes great unease, and attempts have been made to separate them; the thirteen year old has been sent away to school to try and break that friendship. There have been ‘incidents’ with young men previously, Italian POWs from a nearby camp. And these may have been instigated by the girls. Each is seen as a potentially corrupting influence on the other
This is a novel about the power a young girl can feel she has when she realises her allure, and wants to play with the fire of her power. Team two girls together, with a relationship between them which supports dysfunction further, and where neither has the checks and balances which might be given by healthy family dynamics and disturbing things can happen
One publisher rejected her book, at the time of first submission on these grounds:
what repulsive little creatures you have made the two central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief! And I think the scene in which the two men and the two girls meet in the Tsar’s house is too indecent and unpleasant even for these lax days. What is more, I fear that even now a respectable printer would not print it!.
‘The Tsar’ is the nickname the girls give to a weak, 60 year old man, unhappily married, whom one of them has a crush on.
Slightly unsober, slightly dishevelled, always elegant, he swayed moodily past us through all the days of our growing up
No one is ‘off the hook’ in this one – instead, there is an acknowledgement of all-round culpability, though the adults ‘should’ have been the ones taking control of their daughters.
And it is the writing which makes this a terrific book, a shocking book – but not a salacious, lingering, gratuitous one.
Bainbridge’s mordant humour and her artist’s eye (she was also a fine painter) create arresting, unusual, captivating images :
At the gate of the Canon’s house stood a group of men, standing in a circle with legs like misshapen tulips, trousers tied at the knee with string
The subject is shocking, the writing is delicious. She has the ability to lure the reader in, give them the comfort of her craft, so you sink beneath the words as into a warm bath – only to find that under the fragrant bubbles, the bath is full of razor blades.
So, here, early in the novel, the two friends go mooching along the Formby coast:
All the time I kept looking for interesting objects left stranded by the tide. 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 tunnelled if the weather was warm, and stranded jelly fish, purple things, obscene and mindless. Harriet drove sticks of wood into them but they were dead
I love the way she builds unease, image on image, and we know, instantly, Harriet is a dangerous young girl. But she is also an imaginative, reflective and rather astute one. The girls have kept a kind of journal (Harriet’s) for years. Harriet dictates what shall be written in the book, the un-named narrator writes it
All the best parts in the book were written years ago when we didn’t know the proper names for things. We are limited now by knowing how to express ourselves. It sounds worse perhaps, but we can’t go back
I was offered a digital version of this, as an ARC, by the excellent Open Road Media, who are bringing this out in digital version in the States on November 1st. As always, with this company, the digitisation is excellently done
The original Parker-Hulme case had been rather different in its trajectory than this story Bainbridge wove from the dangerous friendship of two corrupt, yet naïve young girls. It had inspired Peter Jackson’s 1994 film, Heavenly Creatures, which told the original story. In a weird postscript, journalists searching for what had happened to the two teenagers, found that though they had had no further contact with each other, they were both now living in Scotland, less than 100 miles distance from each other. And one of them was a fairly well known popular novelist. It almost sounds like a fictional plot twist, one which, perhaps a novelist would have rejected as too contrived to be employed. Truth often stranger than fiction, and all that.
There is nothing ‘supernatural’ in this, but it does seem an apposite post for All Hallow’s Eve, as there is definitely a sulphurous whiff of evil afoot – human malevolence though, which perhaps we project onto ‘supernatural forces’ precisely because we don’t want to own what we can be wickedly capable of, all by ourselves