Historical fiction has always floated my boat. I love immersing myself in the past, particularly when the story in question is based on fact. And particularly where there are unanswered questions and room for interpretation. Give me a slow reveal of fact and supposition cleverly interwoven and I am in clover.
I also love a long book. The joy of finding a book that is skilfully put together and captivating is unbounded. Who doesn’t want a really great story to go on?
So I approached The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes with excited anticipation. Heartfelt thanks go to Emma Dowson at Myriad for my gifted copy.
I wasn’t disappointed; my reading experience was every bit as satisfying and enthralling as I had hoped.
Based on a true story Haynes takes us back to Bromley, 1843 and sets about unmasking the killer of Harriet Monckton. A young aspiring teacher Harriet is found dead in the privy at the back of her local Chapel, 24 hours after leaving a friends house to post a letter.
It is quickly established that Harriet has been poisoned but is this through her own hand or has she been murdered? The revelation that unmarried Harriet is ‘with child’ adds further complexity and intrigue.
As an inquest is called various potential suspects come to light. Haynes has used actual coroner’s reports and witness testimonies from the original case to paint a picture of both a life and community riddled with secrets, all touched by suspicion.
Could gentle Tom Churcher be Harriet’s killer? It was he who found the body and seems strangely affected by her death. Having been seen ‘walking out with’ Harriet, despite being unofficially betrothed to another, could this be a love affair turned sour?
What of his spurned sweetheart Emma? Is this a killing with is motives in jealousy and revenge?
Harriet’s friend and sometimes housemate Frances Williams cannot be discounted either. Why exactly has she become so close to the deceased and what would it cost her if the true nature of their relationship was disclosed?
And what does Richard Field, husband of a dear friend, know of Harriet’s death. As former landlord and clearly former lover he is quickly pulled into the circle of suspicion.
Finally and perhaps most chillingly, we must consider The Reverend George Verrall. Is his relationship one simply of spiritual guidance and confessor as he would have his followers believe, or is there a more sinister side to his relationship with Harriet ?
This, perhaps unsurprisingly is a story of secrets, of hidden facts and relationships build on half truths and lies. The plotting of this novel is skilful, layers of deception are slowly revealed as each character uses their own distinct voice to present their individual relationship with Harriet. For Harriet means different things to different people and this is key to our tale.
It is through these authentic voices we build a snap shot of a group of characters who are misunderstood not only by each other but by themselves. Working hard to justify their actions or, indeed, inactions there is a sense of self deception which permeates their testimonies.
Richard Field, for example, works hard to convince not only the reader but also himself that he is a dedicated family man, taking little or no responsibility for the pivotal role he played in Harriet’s life and undoing.
Rev. Verrall’s account aims for piety but smacks of desperation. His attempts to lead the inquest to a verdict of suicide make him all the more suspicious and frankly distasteful.
And this is a view that is enhanced and repeated through the use of Harriet’s diary. For crucially Harriet’s is not a voiceless victim in this story. The use of her own written testimony adds clarity, gives her character power but also brings into sharp focus one of the key strengths of this novel.
The abuse of power, both spirtual, sexual and financial power is behind Harriet’s sorry tale. For Harriet is not an uneducated women. Rather she is spirited, independent and eloquent. Her relationship with Richard Field was based on genuine feeling, it’s ending a moral sacrifice on her part for the sake of a dear friend.
Moreover her treatment at the hands of George Verrall is the classic abuse of power. Religious power and abuse masquerading as concern and correction, the sacrifice of one young woman for a greater male purpose. The weaving of deceit and concealment is all too common both in Harriet’s life time and our modern day society.
For the real genius of this novel lies in it’s ability to commentate on the treatment of women in the past, but make it relevant to society today. As a reader I couldn’t help but link the kind of abuse of power detailed so starkly with in these pages to the events of recent years; the #MeToo campaign and all its associated stories and movement. The situation Harriet faces is still something faced by women all over the world.
Elizabeth Haynes has employed to maximum effect the ability to look to the past to illuminate the lessons we are still learning today.
And what if the killer of Harriet Monckton? Well, you will find no spoilers here but as with everything else in this gem of a book, nothing is ever quite as it seems.