A gruesome tale by Elizabeth Jenkins, based on the true story of a developmentally disabled, wealthy 30-year-old woman who is married to an unscrupulous man and then starved to death in his sister-in-law’s home after he takes control of Harriet’s money. The crime unfolds slowly, as Lewis first lives with Harriet for a year. Then she has a baby, and Lewis summons his lover, Alice, to come and supposedly tend to Harriet but truly to be his companion. Then Harriet’s shipped off to the country with the baby, to live with Lewis’s brother Patrick, who’s married to Alice’s sister Elizabeth. There’s also a cousin, Clara, who works for no wages but room and board, and who eventually spills the beans on the foursome after Harriet (and the baby)’s death.
Elizabeth Jenkins wrote this delightful book in 1953, but it is timeless, could easily have been the late 1880s (minus the automobile) or 1920s. It’s the story of Imogen, a youthful and beautiful wife who has lost her 52 year old husband, Evelyn, to a much older mistress, Blanche Silcox. This, simply, is the story but it is of much greater interest than the simplicity belies. It’s more of a story of the gradual waning of Imogen’s power in the marriage, the dissipation of her beauty through not being loved, the eventual facing of the facts when Blanche inches her way into the Gresham’s lives piece by piece. There’s also the figure of Gavin, a troublesome brat of nine or ten, who gets packed off to boarding school and really doesn’t give his mother or her absence another thought. His pal Tim, the son of a neighbor whose household is in a state of utter chaos, always lurks around Imogen and eventually finds her in London at the end and moves in with her, giving her something to live for once her life has crumbled. Helen McNeil’s introduction summarizes the book: “an apparently weak, conventional woman looks on with dreamlike passivity as her domestic paradise collapses in front of her eyes.” The pace is slow and steady, you know that Blanche has won on all fronts and yet you are not sure what Imogen is going to do. It’s the slowest moving nail-biter I’ve read in years! Next up, Harriet (1934), one of her earliest successful novels.