Rationality: Beryl Bainbridge’s “Harriet Said…”

Bainbridge, Beryl (1977), Harriet Said…, Fontana
ISBN 978-0-00-614650-6

“Harriet Said…”, was written in 1958, in fact it was the very first novel Beryl Bainbridge wrote but, as it happened, when a publisher in 1972 finally agreed to publish it, it was the third of hers that was published. Bainbridge has since gone on to become one of the most renowned British novelists of her generation, but these days, several of her novels are out of print, including “Harriet Said…”, which is a big shame. This is an excellent novel, almost flawless; it is also a short novel that contains several other novels’ worth in its pages. It’s a sweet recollection about childhood, a complex evocation of interpersonal dynamics and a dark meditation on the emptiness in the souls of three families, that continues to build momentum until it ends in a climax that provides no resolution nor relief to the helpless reader. Since the book is extraordinarily well written, I almost could not resist reading the whole book in one sitting.

Part of that is the writing, and the eerie way that Bainbridge conveys the irreality of childhood experiences. Thinking back, haven’t we all got memories that appear to be, somehow, less than ‘real’? Language has always been an able medium to convey things like these; to my sensibility it seems that language, as our mediator between our synapses and the world outside, is uniquely qualified to express different ways of worldmaking, of perceiving what we are up against. Writers like Beckett manage to convey this without having to resort to manhandling language the way Rushdie does. Rushdie’s a writer on the adult side of the spectrum who tries to duplicate the other side. In contrast to him, Beckett seems to operate from within language. Apart from a few peers, the only batch of writers who also achieve this effect regularly are writers of children’s literature. They have to appeal to a child’s way of making the world, and they realize, like so few ‘adult’ writers do, to what extent children -and we- are, to use that old phrase: at the mercy of language.

Beryl Bainbridge’s book, however, balances on that divide between these two writings. One, which is conscious of our part in making the world, and the other, larger, adult one, which just accepts the world as a given (see, Rushdie molds the given into shape. He derives his effect from the contrast with the conventionally perceived way of worldmaking). In a way it is a novel on the adult side of the divide, looking over the fence at the Beckett side, if that makes any sense. Details are hard to provide. Odd phrases,words, transitions that sound exciting, and then on the other hand, imagery that is quite explicitly surreal, like this passage that could be the intro to a scene in a musical:

An old man on a bench further along began to whistle between his teeth, tapping his stick on the ground. When the red red robin goes bob bob bobbing a-long…A row of thin knees jerked up and down, a row of polished boots clumped in time to the tune. Any moment now, I thought, Harriet would fling her arms wide and sing at the top of her voice. She was probably only waiting for a tired chorus of old women in shawls and tattered skirts to dance over the stones, massive bosoms a-bobbing, before she began.

The writing is a source of joy. It seduces the reader from the very first page. Novels where the very language keeps surprising the reader are rare. This is one of them. Despite all this, I had to stop to catch my breath and continue reading it the day after. The plot that thus affected me revolves around three families, or rather: two girls (best friends), an old man, and their respective families. The two girls’ relationship is what powers this novel. One of the two is the first person narrator; the other’s the eponymous Harriet. The title is an apt description of the dynamics between the two thirteen-year-olds: the protagonist listens and acts, while Harriet speaks. Harriet appears to know her way around the world: she explains how best to treat their environment and, more significantly, she explains how to read it. The narrator keeps a diary but Harriet dictates her the entries.

Harriet knelt upright, drew out a box from under the dresser, opened it and handed me the diary. “We’ve neglected it,” she said as I took it. “I’ve lots to write about.” (…) Harriet gave me the pencil and lay on the floor again. “Put; ‘She has been away in Wales.” I began to write and kept my face averted, trying to be neat and quick at the same time. “ She has been away in Wales. What next?” “Put, ‘I have been here alone’.” Harriet’s voice was muffled against the carpet. “And that you have become more intimate with the Tsar.” It was always Harriet who dictated the diary, but it was in my writing in case her mother ever discovered it.

More significantly, it’s also from her perspective, not Harriet’s. The idea behind this is the fact that, in case of failing memories, a diary is the best evidence as to what events transpired, and Harriet, as the smarter, more mature friend, is better qualified to be in control of such an important task. She does not, however, stoop to picking up the pen herself (w/ one exception). She’d rather dominate the narrator, getting her to write, as she is also getting her to do fuck and murder. As events unravel, the narrator appears to be coming into her own, mostly through contact with the old man, Mr. Biggs, who is referred to as “the Tsar” by the pre-teen couple.

Early on, she thinks that she has fallen in love with the Tsar, despite the fact that she clearly does not know what it is to be in love. Harriet advises her on how to woo him, which explains why the narrator’s attempts at seducing the old pedophile quickly evolve into cruel games of domination. The narrator is an apt pupil, and is slowly developing a sense of self esteem, as she nudges the old man about. However, this self-esteem is highly unstable since she proves to be completely helpless where direct manifestations of love are concerned. She is unable to deal with situations where Harriet’s instructions are not helpful; there is a reason for the inadequacy of Harriet’s instructions in that area: when it comes to love, Harriet herself meets her limits. Thus, the two of them stumble through a sequence of events, fumbling for the right moves both in the literal as well as the figurative dark. Their helplessness and the lonely despair of Mr. Biggs make for a dense spiral of events.

There is a terrible tension in the book, which is getting worse and worse the further the novel progresses, until it approaches horror, of the kind we know from novels like Doris Lessing’s “The Fifth Child”. The kind of horror that arises from what dwells within us, not in our souls or dross like that but what hides within our communities, what dire things our social structures can beget. In other words, the horror is not in what the characters do. Like in many novels on, for instance, the Third Reich, terror is, partly in the readers’ recognition of the irrational rationale at work, the fact that we are never in the dark about their irrational rationale and can recognize it and fit it all too well into our world. Partly, we also find terror in the fact that these two girls can use their hometown as a place for cruel experiments without anyone noticing, anyone caring, any repercussions. These two girls are daughters of the enlightenment, and the events that unfold are not at odds with that tradition. This is our good ol’ friend, the instrumentelle Vernunft, dontcha know. And here we have two girls, defenselessly exposed to rationality.

This is an extraordinary novel, suspenseful but poetic. It is well written and conveys to us both the joy of childhood and the terror of the evil in our midst. It is highly intelligent and complex, but it remains accessible and readable at all times, if one can stand the darkness. It’s easier than in the aforementioned “Fifth Child”, but that’s because the light writing mitigates it. A most remarkable book, highly recommended to anyone.


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5 thoughts on “Rationality: Beryl Bainbridge’s “Harriet Said…”

  1. I’m so glad you appreciate the way Bainbridge uses language. It can be deceptively simple.

    The story, in case you didn’t know, is based on a real life event, but as you said, it’s the way Bainbridge follows the irrational rationale makes it more than a retelling.

  2. I thought it was misleading to mention Ms. Perry. They killed the mother of one of them and they carefully planned their murder. The dissimilarities are so vast that mentioning it without discussing the differences would be misleading, no? and this thing is too long as it is already. even frakin’ adorno’s in there.

  3. I mentioned it, and I think it’s worth mentioning, because the case was the launching point, but far from taking an “In Cold Blood” approach Bainbridge created something different, multi-layered, and original, and far from sensationalizing, brought everything down to earth.

  4. Pingback: RIP Beryl Bainbridge « shigekuni.

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