Penny Hancock was born in London and grew up in Greenwich and Blackheath. She studied English in Newcastle Upon Tyne, then taught English as a foreign language in Italy, Morocco and Greece, before training as a primary school teacher and having three children. She has been teaching and writing in Cambridge since the early 1990s - writing both fiction for Cambridge University Press's English Readers series and articles for magazines and newspapers. Penny's first novel, Tideline, came out in 2012; it is a psychological thriller and was chosen for Richard and Judy's Summer Reads in 2012. Her second novel, The Darkening Hour, comes out in August of this year. Here Penny writes about Beryl Bainbridge's Harriet Said.
Penny Hancock on Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge
I love Beryl Bainbridge’s work, especially her earlier books which are short, almost novellas, but which pack into their pages more astute observation of human frailty and the vagaries of the psyche than many longer novels. Her writing is spare and precise, she is a master of the circular plot and the shocking twist. I was always fascinated by Beryl Bainbridge the person as well, her bohemian lifestyle, her look, her literary persona, her wry humour and her famous excesses. Her novels lay bare the absurdity of the commonplace, and plumb the darkest recesses of human nature.
Harriet Said is her first novel. It is the story of two teenagers stuck in a claustrophobic northern seaside town one summer in the 1950s. The unnamed thirteen-year-old narrator is in thrall to her wayward friend Harriet who is old before her time and sophisticated beyond her years. There are intimations that there may be a sexual attraction between the two girls though it is never made explicit.
The narrator watches helplessly as Harriet is loved and admired by all who come into contact with her even though she is spiteful and dominating - a brilliantly observed character with the kind of disconcerting power and ability to manipulate that teenage girls often possess. Together the two girls befriend a local they call 'the Tsar', a pathetic and lonely middle-aged married man. The subtext is that the Tsar might have paedophile tendencies, though this is implied rather than stated and Bainbridge pulls no punches about the ability of young girls to manipulate older men. The narrator erroneously interprets Harriet's suggestion that they should 'humble' the Tsar, as seducing him, and we presume she sleeps with him, driven by the desire to impress Harriet, and flattered by his attentions. This is the tipping point from where the rest of the action unfolds in a horrifying and inevitable way.
Bainbridge's style is succinct, her observations astute and her handling of plot deft. We are constantly left wondering who the guilty party is and questioning where our sympathies lie, though the young narrator is obviously out of her depth, yearning for a childhood and home life that are no longer accessible to her, so that the narrative is both unsettling and imbued with poignancy.
'It seemed as if the whole summer had been lived between the two extremes of joy and fear, and both were unbearable.'
In her inimitable style Beryl Bainbridge shows us how the two girls wield a power they hardly know they possess and that is more far-reaching than either of them envisages, as they inveigle their way into the Tsar's family home, leading us helplessly towards the terrible twist at the end.
The novel caused shock waves when it came out, was refused by several publishers who found its subject matter 'revolting', touching as it does upon taboo subjects: sex and violence between an older married man and a teenager, though nothing is ever stated categorically and so forces readers to ask uncomfortable questions about themselves and their darkest imaginings, as well as those of the characters.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]