This book is a retelling of a murder that happened in 1843. Harriet Monkton was 23 years of age, single, a school teacher and pregnant. She was found in the toilet of the local chapel having ingested poison with no evidence suggesting how it was administered to her. There was an inquest but no arrest was ever made. The author, Elizabeth Haynes, has taken the documents that exist and then woven them into a larger story where she invents characteristics and actions for the characters and makes her own decision about who was responsible for Harriet’s death. I have to say that some elements of this made me uncomfortable. These people are no longer around to defend themselves and yet they have had characteristics and motivations attributed to them which are possibly not true. It is, however, nearly two hundred years since the events in this book took place so maybe I am being unnecessarily concerned although I do wander why the author could not just have used the events to make up her own story.
Ignoring these reservations, I found that this book was an excellent historical novel. The author tells it from the different points of view of the major characters who were involved in Harriet’s life and death and she even then includes diary entries to give Harriet a voice. I enjoy books told in this way where the reader gathers information from various sources to come to an opinion about what has happened.
The book mainly concerns the events after the discovery of Harriet’s body and the things which then happened including the inquest. Each character has their own opinions and they are each hiding something. Suspicion falls on first one character and then another and public opinion is swayed by what people say at the inquest. In the end we do find out what has happened and it all makes sense in the light of what has gone before.
The author conveys the time and place very well by this method but we also see the motivations and hidden lives of individuals. I think that all the characters are well portrayed and their interactions with Harriet are clearly shown. You cannot help but feel so very sorry for Harriet as she is trying to make something of herself but preyed on by promiscuous men, her reputation left to the gossiping tongue of her neighbour and left with few options because of the society of the day.
This is a really gripping novel. The author paces it well and slowly reveals all the things which might have happened before she shows us what she thinks is the answer. The issue of class is well represented and also the vulnerability of a young woman in Harriet’s position. I thought it was an excellent read.