It was only after I finished reading The Deception of Harriet Fleet that I discovered this is author’s debut novel – what an entrance to historical fiction world! This is a sumptuously Gothic, suspense-filled book of layers; treating its readers to a childhood murder, hauntings, insanity, and a dash of romance.
historical fiction | suspense | mystery
1871. An age of discovery and progress. But for the Wainwright family, residents of the gloomy Teesbank Hall in County Durham the secrets of the past continue to overshadow their lives.
Harriet would not have taken the job of governess in such a remote place unless she wanted to hide from something or someone. Her charge is Eleanor, the daughter of the house, a fiercely bright eighteen-year-old, tortured by demons and feared by relations and staff alike. But it soon becomes apparent that Harriet is not there to teach Eleanor, but rather to monitor her erratic and dangerous behaviour – to spy on her.
Worn down by Eleanor’s unpredictable hostility, Harriet soon finds herself embroiled in Eleanor’s obsession – the Wainwright’s dark, tragic history. As family secrets are unearthed, Harriet’s own begin to haunt her and she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past are determined to reveal her shameful story. For Harriet, like Eleanor, is plagued by deception and untruths.
Author – Helen Scarlett | Published by Quercus on 31st October 2020 | 368 Pages (kindle)
I would like to thank #NetGalley and #QuercusBooks for providing me with an advance copy of #TheDeceptionofHarrietFleet in return for an honest review.
The Deception of Harriet Fleet opens with a prologue narrated in 1849 which, at first, intrigued me. Then a few little snippets started to give me goosebumps and a horrible sense of foreboding. Narrated by a voice unknown to me at this point in the book, it is stilted, sly, and disturbing. This short, upsetting scene sets the tone for the story that’s to follow, and lays down the crux of the mystery that blights the fortunes of the Wainwright family.
We then fast forward to 1871; the year that twenty-one year old runaway, Harriet Fleet, arrives at Teesbank Hall to take up her role as governess to Miss Eleanor Wainwright. Introducing herself to the housekeeper as Harriet Caldwell, she feels this remote, austere house is the perfect escape from her troubled life in Norfolk. She’s here only through desperation, and with nowhere else to go she’s forced to ignore the chilling warnings from the locals about the family’s curse and the Hall’s macabre history. By the time she reaches the house – her every exhausted step up the gravel driveway watched by a mysterious figure in the uppermost window – it’s clear to Harriet that this wasn’t the respectable home she’d been led to believe.
Whilst Harriet applied for the role as a means of escaping her cruel uncle, she did so under the belief she would be a governess to the Wainwright family’s daughter, Eleanor. But it soon becomes clear that Harriet isn’t the only character in the book carrying out a deception … her appointment, it seems, is to act as a sentry, spying on a girl described by the housekeeper as sly, manipulative and with a ‘weakness of mind’.
The chapters of the book are narrated by Harriet, many years after her term at Teesbank Hall, and recounts her life under the Wainwright family’s employment, gradually revealing the life in Norfolk that she’s sacrificed so much to escape from. Bit by bit we are introduced to the members of the household, both staff and family, and through Harriet’s own perseverance we learn the horrifying truth behind the murder of little Samuel Wainwright back in 1849.
At first glance, The Deception of Harriet Fleet is a mystery-thriller with a dash of the ghostly. But the deeper you read a more insidious layer is revealed – that of the unyielding and catastrophic psychological damage caused by the smothering of a person’s true self, the denial of truths, and the terrifying power of men to declare women insane with apparent ease. These are sombre, weighty issues, but through Harriet’s voice, and Eleanor’s experiences, they’re delivered in an immensely readable enjoyable way.
Whilst Harriet is the main character, it’s Eleanor who really caught my attention, and over the course of the book my feelings about her went through some remarkable changes. At first she was very easy to dislike … she’s hostile, cruel, and antagonistic, particularly towards her parents and Harriet. She instinctively despises and distrusts everybody around her, with the exception of very few: her brother, Henry; her former governess, Lilian; and Eliza, one of the housemaids. As the book progresses, however, the author invites the reader to reconsider their first impressions through some wonderful character development … a fiercely intelligent and out-spoken young woman starts to emerge, one who’s deeply troubled by the events of 1849, and her enforced confinement at Teesbank Hall. My dislike re-formed itself into respect, and then pity when the chokehold of her father begins to reveal itself.
When Henry convinces their parents to allow him to escort Eleanor to London – ostensibly to seek psychiatric treatment – he’s gifting Eleanor the one thing she’s starved of; the opportunity to walk amongst enlightened, forward-thinking people who share her fascination with progress and learning. Once again, the author toys with our emotions, exposing the dreadful mental-health ‘treatments’ of this period, whilst tantalising Eleanor’s predilections for new technologies and scientific progress at the London International Exhibition. But the fragile, heartwarming, friendship that was starting to grow between the two women is shut down when Eleanor blames Harriet for the untimely end to her much-anticipated adventure.
At times it’s harrowing to read of Eleanor’s turmoil, and how it manifests itself. As long as she’s at Teesbank Hall, there can be no peace of mind for this young woman, and in the wake of their disastrous London excursion, Eleanor’s agitation spirals. It’s at this point, when she’s at her most desperate, that she’s coerced into bringing her entrapment to a catastrophic end, her vulnerability exploited to cruel perfection by an unexpected voice from the past.
The Deception of Harriet Fleet reaches a satisfying, albeit rushed, conclusion. Whilst I found the first half of the book to be an intriguing, haunting mystery, it wasn’t really until later that I felt truly immersed in the story. It was Eleanor’s character that I enjoyed the most; her story had blossomed and grown into a genuinely engaging plot, and I became completely absorbed in her. Her character had huge potential, and such a powerful tale to tell, but the conclusion to Eleanor’s story was eclipsed by Harriet’s. Yes, Harriet’s happy ending was charming and deserved, but it lacked the promise and richness that Eleanor’s own story held.
Helen Scarlett has a BA (hons) degree from London University and, after a brief flirtation with the world of finance, has taught secondary English for over twenty years, most recently in a sixth form college. In that time, society has become much more open in talking about mental health issues and this formed the starting point for her novel. She lives and works in the North East of England, a region which holds endless fascination for her and whose influence can be felt throughout her writing.