The Murder of Harriet Monckton, by Elizabeth Haynes

Trigger warning for rape.

Elizabeth Haynes took her inspiration for The Murder of Harriet Monckton from actual historical documents about an unsolved murder from 1843. Haynes scoured archives to try and find out if the case was ever solved. It wasn’t, but Haynes uses all of the available information about the crime scene and the suspects to create a solution to Harriet’s murder. She does an absolutely incredible job of taking the scant information gleaned from newspapers, court documents, and letters to bring Bromley of 1843 back to life. This book is an amazing piece of historical fiction; Haynes definitely shows us how to do this right. Seriously, the talent on display in this book floored me.

Three narrators tell their stories, all drawn from the available documents, but brought back to full life by Haynes’ imagination. There’s George Verrall, the preacher of a flock of Congregationalists, who has more than one secret he’s hiding. Then there’s Tom Churcher, who loved Harriet but was never able to tell her. And, lastly, there’s Frances Williams. Frances is a “spinster” teacher who, like the other two narrators, is in love with Harriet. That love is very different for each, however. Tom’s love seems the purest; he simply loves Harriet for who she is. Frances knows that Harriet doesn’t feel the same way, but she takes the bits of affection that she can as her friendship with Harriet develops. Verrall, though. It’s hard not to hate Verrall. The man is a terrible hypocrite. He claims to be a man of god, but he can only really get inspired if he has sex with a woman who is not his wife. Harriet was just the latest in a string of women Verrall has taken advantage of.

The historical record shows that, after Harriet’s body is found in the privy of Verrall’s chapel, Verrall was very involved in the coroner’s investigation. How can one not be suspicious of a man who shoves his way into a murder case and insists that victim committed suicide, when there isn’t a lot of evidence to support that conclusion? And yet, there isn’t a lot of physical evidence to definitively point to any culprit. No one found the bottle of Prussic acid that killed Harriet. Her body was moved after she died. This is well before DNA evidence and even fingerprinting. The coroner—and the London detectives who came along later—had to rely on witnesses. Sure, all of these witnesses swear to tell the truth and one would hope that they would. We readers know that these witnesses have all kinds of agendas that lead them to bend (or outright break) the truth. Churcher’s sister wants to protect her brother. Tom promised to keep other people’s secrets. George wants to keep his dirty secrets quiet. Frances wants to squelch the rumors about her relationship with Harriet. Absolutely no one wants to see what’s under the veneer of respectability in Bromley.

Part of an article about Harriet’s murder in The Colonial Times, Hobart, Tasmania, September 22, 1846 (Image via Trove, National Library of Australia)

There are works of historical fiction that are hampered by their author’s reliance on documented facts. For example, Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy fizzles at the end because that’s what happened in the actual Dreyfus case. Because what really happened to Harriet Monckton is unknown—and because so much of her life remains a mystery—Haynes has the space to make a really exciting, interesting story. In her notes at the end, Haynes says that she wanted to tell Harriet’s story because the real Harriet never got justice for what happened to her. We’ll never know, not after so much time and so little documentation. But I feel that Haynes did Harriet right in The Murder of Harriet Monckton. Harriet has a voice after all these years.

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