On November the 7th 1843 Harriet Monckton, a young woman of 23, was found dead in the privy of her local chapel in Bromley. She had consumed over thirty times enough prussic acid to kill a man. Although there was initially some question of suicide, three years later her death was finally ruled as murder and her death certificate signed. No one was ever arrested for the murder and whoever killed her was never caught.
Crime novelist and former police intelligence analyst Elizabeth Haynes was researching Victorian police procedure and trials (for a new historical novel she was beginning to write) at the National Archive in Kew, when she came across Harriet’s case file. The fact that her killer was never discovered and that it had taken three years merely for Harriet’s death to be confirmed as murder, caught Elizabeth’s attention. Added to that, the inquest and investigation into Harriet’s death happened within a year of the establishing of the Detective Branch of the Metropolitan Police, and the detective working on Harriet’s inquiry was none other than Charles Field (famous as the model for Dickens’ Inspector Bucket in Bleak House). Although no one was ever charged for the murder, both Field and the coroner had (differing) views about the identity of the culprit.
Young and unmarried Harriet was, the autopsy discovered, almost six months pregnant. At the inquest into her death close friends and family were interviewed by the police to try and determine both the identity of her child’s father and her murderer. Amongst the witness testimonies were those of four potential suspects. Thomas Churcher, friend of Harriet’s since childhood – they had been seen walking together shortly before she must have died; Frances Williams, close friend of Harriet’s and a fellow teacher, with whom Harriet was supposed to be staying on the night she died; Reverend George Verrall, the minister of Harriet’s chapel and Harriet’s confidante; Richard Field, another friend who had also been Harriet’s landlord when she lived in London – Harriet had gone out to post a letter to Field and his wife Maria shortly before her time of death.
Haynes’ novel uses these four key witnesses – and key suspects – as her narrators. These were the people closest to Harriet (certainly closer than her own family, which was unusual for the time), but that also meant each had motive. Through them the reader sees a rich and complicated picture of Harriet, as well as of the Victorian social mores and small-town life of mid-1800s Bromley. These point-of-view narratives are compellingly realised and expertly paced – you end each section convinced that you now know who killed Harriet, only to have that assumption turned completely on its head by the succeeding chapter.
For Haynes, a full picture of Harriet emerged from the case files – she was a surprising woman for her time, manifestly yearning for a change from what life had to offer her. Not only had she lived independently in London whilst working as a teacher, she was (evidently) sexually active and (allegedly) promiscuous enough that no one had any idea who her child’s father was. Harriet was a woman who was young, unmarried and pregnant – ultimately these are all the reasons why she was killed. In so many ways very little has changed from then – these are all reasons why women continued to be murdered to this day.
In writing The Murder of Harriet Monckton Haynes brings a form of justice to Harriet – for 175 years she was forgotten and now her case has not only been re-opened but also, (if you agree with Haynes, as I do) solved. However, Haynes has done more than revisit and flesh out Harriet’s story: she has brought “our present to Harriet’s past” (in the words of Myriad publisher Candida Lacy) in light of the current climate and conversation around the ways in which women are (still) seen and portrayed in society and by the media. This is such an important book for so many reasons, but it is also a simply brilliant and riveting piece of storytelling, rich in historical detail and atmosphere.
The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes is published by Myriad (9781912408030, h/b, £14.99)