- Mrs Harris by Diana Trilling
Hamish Hamilton, 341 pp, £8.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 241 10822 5
Mrs Jean Harris, a trim widow of 56, was a woman who had reason to congratulate herself on making a success of her life. She had risen from undistinguished but respectable suburban beginnings to the position of headmistress of the select Madeira School for girls, in McLean, Virginia. She had married young and had two fine sons. She had kept her looks, and, apart from the occasional bout of depression or fatigue, her health. She was well respected in the academic world, was an active fund-raiser, and presented to the girls in her charge a picture of independence, decorum and high moral standards. So high, indeed, were these moral standards that the penalties she inflicted on her girls for such relatively unimportant misdemeanours as drinking beer or smoking marijuana met with some criticism, not only from the girls themselves but from her colleagues and from the school board. Yet such criticism was powerless to modify Mrs Harris’s actions, for it was clear, even to those who did not warm to her, that Mrs Harris was a lady whose behaviour was so impeccable that she expected no less of others. Mrs Harris did not drink beer or smoke marijuana. But she did something else. On the night of 10 March 1980, Mrs Harris took a gun, got into her car, drove for five hours to Westchester, woke her lover of 14 years, Dr Herman Tarnower, from his sleep, shot him, then left him dying on the floor while she went back to her car and began to drive away. She did not intend to escape. In any event, the police were already approaching, alerted by Tarnower’s housekeeper, Suzanne van der Vreken. Mrs Harris was taken to the police station and in due course brought to trial. She was convicted of murder in the second degree and condemned to serve a sentence of a minimum of 15 years.
It was thought that Mrs Harris had been driven to this grave act by one particular circumstance. Although apparently resigned to her lover’s compulsive philandering, she found it very difficult to bear when he switched his attention from other women to one particular other woman, Mrs Lynne Tryforos, who was very much younger than Mrs Harris herself. Mrs Harris had the terrible feeling that she was being discarded, that Dr Tarnower, a confirmed bachelor, might indeed marry Mrs Tryforos. What gave her this impression was not only the relative inaccessibility of Dr Tarnower but the knowledge that on 19 April 1980 he was to be honoured at a dinner given by the Westchester County Heart Association and that his partner at the top table was not to be Mrs Harris, his stylish companion of 14 years, but the very much less distinguished Mrs Tryforos.
Mrs Harris’s despair and fear can be imagined. She was not well, was overworked, worn out. Recently, and on more than one occasion, her professional judgment had been called into question. She was tired of the rigorous respectability demanded of her – ‘I was a person and no one ever knew,’ she was to write to a colleague. Certainly a woman of her temperament and behaviour must have been in an extremity of suffering to have performed an act so apparently out of character. For it was Mrs Harris’s character that was her strongest recommendation. Here was no common or garden killer, it was thought, but a tragic heroine, an Anna Karenina, an Emma Bovary, driven to commit the ultimate crime by her desperation and her sadness. Until the trial – indeed, until the end of the trial and the reading of the only significant document in the case, the Scarsdale Letter – Mrs Harris was in some way perceived to be intrinsically harmless. And at this stage she puts one in mind of one of Henry James’s minor characters, Mrs Carrie Donner, who was reported to be ‘wild’. ‘Wild?’ muses James’s surrogate silkily. ‘Why, she’s simply tameness run to seed.’
Not so Dr Tarnower, rich and celebrated physician, and author of The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. Tarnower at home might have been invented by Philip Roth, as an honorary member of the Tarnopol or Zuckerman families, the one who makes good, along slightly crossed tribal lines. With his Japanese-style suburban estate, his disaffected Belgian houseman, his appreciation of women half his age, his gourmet dinners, and his genial habit of presenting his guests with an inscribed copy of his diet book – in paperback – Tarnower does not cut a convincing figure as the victim in the case. Nor is he attractive enough to gain one’s sympathy. Penurious beginnings had exploded into an elaborate and sybaritic style of life which Tarnower greatly enjoyed. He seems to have been a genuine man of pleasure and thus to have exerted a disagreeable power, for men of pleasure have minimal consciences and fallible memories. The aging and tiring Mrs Harris was a nuisance to Dr Tarnower. When, as she said, she woke him from his sleep and asked him to kill her with her own gun, he was quite simply exasperated. He gripped Mrs Harris’s hand or arm in order to stop her shooting herself, and she, involuntarily or reflexively, pulled the trigger. Dr Tarnower sustained one wound in the hand and three in the chest, from which he died shortly afterwards, and, apart from the necessity of establishing the burden of proof, his death seemed to pose a moral question: whether the sort of woman Mrs Harris was should be allowed to murder the sort of man Dr Tarnower was, with the further implication that she should, in all justice, be able to claim some kind of immunity for having done so.
But what sort of man was he? He was not one of those mythic characters who inspire in others ‘the sacred terror’ (Henry James again), and whose power over women is acknowledged and indulged, simply because it is a power, and because all men would like to possess it and all women to enjoy it. Tarnower, on the contrary, appears to have been cheap and crass, and to have used women without in the least caring for them. The only indication of his extremely limited interest in any particular woman was the amount of money he was willing to spend on entertaining her, and of course himself. Mrs Harris in her time enjoyed trips to Kenya, Khartoum, Ceylon, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bali, Singapore and Russia. By Dr Tarnower’s reckoning, therefore, Mrs Harris had thus had a good run for her – or rather, his – money. It was all very well for Mrs Harris to protest that he had proposed marriage to her: the proposal had been quickly retracted on the grounds that the doctor was in any event wedded to his profession. Nor did it do her any good to remind him of the hours she had spent working on his diet book, the high intellectual calibre of which can be judged by the report, inserted somewhere between the recipes for Eggs Gitano and Pineapple Surprise Aloha, that a wife and husband ‘dieting team’ took up knitting and macrame ‘to keep our hands busy and out of the snack bowl while watching TV with the kids’. None of this cut any ice with Dr Tarnower, who shed his lustre on one woman after another, or, more usually, at the same time, and could not or would not understand their objections when they met at his table or beside his pool or occasionally passed each other in the driveway of his house.
In return for his favours, the women in Dr Tarnower’s busy life would be allowed the use of a wardrobe in his ‘dressing area’, and if one mistress found another mistress’s clothes there, well, as Dr Tarnower would say, that was her problem. These wretched women would gaily signal their presence to their lover by printing greetings in the New York Times, presenting him with engraved gold cufflinks, or, as Mrs Harris did, writing droll verses congratulating him on the long list of his conquests. They would be forced into these strategems because their telephone calls to Dr Tarnower, which were numerous and very frequent, were not always well received. Thus the women would be reduced to telephoning his friends or questioning his servants. Mrs Harris and Mrs Tryforos, of course, telephoned each other, but usually under the cloak of anonymity. Having set in motion the humiliation of these women, in which they undoubtedly colluded, Dr Tarnower usually did what he most liked to do, and retired to bed early and alone. The most extraordinary thing about him is that he was totally unmemorable. He aroused the most perverse of passions, not because he was unique but because he was unavailable. Once Mrs Harris went on trial for his murder, no one spared him a further thought: he proved, in the eyes of the public, to be as insubstantial as his own affections. Out of sight, he was literally out of mind. He left no ghost behind, no voice from the grave: nothing but the plausible smile of the sexual dilettante. It was for this reason that many women, witnessing the reinstatement of Mrs Harris as the central figure in this drama, and the reduction of Dr Tarnower to what they felt to be his ignominious essence, reckoned that, whatever the verdict, a kind of justice had already been done.
Murder in the second degree involves the conscious intent to kill. But the verdict of the jury was irrelevant to the main issue and in any event hinged upon a technicality which was neither proved nor disproved. What few people can have doubted was Mrs Harris’s unconscious intent to murder Dr Tarnower, and not merely on the night of 10 March but for months, even years, before that date. It is evident from certain of her remarks to friends or to Dr Tarnower himself that she hated him with the passion of the frustrated lover and the despair of the biologically redundant. She hated him for her loss of judgment, her loss of status, her loss of integrity. The metaphorical truth of Mrs Harris’s desire and intent to kill Dr Tarnower was so clear to the thoughtful witness that the tedious deliberations of the courtroom seemed otiose and scarcely relevant. With this, as it were, prejudged, there is no paradox involved in the fact that the degradation of the trial left Mrs Harris almost intact, as if lightened of a burden, yet was experienced by all the other participants, none of whom appears to have been of a stature suitable to the occasion. Counsel for the defence, whose father for some reason changed his name from the decent and recognisable Aronowitz to the hybrid and unpronounceable Aurnou, wears striped brown suits and, when not making emotional appeals to the jury, with tears in his eyes, can be seen to turn round and wink at his wife. Counsel for the prosecution, Bolen, has some difficulty in framing his questions, and his barbaric use of the language offends the fastidious Mrs Harris, who corrects his syntax. Uncommunicative policemen admit, under questioning, that they handled blood-stained telephones or permitted Mrs Harris to change her blood-stained blouse. Each medical witness discredits the preceding medical witness. The judge, Judge Leggett, is not good at keeping order, and after pronouncing the sentence (minimum 15 years, maximum life), leans over to Mrs Harris and delivers himself of this incredible declaration:
Mrs Harris, in regard to my observations of you, I found you to be a brilliant, brilliant woman, and I am going to ask this: in regard to Mrs Harris in Bedford Hills, my feeling is that she can be a most useful person in that facility and help other people. Her brilliance can probably bring some light into some other women’s lives because of any ignorance and lack of knowledge. Anything that can be done with respect to giving her the opportunity to help her fellow women that are in that prison I would like it to be done. I think that she has so much to offer the women that are there that not to afford her that opportunity would be to deprive society and the other inmates in there of a very great advantage and a blessing. It’s unhappy that you have to be sentenced, Mrs Harris, and the best I can say to you is, the best of luck.
And Mrs Harris’s behaviour? Diana Trilling observed her to be prim, neat, busy and affectless. She scribbled notes to her defence counsel, whom she addressed from the witness-stand as ‘Joel’, she bristled at certain infelicities of procedure, but at no point did she reveal herself to be a woman with a broken heart. To Diana Trilling she exhibited the belle indifférence of the morbid hysteric, but it may be that during the trial Mrs Harris simply had no appropriate emotions available to her. She had left them all behind, and without regret, for they had all been ugly. Most important of all, she was no longer frightened – frightened by her envy of the girls in her charge whose lax and lazy hedonism she had dealt with so punitively, frightened of her rival Lynne Tryforos, who possessed the priceless assets of youth and shamelessness, frightened of the school board which had expressed doubts as to her suitability to continue as the headmistress of Madeira School, frightened of her fatigue, frightened of what might happen to her when she stopped taking the sedatives which Dr Tarnower prescribed for her under another name, frightened, above all, of Dr Tarnower, who had brought her to this pass. By killing him she effectively removed all her fears. And she removed the cause of them. Towards the end of the trial she appeared white and tired, but she did not waver in her composure or in the assertion of her innocence. Whether this was belle indifférence or simply the relief of having taken action at last would need the competence of quite a different court to decide.
And yet she is unsympathetic. And, in addition to that, she, too, is profoundly undistinguished. A woman who claims to be superior, as Mrs Harris constantly did, must demonstrate this quality and demonstrate it in sufficient quantity to convince others of her particular distinction. It may be said that bitter are the uses of adversity. But even in adversity superior women do not resort to the sort of language or reveal the sort of preoccupation made manifest in the long letter Mrs Harris wrote to her lover, never received by him, retrieved, claimed and, after considerable and dramatic delay, produced as evidence in court at a moment during the trial when her steadfast appearance of respectability and the decent sentiments she proclaimed had all but convinced her audience of her worth.
The Scarsdale Letter deals, in rambling and furious fashion, with three matters: with the dinner of 19 April, at which Mrs Harris so strongly desired to be present as Dr Tarnower’s partner, with money, and with Lynne Tryforos. The only surprising element in this letter is the fact that Mrs Harris kept such strict mental accounts of monies spent and not spent over the past 14 years. She protests her financial abasement, her financial sacrifices, her financial modesty, her financial rights. She reminds Dr Tarnower that she let him pick up the bill for a yellow dress of hers only because Lynne Tryforos had smeared it with her shit. She tells him that her children’s education could have been improved, with a little financial help. And she accuses him, murderously, of replacing her in his will by Lynne Tryforos, who would now stand to gain a quarter of a million dollars, her two daughters $25,000 apiece – ‘and the boys and me nothing’. The fact that Tarnower paid for all their excursions and hotel reservations – a not inconsiderable sum – does not figure in her calculations, nor does the pleasure she had from them. What she has enjoyed is discounted or forgotten. It is what she has not enjoyed, and what she suspects another woman of enjoying, that unbalances her.
That other woman is referred to, passim, as ‘a vicious adulterous psychotic’, ‘your whore’, ‘your psychotic whore’, ‘your adulterous slut’, ‘a self-serving ignorant slut’, ‘a lying slut’, ‘dishonest, ignorant, and tasteless’. Mrs Harris remarks of her: ‘Her voice is vomitous to me.’ Yet such is Mrs Harris’s travail that she cannot perceive that these terms might change the doctor’s attitude to her. She makes a bargain with him: he can see Lynne in March on condition that he devote April to her, Mrs Harris. The bargain is strengthened: ‘I give you my word that if you just aren’t cruel I won’t make you wretched.’ And as for the Westchester County Heart Association dinner, she assures him that she will be there, ‘even if the slut comes – indeed, I don’t care if she pops naked out of a cake with her tits frosted with chocolate.’
At this point in the trial, and indeed long after it, the impact of this letter is profound, perhaps more profound than the actual killing, the technical details of which have never been satisfactorily established. It is profound because one had been willing to give Mrs Harris one’s sympathy, to a certain extent, exactly on her own terms: that is, on the understanding that she was a lady, and a lady whose delicate sensibilities had been outraged at her rejection in favour of a woman whose manners were coarse and vindictive – a woman, in fact, who was no lady. A lady is perhaps recognisable as a woman who consistently behaves better than she feels like doing. As Diana Trilling remarks, ‘the idea of a gentleman has to all purposes disappeared from our culture, but not the idea of the lady; the title has been largely discarded but the concept remains.’ The truly tragic element in the case is Mrs Harris’s surrender of her original moral standards, her genuine fall from grace. And this final degradation – of the refined headmistress, whose ‘veracity’ and ‘peaceability’ were attested by her colleagues, to a raging and foul-mouthed energumen – is the degradation not only of Mrs Harris but of the very concept itself. When the word ‘lady’ is used in the future, it will need to be tested as rigorously as the term honnête homme was at the court of Louis XIV.
And that shambling courtroom, in which everyone appears to have been eating junk food, that ludicrous final speech from the bench – what are we to make of these? What justice could such people do to the defiled puritan that was Mrs Harris, the woman of whose ‘morbid unimpeachability’ Diana Trilling speaks with respect? What are we to make of the fact that the only enlightened witness seems to have been Diana Trilling herself, and what are we to make of the fact that she enshrines her observations in a genre which has been turned to sensational advantage by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer? As a specimen of the genre it is superb, but it has to be said that it is an unsatisfactory, even a morally dubious genre. It is a genre in which Dame Rebecca West had earlier made a faultless showing with her account of the case of Mr Setty and Mr Hume. In immaculate and stately prose, and with a Dickensian relish for geographical detail and for common speech, Dame Rebecca has presented this disagreeable case as a sort of curiosity of post-war London life. Her account is not without a certain bizarre light-heartedness, even a certain appetite. Her sympathies are never engaged, her insight is thus not brought to bear on the accused, but as a narrative it is recognisably the work of a writer who respects the art of fiction. A different sort of fictive impulse was exercised by Pamela Hansford Johnson when, reviewing the behaviour of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley on trial for the Moors Murders, she wrote her thoughts On Iniquity. Here was a perception of evil that distorted the more trivial facts, and with it a great fear, and with that fear its not unusual corollary, an indictment of society, the sensation-celebrating society of the Sixties. But Diana Trilling is too sensitive to seek the safety of either haven, that of the observer or that of the moralist. And as a woman of conscience she cannot simply content herself with the facts. What is obvious is that a suitable structure for the particular experience she so scrupulously charts is seen to be lacking, perhaps no longer exists.
Diana Trilling is of course aware of this. She complains that contemporary literature – by which she means fiction – does not deal with those high matters of love, grief, revenge, ambition, jealousy, infractions of morality and behaviour, so necessary to instruct us in the range of our own feelings and the conduct of our own lives. This is the most valid point she makes in what is by any standards a curious and even a profoundly disturbing book. And the omission is not made good – the author is too honest for that. For although the moral conscience is still active in Mrs Trilling, and no doubt in her readers as well, it is working in a context of uneasiness, and, more important, of confusion: the confusion of the familiar with the unfamiliar, of the junk food with the ‘morbid unimpeachability’ of Mrs Harris. Such a confusion would have been viewed as incompetent by any 19th-century novelist seeking to make his point. And that is the main difference: Mrs Trilling has no point to make. She charts, with evident discomfort, the shifting of her sympathies. The Mrs Harris whom she hoped to serve as the wronged heroine of a major passion disturbs her, first as a relentless and unsympathetic enigma, bristling with her rights and wrongs, and finally as the victim and the perpetrator of a moral outrage. It is a subject which demands the very highest powers and there are very few writers of fiction alive today who could encompass it.
It is clear that men of Dr Tarnower’s type are fatal to women like Mrs Harris, whose sexual experience would appear to have been limited and whose awareness of failure extreme. By the same token it cannot be denied that women of Mrs Harris’s type are fatal to men like Dr Tarnower, in whom the capacity for emotional loyalty or even sympathy appears to have been entirely absent. The conjunction of the two was extraordinary, and, of course, remains largely unknown, and the gaps left by reportage could only be supplied by the inductive powers of the novelist.
Yet any examination of the implications of human wishes and their effect upon human – all too human – behaviour is welcome, and, as has been indicated, is, in the present state of our customs and beliefs, rather rare. Diana Trilling has written a book which might prove to be, in circumstances as yet unjudged, examplary.