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The Feeble Minded Bride

by Jubbly 

Posted: 23 November 2004
Word Count: 2417
Summary: A synopsis/proposal for a 45min radio play.

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Proposal for radio play.

The Feeble Minded Bride

A Drama based on the real events leading up to the murder of Harriet Staunton and the ensuing trial.

The story is told from the perspective of the elderly Clara Brown who lives with her daughter and son – law in their home in Australia. The year is 1953; Clara now old and without purpose, spends most of her time relegated to her room at her daughter’s home. It is a small room where she lies bedridden, lonely and often isolated from the rest of the family. Clara emigrated from England in the 1880s and has spent her adult life in the colonies. But Clara is the key to a family secret, a dark secret she shares with the listener as the realisation that her own secluded life in her room is beginning to echo that of another woman’s, one poor unfortunate named Harriet Staunton.

When Clara was a young girl of 18 and in service to a married couple she became an accessory to one of the cruellest and loathsome crimes of Victorian England.

On Friday 13th April 1877, a date not without irony, a Mrs. Harriet Staunton died in a room in a guesthouse in Penge. Her body was in a dreadful state of neglect, the soles of her feet calloused and rough and her hair matted, she was filthy and barely human, a real life Mrs Rochester.

Two years previously Harriet Butterfield, aged 36 had married 24 year old Lewis Staunton. Though Harriet was more than comfortably off, she had not been blessed with looks. She was a big woman, tall and ungainly with horsy features and could no way ever be described as pretty or delicate. It was common knowledge she was what was referred to in those days as ‘Feeble minded’, her mother had even tried to have her certified as a ‘lunatic’, these days she’d be described in rather un PC terms as ‘mentally retarded.’ Mrs Butterfield violently opposed the union between Harriet and Lewis, when she and her daughter met Lewis he was courting the daughter of an acquaintance, Alice Rhodes but on learning of Harriet’s attractive financial situation he immediately transferred his affections from the fair Alice to Harriet.

After the marriage the couple set up house in Brixton, they lived a meagre life in the large mostly unfurnished home with no maid or any of the other comfortable trappings that Harriet was used to.

Shortly after they wed, Lewis banned Harriet’s mother from visiting them and forced Harriet to write her mother a letter saying she never wished to see her again.

Within the first year a baby boy was born, but Harriet was unable to cope, a nurse reported that her condition suggested neglect, that she herself seemed child like and had to be told when to wash and change her clothes.

Lewis inevitably grew to hate the sight of his wife. He thought her an imbecile and each day found her more and more repugnant. His thoughts turned to his former lady friend, Alice Rhodes. He asked Alice to come and keep house for them whilst Harriet was recovering from her confinement. Once ensconced in the couple’s home, Alice and Lewis resumed their relationship. The lovers’ indiscreet caresses and breathless murmurings left Harriet in no doubt as to their intentions. Harriet became intensely jealous, she knew she was being usurped as lady of the house and there were many angry and hysterical scenes.

When the baby was just two months old, Lewis wrote to his brother, Patrick a struggling artist who lived in Cudham in Kent with his wife and two children asking if Harriet and the baby could come and stay with them. Patrick, on the understanding that he would receive rent for taking them in, agreed.
They lived in a lonely spot in a house called Woodlands; Harriet went to the house and stayed there, not leaving even to go for a walk until she was taken to Penge to die.

She was given a room upstairs, no neighbours or tradesman knew of her existence apart from the maid, a distant relative of the family named Clara Brown, a stocky lass with purpose in her stride and a yearning to better herself.

After a few weeks Lewis and his lover Alice came to live in a farm just twenty minutes walk from his brother’s home. In the early days, Lewis would come to visit his wife; she looked forward to his visits for she still loved him greatly. After her death a note was found which had slipped unnoticed behind a sideboard.

“My own darling, I write these lines hoping they find you well. Will you be down on Sunday? If not, I shall be disappointed. I hope to see you on Monday. If not will you let me know when you will be down? Will you bring me a piece of ribbon? I have not had clean flannel for a month. It is time I should be at home. My boots is worn out – ever your affectionate wife.”

Her writing was huge, like a child’s and she could scarcely spell.

Meanwhile Alice Rhodes began calling herself Mrs Staunton and wearing a wedding ring, she soon became known in the village as Lewis’s legitimate wife.

At first Harriet was treated well at The Woodlands, but after a time, her strangeness became irksome and her presence at the dining table no longer tolerated. It was decided all her meals were to be sent up to her. These meals consisted of the others leftovers and when there were no leftovers….well…it wouldn’t hurt her to go without for once, after all she was such a big lass what would it matter?

It seems there was no particular point when it was decided to starve her, it just so happened that she often got overlooked, by now they all hated the thought of her and wanted to forget that she even existed. The idea seem to occur to them all at once, an unspoken dare, why should they go out of their way to keep such a creature alive? What was her pathetic life worth to her or anyone else? If she didn’t eat, if she neglected her person then whose fault was it but her own? She clearly wasn’t capable of being a proper mother to her child and besides what if the poor creature had inherited Harriet’s mental illness? Surely that wouldn’t be acceptable.

Meanwhile Harriet’s mother, Mrs Butterfield had by chance run into a rather nervous Alice, whom she’d met before. She enquired after her daughter and was told by Alice that the Staunton’s were now living in Brighton. Then Mrs Butterfield noticed a curious thing; she saw that Alice was wearing a brooch that had belonged to Harriet. Convinced something sinister was going on, she went to Cudham and made enquiries - even knocking on the door of her daughters prison only to be told by Patrick Staunton that she had wasted her time and Harriet had never ever been in his house. Eventually she received a letter from her son in law, Lewis, telling her that neither he nor his wife Harriet ever wanted to see or speak to her again. She approached the police with her fears, but they could do nothing for her.

Tragically Harriet’s baby Tommy had been ailing for sometime and if Lewis Staunton couldn’t accept Harriet as his wife he felt absolutely no bond for the child. Harriet was unable to care for her child and one night Patrick Staunton took the baby to Guys Hospital where he died the same night. He died of starvation and neglect, conditions not uncommon in those days and certainly did not arouse any suspicions at the hospital. Patrick said it was the child of an employee and paid for the burial himself.

Harriet’s own condition was becoming critical. She no longer ate or washed and lived in the squalid airless room like an animal. The one window was boarded up and she couldn’t tell the passing of time. She was terrified of her captors and her imagination ran wild with horror and fear.

Incredibly the others lived along side her in the house, they did not make a conscious decision to let her die, it would seem they reached the conclusion separately. Harriet was friendless; she wouldn’t be missed especially now her mother was now out of the picture. Even the kindly maid, Clara had come to think of her as a thing, not a human being. She was just something horrid that existed but soon much to the relief of everyone in the house, she would cease to exist. Besides now Alice was pregnant with Lewis’s child and they wanted to move on with their lives and rid themselves of any excess baggage.

Rather than allow her to die in the house and rouse suspicion they arranged accommodation at a guesthouse in Penge, they told the landlady that the room was for a lady who was quite healthy but could not be persuaded to eat. They said they had been recommended to a doctor in Penge who might be able to help.

They somehow managed to get the unfortunate creature to Penge by train. Harriet’s appearance had aged considerably so they passed her off as Lewis’s mother, the two brothers spent the night in a nearby hotel while the three women, stayed with Harriet in her room, Elizabeth even sharing her bed.

By morning Harriet had taken a turn for the worse and the doctor and nurse were sent for. Lewis and Patrick arrived and a few hours later the nurse told them that Harriet was dying; nobody came into the room to say a final farewell. At 1.30 that afternoon, Harriet died.

They group left money for a speedy funeral due to take place on Monday and quickly departed for Kent.

What did they think on their journey home? Were they glad they would no longer have to hear Harriet’s strange inarticulate noises? No more having to think of her living bare foot, starving and filthy in a boarded up room? Good riddance to that unbearable stench they sometimes caught as they passed the room. Or did they think now for the first time that they had murdered someone? She had been an unpleasant appendage to four thousand pounds and now that appendage had been removed and they could all enjoy the money to the full. Lewis would at last be able to marry Alice and their child would be legitimate, both households would be happy.

They would scrub clean the little room, take the boards down from the windows and let in the spring sunshine and begin again.

But in Penge, thing weren’t quite going to plan. The nurse was shocked by Harriet’s decaying appearance and obvious emaciation and her relative’s callous behaviour and immediate departure convinced her this was no normal death. Rumours ran riot and tongues wagged, eventually word of Harriet’s expiration got back to someone who knew Mrs Butterfield, (Harriet’s mother) the police were called and a post mortem immediately ordered.

Harriet was found to be severely under nourished, the house in Cudham was searched and the condition of the little room revealed, public indignation was aroused and the police tried to piece the story together.

A key witness was Clara Brown the housemaid, her first statement tallied with the Staunton’s, she said that Harriet had been difficult and though treated with kindness simply refused to eat. She also said that Harriet had been an alcoholic and the room was boarded up and locked for her own and their own safety. When questioned again, she collapsed and said she had only said what the others had told her to say. Her evidence revealed the true horror of what had happened to Harriet and her baby. Clara Brown had terrible things to tell.

Young Clara described savagery on Patrick’s part, how he brutally struck Harriet when she enraged him. The threats they used to prevent her talking to outsiders, Lewis’s visits, how Alice Rhodes wore a wedding ring and passed herself off as his real wife. How a human being had become an animal, padding about barefoot in a filthy dark room, never washing or changing clothes, forgetting how to speak, left starving and out of her mind with confusion, all this for just £4000.

The defence took the line that yes, there had been neglect, but could the prove without a shadow of a doubt that Harriet had died of starvation? Besides it was common knowledge the afflicted, like Harriet, sometimes refused food, causing the condition we know of today as Anorexia Nervosa? The prisoners pleaded not guilty and seemed genuinely surprised at the public indignation. They had grown so callous and insensitive to Harriet as a person that they no longer saw her as a human being. Only during the trial did they come to realise what they had done, Alice Rhodes broke down and sobbed bitterly.

The judge was harsh and the wicked foursome was sentenced to death. But many eminent doctors wrote to The Times supporting the arguments of the defence. It also transpired that though Clara Brown had insisted Harriet had been locked in her room there was no lock on the door and there never had been. Poor Harriet was so terrified of what lay outside the door and so disorientated; she wouldn’t dared have left anyway.

Three days before the sentence was due to be carried out it was commuted. Lewis, his brother Patrick and wife Elizabeth were all give penal servitude for life, while the pregnant Alice was given a free pardon, but life swallowed her up and she was never heard of again.

Now as Clara Brown nears the end of her long life she has time for reflection and the parallels of being left lonely in one room for hours on end remind her of the naive maid who she used to be. Clara sheds light on the actual events and what was going through the minds of all who participated in the downfall of Harriet Staunton.

The play will explore the relationships between the two couples and their attitude to Harriet. It will also reveal Harriet’s mental and physical deterioration as she slowly comes to terms with her fate. It will also examine how greed and longing can so easily turn seemingly decent people into monsters.

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Comments by other Members

Elsie at 12:09 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
Jubby, glad you're back on the scene. Have you been busy with theatre? This sounds fascinating. There was just one point where I had to back up and work out who Elizabeth was, and guessed it was Patricks wife, which you confirmed later. I like the twist of the story coming back full circle to Clara in her own room.

Jubbly at 12:53 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
Hi Elsie, thanks for reading. I've had a lot on my plate recently, home and away etc. I've just sent this off to a producer so I'll let you know what they say. My play co written with Jenny Eclair will be on at the Riverside Studios Hammersmith for three weeks in February, hope you can make it.


Elsie at 15:20 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
Julie, that sounds good - accessible for me! What's the name of the play?

bjlangley at 15:34 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
Julie, this is a fascinating story, and the parallel between Clara and Harriet very clever.

All the best,


Account Closed at 16:29 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
Julie, this is a fascinating, tragic story.
The link between the two lives (Clara and Harriet) I image in the radio play you will move back and forth. The synopsis concentrates on Harriet's story so we don't really see how the play will be - structure-wise.

I don't know if you need the un pc observation or maybe you could word it differently e.g. 'as they said at the time' Feeble-minded with a hyphen?

Line 1 : son-in-law

I wonder also if you shouldn't mention the £4K earlier when Lewis changes his affections right at the start. I wondered why her parents didn't cut her off ( but it's a true story so I can't argue!)

but could the prove = they. The sentence about Anorexia isn't a question, is it? (so no qm)

You don't mention it, but does Clara feel that she'll end up like Harriet? Does she feel neglected? you hint at this in the first para but I wonder if you couldn't make more of it.

Anyway, the basis is very strong and I'm sure you'll do it justice. Have you written any of the script yet?


Jubbly at 17:04 on 23 November 2004  Report this post
Thanks Ben and Elspeth. I haven't written any script yet which is probably a mistake, all proposals in the past have gone off with at least ten pages so I better get cracking. I found the story gripping and just knew I had to tell it, I began wondering whatever became of all players, an internet search was useless so I decided to invent a life for Clara. I don't think she'll be killed off by her daughter but I think the guilt might have a very adverse effect and one day, right toward the end of the play, she'll just drift off and die in her sleep, perchance to dream eh?


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