‘Life and Death of Harriett Frean’ by May Sinclair (1922)

Though certain parts of this very short novel felt a little rushed, I very much enjoyed Sinclair’s work. I made the mistake of attempting to read the introduction first and in the less-than-a-page that I read Jean Radford managed to spoil the plots of both Harriett Frean and The Mint— I mean, The Mill on the Floss. Thanks a lot, Jean. You big dope. Francine Prose’s introduction is better than yours anyway.

Well, really there isn’t much to give away about the plot of Harriett Frean because the title pretty much says it all. Sinclair details the life and death of Harriett Frean, a woman who never really manages to stop being a girl. Harriett idolized her parents, who trained her to always “behave beautifully,” primarily through self-sacrifice.

His arm tightened, drawing her closer. And the kind, secret voice went on. “Forget ugly things. Understand, Hatty, nothing is forbidden. We don’t forbid, because we trust you to do what we wish. To behave beautifully….”

Her father’s instruction to “Forget ugly things” creates, in effect, a separate, ideal world for Harriett and her parents. After her father’s mild scolding, it was “always the red campion she remembered” about Black Lane and not the scary man that she saw. Harriett dislikes her friends, even Priscilla, intruding upon her and her parents’ domain and when away from her parents, like when she visits Robin and Priscilla, she must face ugly behavior to which she is unaccustomed.

After her parents die, Harriett lacks enough of a self-identity to carry on in any semblance of a normal way of life for a woman her age. She continues to try to read the material that she read with her parents, but finds herself not intelligent enough to understand it. She continues to hold on to her father’s identity, which was not even that significant despite some modest success from authoring a book. Even into the late years of her life, she proudly declares that, “My father was Hilton Frean.”

And with the death of her parents her ideal world is lost. She must finally face the realities of her choices in life. She felt a great sense of having behaved beautifully by insisting that Robin marry Priscilla and not her, but she finally recognizes that her insistence made Priscilla’s, Robin’s and Beatrice’s lives difficult. She must also face realities about her parents—that her mother had sacrificed, just as Harriett thought that she herself had done, for Harriett and denied herself things that would have made her happy and that would have let her live longer. And her father, a seemingly perfect Victorian gentlemen, led his good friend to financial ruin.

On the last page of the novel, Harriett speaks her final word, “Mamma,” which was also the first word of the story. Harriett has come full circle and hasn’t gone anywhere. Like the cat in the nursery rhyme that she heard as a child, and that she repeats on her deathbed—”Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been? / I’ve been to London, to see the Queen. / Pussycat, Pussycat, what did you there? / I caught a little mouse under the chair.”—Harriet, who had great expectations for her life, ultimately does not do much.

The relationships in this book are rather disturbing. Harriett’s relationships with her mother and father seem to have an undercurrent of sexuality to them.

Mamma would come in carrying the lighted candle. Her face shone white between her long, hanging curls. She would stoop over the cot and lift Harriett up, and her face would be hidden in curls. That was the kiss-me-to-sleep kiss. And when she had gone Harriett lay still again, waiting. Presently Papa would come in, large and dark in the firelight. He stooped and she leapt up into his arms. That was the kiss-me-awake kiss; it was their secret. Then they played. Papa was the Pussycat and she was the little mouse in her hole under the bed-clothes. They played till Papa said, “No more!” and tucked the blankets tight in.

“Now you’re kissing like Mamma—”

I mean, ewww! Outside of those relationships, Harriett doesn’t seem to love anyone. Even Priscilla and Robin. Hell, she doesn’t even think God and Jesus are as beautiful as her mother. Conclusion? Functional families are creepy.

In this novel, Sinclair seems to be illustrating the consequences of subscribing too fully to the ideals of self-sacrifice and renunciation. The Freans sacrifice and renounce so much that it leads to repression and that repression builds inside of them like the cancer that kills Harriett and her mother.

I found Sinclair’s writing style interesting. It seemed to develop as Harriett got older. In the beginning chapters, the story was more episodic. But some of the episodes weren’t even long enough for me to consider them episodes. Perhaps vignettes? Sometimes she works with just images. She bounces from one incident to the next, never lingering very long on one subject. Sinclair also used more sentence fragments, beginning sentences with verbs and getting directly to the point. As Harriet gets older, the scenes feel less like vignettes and they last longer, the incidents more fully described. A great shift in tone occurs after Harriett rejects Robin:

Towards spring Harriett showed signs of depression, and they took her to the south of France and to Bordighera and Rome. In Rome she recovered. Rome was one of those places you ought to see; she had always been anxious to do the right thing. In the little Pension in the Via Babuino she had a sense of her own importance and the importance of her father and mother. They were Mr. and Mrs. Hilton Frean, and Miss Harriett Frean, seeing Rome.

Instead of inhabiting Harriett, Sinclair becomes an objective, almost clinically observant narrator.

I’m curious what the significance of Harriett’s life was to May Sinclair, as she did not marry just as Harriett.