Tag Archives: Mary Oliver

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean has been on my shelves for some time, bought soon after I reviewed another novel by May Sinclair, Mary Olivier: a life, on this blog. It is curious that there was interest in May Sinclair in the previous decade, but not much recently. I find it curious because she has much to say about the traditional way in which middle-class girls in England were brought up in preparation for the life their parents hoped for them, and it still has relevance today. 

The two books mentioned here go together. Mary Oliver defied her parents and insisted on educating herself and refusing marriage. The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. The pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and the lack of alternative role models for young women are also the background to this second novel: The Life and Death of Harriett Frean. Unlike Mary Oliver, Harriett Frean sacrifices herself to her parents’ beliefs about the role of women. 

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

The title, which hints at her not very happy last years, can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-sacrifice and denial. Harriett lives her life in loneliness, justifying her own behaviour as beautiful. As a child she sought her parents’ approval, and this influence is so strong that it endures even beyond their graves. As a child she resists greed and selfishness and any other behaviour that would displease her parents, encouraging the development of a mean-spirited girl of small imagination.

The family is self-satisfied. Her father speculates to make money and takes no responsibility for their neighbour’s financial downfall alongside his own. He publishes one book, The Social Order. Its lack of value is evident from May Sinclair’s description.  

He dreamed of a new Social State, society governing itself without representatives. (65) 

Harriett assumes an air of superiority as a result of this book and refers to it long after the author and the book have been forgotten by everyone else. 

In fact, nothing any of the Freans do is generous or productive, but they are all self-satisfied. Her father dies while they are in reduced circumstances. Later, her mother also falls ill, but dies in agony refusing treatment. Harriett denies herself the love of her friend’s fiancé, which does no one any good. When she visits her friend and the husband, she is unaware of the damage she has done. 

Harriett continues living in the same house, and in the same way, seeing her friends in a regular round. She falls ill and on recovery finds herself living a very small life.

She lived by habit, by the punctual fulfilment of her expectations. (162)

The habitual life contains no affection, no generosity, and no diminishing of the sense of superiority. And she dies in the same state of mind. Her own final thought is that she has behaved beautifully.

This is a devastating take down of Victorian standards of behaviour for women.

May Sinclair 1863-1946

May Sinclair was born in Cheshire, her father was a Liverpool shipowner. Her mother was a strict Christian. He father became bankrupt and died soo after. She moved with her mother to Ilford near London. May’s education was interrupted by her mother’s demands that she care for her brothers who had heart disease. She began publishing to earn money to support her mother and herself and became a successful writer. Her first novel, published in 1897, was Audrey Craven.

She was a suffragist and many of the 23 novels she wrote were concerned with issues that affected women.Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel and The Life and Death of Harriett Frean was her 16th. She also wrote essays and poetry. She stopped publishing in the early 1930s as she was suffering from Parkinson’s but went on to live until 1946. During her lifetime she was highly regarded, moved in literary circles in London and with such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair, first published in 1922 and reissued in the series Virago Modern Classics in 1980. 181pp

Related Links

Mary Olivier: a life on Bookword

Heavenali’s review of The Life and Death of Harriett Frean from 2013 can be read here

An article in the Guardian in August 2013 by Charlotte Jones condemns the neglect of this ‘accomplished writer’. It can be found here.

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Five Things on my Writing Desk

Recently I read 5 Things on My Writing Desk on Shelley Wilson’s blog. Like a magpie I pick up good ideas. It’s all been a bit heavy on this blog recently as I grappled with technical issues. They are all resolved now, I hope, and so a little light blogging is in order. Here are five of my things on my writing desk.

Laptop

Not much comment needed on this. I love my laptop, so long as it keeps working. It’s my typewriter, word processor, research tool, photo hoard, access to other people … My everything.

SAD light

This year I decided to try a daylight lamp to counter SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). It shines brightly in my face when I am on the computer. I’ve no idea whether it is working or not. Just in case, I keep going with it.

Pinboards

I have two pinboards: on the left a photo board, mostly pictures of women. On the right are some reminders, useful codes and numbers, lists and my blog schedule. The bearded gentleman, still visible, is a self-portrait of my great-great grandfather. The young boy is my grandson sitting in my former office at the Institute of Education in London. I don’t go much on quotable quotes, but occasionally I pin one up, and this is an example of something I like to be reminded of:

Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? [Mary Oliver]

Cards and photos

I always have a few more cards and pictures around, sometimes birthday cards waiting to be sent. At the moment I am looking at a photograph of my grandmother on her wedding day. I recently acquired her wedding dress from c1923: it’s fuchsia. She died soon after, giving birth to my mother. When I first saw this photo I thought it was me. I have aged, while she has not.

Piles of Stuff

And piles and piles of stuff, all work in progress. Not necessarily creative writing, some of it is to do with other projects (school history project, volunteering, blog stuff, forms to fill in for blood donation) old notebooks and just stuff.

I’m not sure what you would make of any of this. Perhaps not much.

Your Five things?

Care to tell us about your 5 things on your writing desk?

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Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

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On not blogging about poetry

Your blog covers everything – except poetry, my sister told me when I was reviewing bookword earlier this year. I find it hard to believe but this is my 50th post and this is my half-century response to her implied challenge.

The death of Seamus Heaney last week was an occasion for considerable public acclaim of his work, and a reminder that the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to him in 1995. Paul Muldoon, fellow Irish poet, gave a moving tribute on In Tune on BBC Radio3. Heaney had a gift, he said, to connect the reader with the writer, and to give back the world of things and the things of the world, seeing them as if for the first time. He allowed in people who were not ordinarily interested in poetry.

50 anthol

I love reading poetry. I am very fond of anthologies. As a (former) Londoner I always enjoyed the serendipity of Poems on the Underground. I often dip into the two volumes of Poem for the Day. Again the randomness of the day’s poem is part of its delight. To read The Nation’s Favourite Poems (of which Rudyard Kipling’s If was the ‘clear and unassailable winner’ in the poll conducted in 1995) is to revisit poetry lessons at school. I have good memories of mutual pleasure in poems with my American penfriend, chosen from Palgrave’s Treasury. My sister also likes anthologies (suggested them for her Desert Island Books) and sent this photo.

50 H's poetry

And I have had great pleasure, too, in reading what poets write about poetry. These books have made good travelling companions. Roger Housden’s 10 poems to change your life introduced me to two poems I often reread: Mary Oliver’s The Journey and Derek Walcott’s Love after Love. I got a great deal out of Ruth Padel’s two books: 52 ways of looking at a poem and The Poem and the Journey and sixty poems to read along the way. In fact I think I will dip into both of them again.

50 on poetry

Recently I have read Glyn Maxwell On Poetry. In his review Adam Newey in the Guardian said it was the best book about poetry he’s ever read. I enjoyed the humour, the creativity and the technical details with which it explores form, rhyme patterns, line breaks and so on. It’s all a far cry from the kind of solemn incantation that school poetry encouraged.

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
(From Casablanca by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, 1826)

According to Glyn Maxwell poetry, although a human activity, has been ‘unnecessary for almost all of creation’ (p10). Just pause a moment and notice the work of that word ‘almost’. When was the time that poetry was necessary? Is it now? Let’s hope it’s now, in our time. Maxwell takes the reader through some of his reflections on poetry, on poems, on the writing and reading of poems, a meander that is sometimes playful, sometimes teasing, passionate, fervent and unsettling.

He approaches poetry as both sensual and intellectual, an intellectual journey to enhance the senses, a sensual journey to be spiced with intellectual appreciation. The TLS reviewer seemed to think it fell short of being a decent course on writing poetry, but I did not read it as a how to write book. And that’s partly because I don’t write poetry.

I don’t write poetry. I try not to say I can’t write poetry, but I don’t seem to make any progress when I try to learn to write the stuff. I am still dissuaded by the criticism I received when I was 17, from a published poet. He didn’t agree that my poems were prize winners, and suggested I had written ‘chopped up prose’. After nearly half a century I am still bruised.

50 poets

I can’t memorise poems. But I have lots that mean something to me: Philip Larkin The Years; Mary Oliver, Wild Geese; Yeats, The Dancer and the Dance; Alice Oswald Dart … I revisit these with pleasure and anticipate many yet unknown.

I suspect that stillness is needed to enjoy poems. I don’t have much in my life. Don’t expect many blogs on poetry but I can’t help asking myself: would I be a better reader of poetry if I wrote more? Would I be a better writer of poetry if I read more?

What would you say to persuade me to try writing poetry? Would you take the trouble? What poetry do you like?

 

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