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.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

6 Responses to The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

  1. I have this, but confess to always putting off reading it because my Middle Child warned me it was exceptionally sad and bleak. But typical of women’s lives at the times I suspect…

    • Caroline

      Your Middle Child is not wrong, and this is a very sad tale of a young women whose spirit is crushed. And the crushing is done in the name of propriety and good manners.
      It’s nothing like as bleak as some novels I read in 2021. Try it and see. It’s an easy read with a small number of pages and very big type. Years pass as the pages turn. After all one of the themes of the book is that nothing happens to those who take no risks.

      Caroline

  2. Susan Kavanagh

    I recently read Sinclair’s Tree of Heaven that was reprinted by the British Library Women Authors. Actually read it on kindle where I had downloaded all of her work for free. It’s a family saga that runs from before WWI through the war. The only daughter is a suffragette. It was really good and made me happy that Sinclair is being reprinted and looked at again. Thanks for including additional information with your review.

  3. I posted on this a few years ago, and your review sent me back to mine. Yes, it’s bleak, but necessarily so. A salutary novel that deserves to be better known.

    • Caroline

      Did I miss your review? I remember noticing that few had reviewed this book in since mid-2020s. Salutary is a good description.
      Thanks Simon
      Caroline

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