Monday 14 September 2009

Life and Death of Harriett Frean

Today we're headed to more Stuck-in-a-Book familiar territory - good old Virago Modern Classics.

I've heard quite a bit about May Sinclair (she first used the phrase 'stream of consciousness', doncha know) but not read anything by her - in Thame I came across Life and Death of Harriett Frean, and, being so short, it leapt immediately to the top of my tbr pile. And I read it in a morning - it's got 184 pages but there's so little text on each one that it's more like 90 pages of an average book. And somehow, in this tiny amount of space, May Sinclair manages to include an entire, long life.

There aren't many incidents in Harriett Frean's life, at least not significant ones. She lives her life as a spinster, in the benevolent shadow of her parents - to the end of her days, she proudly and frequently announces
'I'm Hilton Frean's daughter'. The one event of note is a tangled love triangle (doesn't that sound very like Hollyoaks? Obviously it's nothing of the sort.) Her close friend Priscilla always protests that she will never be married, and forces Harriett to pledge the same vow... when Robin comes along, both their resolves are tested. The novel becomes a 'what might have been' - questioning whether moral choices are black and white, and what happens to those who choose the path not labelled 'happy ever after.'

The thread I found most interesting (and one familiar from other Virago Modern Classics such as The Love Child by Edith Olivier, and The Third Miss Symons by F. M. Mayor, as well as Persephone Books' Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson which I must write about soon) is the life of a spinster with her mother. Or, more importantly, the life of a spinster once her mother has died. These paragraphs are subtly rather clever:

Next spring, a year after her mother's death, she felt the vague stirring of her individual soul. She was free to choose her own vicar; she left her mother's Dr. Braithwaite who was broad and twice married, and went to Canon Wrench, who was unmarried and high. There was something stimulating in the short, happy service, the rich music, the incense, and the processions. She made new covers for the drawing-room, in cretonne, a gay pattern of pomegranate and blue-green leaves. And as she had always had the cutlets broiled plain because her mother liked them that way, now she had them breaded.

And Mrs. Hancock wanted to know why Harriett has forsaken her dear mother's church; and when Connie Pennefeather saw the covers she told Harriett she was lucky to be able to afford new cretonne. It was more than she could; she seemed to think Harriett had no business to afford it. As for the breaded cutlets, Hannah opened her eyes and said, 'That was how the mistress always had them, ma'am, when you was away.'

Lives of mutual self-sacrifice have, in the end, benefited neither of them. Sometimes May Sinclair seems to be dragging her novel into polemic territory - not necessarily a bad thing, but I'd question some of Sinclair's advertised morals on occasion - but that aside, Life and Death of Harriett Frean is a slight, sharp view of so many women's situations in the early twentieth century. Not particularly cheerful, it must be said, but very powerful - the blurb compares it to Woolf, and others which I forget, but they're right - if this novel doesn't quite deserve to be considered a classic of Modernism, it's not very far off. What's more, it's in print from Virago - though if I know you, and I think I do, you'll be hunting for the proper green VMC edition...


  1. This sounds like an absolute must read. I have just bought numerous green VMC's and will be looking out for this one during my next book rummaging session.
    I am currently reading The Rector's Daughter by F.M. Mayor which is equally interesting and also explores self-sacrifice and spinsterhood. As you say, not particularly cheerful but very powerful. Look out for a review soon.

  2. Simon, you do know us... I already have a green Virago edition of this!

    I am very interested in reading it now, especially as you describe it as "a classic of Modernism." Also, Sinclair coined the term "stream of consciousness"? Intriguing.

    I always love to see bottle-green in a blog post.

  3. Excellent review as always. I definitely want to read this. It will round off my recent spate of reading sad spinster lady novels nicely.

    And of course you know us all far too well. I refuse to buy this unless I find it in green!

  4. Dear Simon, thank you very much for this review, as usual I enjoy your upbeat 'voice' combined with intelligent and sensitive analysis. I think you would enjoy The Rector's Daughter, F M Mayor, which is as Bloomsbury Bell said, powerful, and somewhat melancholy but very absorbing. Nicola Beauman writes really well on the topic of 'surplus women' in A Very Great Profession doesn't she... I will look our for Life and Death of Harriett Frean to flesh out my 'spinster collection'!

  5. This sounds interesting Simon; I'm looking forward to reading that. It's interesting looking at how spinsters are treated in literature.

  6. How strange, I just started this last night. I only managed one chapter, but I thought it was quite brilliant ('burying' her doll so that no one else could play with her...).

  7. Oh this does sound very good, I must keep an eye out for it at the second-hand shops. With such a haunting cover I don't think I could miss it.


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