Some perfection that you missed: May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean VMC 2009; first published 1922

Sinclair Frean cover

May Sinclair was born in 1863, and as the introduction to this VMC edition points out (the title page attributes it to Jean Radford, but DJ Taylor’s name appears afterwards on p. xi), she published her first novel in the reign of Victoria, and her final collection of stories ‘a few years short of George V’s Silver Jubilee’. That would be The Intercessor, and other stories (1931; the Jubilee was 1935). The point is that she has an impressive range of subjects and themes across her writing career, reflecting her experience of the socio-cultural and historical shifts in that span of time, from the height of British imperialism (she was an active suffragist on the home front) through WWI and its aftermath.

May Sinclair is perhaps best known as an early modernist writer, the one who is said to have coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the narrative technique of Dorothy Richardson when reviewing the first volumes of her Pilgrimage sequence of novels in 1918. I see traces of that style in this novel, though for the most part it’s a fairly conventional narrative voice – just the odd moment signals her slightly more modernist tendencies. I’ll try to quote below to illustrate this.

In this impressive short novel, not much more than 100 pp of text, she manages to compress the significant aspects of the long life of the titular protagonist. Hatty Frean is born into a bourgeois household, but her father (like Sinclair’s own) lost everything as a result of his reckless monetary speculations; we’re alerted to this erratic element in his character early on, in a passage that also shows why Hatty develops such a passionate attachment to her much-loved, more dependable (in her eyes) mother:

Her mother had some secret: some happy sense of God that she gave to you and you took from her as you took food and clothing, but not quite knowing what it was, feeling that there was something more in it, some hidden gladness, some perfection that you missed.

Her father had his secret too. She felt that it was harder, somehow, darker and dangerous. He read dangerous books: Darwin, and Huxley, and Herbert Spencer. Sometimes he talked about them.

The voice here (like James Joyce’s in the early pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) takes on some of the naïve tones of the young Hatty, as she considers her parents with the partially formed, excessively admiring appraisal that cause her to over-invest in the Victorian moral certainties of both parents, while failing to discern the defects and underlying hypocrisy. It’s a subtle technique, for her narrating perception here is unreliable; yes, the father does ruin the family with his reckless gambling on the markets, but a few paragraphs later Hatty concludes that ‘His thinking was just a dangerous game he played.’ Events prove her sadly wrong. Although her blind faith in her father is shaken, she never stops thinking of him as a paragon, or to remind her friends that she is Hilton Frean’s daughter, as if this in some way endorses her arrogant air of superiority. She never stops to consider that other people’s lack of respect for such assertions has anything to do with the faults in her family – or in her own perception.

The tragedy of this sad figure, then, is that she accepts unquestioningly the values of selflessness and self-effacement that she was taught to esteem. As the years pass she becomes ever less able to understand why she’s so unfulfilled or fails to inspire the respect and devotion in others that she feels for her parents, and for their ‘idea of moral beauty’. By denying herself, as they have taught her, the happiness that comes her way, she condemns herself to a life of loneliness and increasing despair.

It’s not a depressing read, however. Sinclair’s mastery of that style I mentioned ensures that Hatty is shown feeling dim traces of the terrible fate those parents have consigned her to, but is too far gone to amend her behaviour, as this random example shows: ‘I was brought up not to think of myself before other people’, she proudly tells a person who’s just suggested her course of self-sacrifice has ‘made three people miserable just for that’, and that she insulted the woman she thought she was elevating above herself:

Harriet sat a long time, her hands folded on her lap, her eyes staring into the room, trying to see the truth…Was it true that this idea had been all wrong?…’I don’t care. If it was to be done again to-morrow I’d do it.’

But the beauty of that unique act no longer appeared to her as it once was, uplifting, consoling, incorruptible.

For that’s the point, isn’t it? Her belief that she’s ‘not thinking of herself before other people’ is in reality an act of pride and arrogance, a sin against the laws of nature.

There’s a May Sinclair Society whose site is worth a look.

I owe this literary find to Dr Oliver Tearle, who warmly recommended Harriett Frean at his always entertaining site Interesting Literature back in January.









15 thoughts on “Some perfection that you missed: May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

  1. It’s like Christmas is already back: a book that seems to be totally up my street, two sites…I’m a great fan of these literary societies (especially the Anthony Powell society).
    Have a great weekend (hope you’re watching the rugby matches this afternoon !)

    • Anthony Powell is someone I’ve never read much, not sure why. I’m afraid I don’t watch much sport on tv any more; I used to, but enthusiasm has waned in recent years. I keep an eye on the results though. Rugby players all seem so HUGE these days – or maybe I got smaller

  2. I don’t know about rugby players being bigger than they used to be, but now that they are professionals they are certainly well-honed ! Anyway, after dominating the match most of the time, the French lost by one measly point. Trinh-Duc unfortunately missed a very important penalty, which may have cost us the match.
    I’ve been wondering, Simon, would Cornish people support the English team or a Celtic team ? Because for us, French people, the enemy is the English(it’s not for nothing that we call the match between us “the crunch”). We will support the Irish or the Scots or the Welsh when we’re not involved. Though I really loved Wilko !

  3. So glad you wrote about this book: it is an extraordinary work. I can’t say I loved it, it was too sad, and Harriett was such a self-destroying woman in her quiet way. But I did think it was very well-written and completely engrossing and convincing.
    Agatha Christie said that May Sinclair was a huge influence on her, perhaps surprisingly, and in my blogpost on this book, I wrote about the ways that I could see that that had worked. Jonathan Coe – another author I really like – wrote very interestingly about Harriett Frean.

  4. Will return to this Simon! Will definitely check out the “May Sinclair Society.” So many women writers labored in obscurity, wonderful to shine the light on them in (somewhat*) more enlightened times.

    * I am rather surly after jousting over someone by the name of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian pundit who is serving as a sort of “entry drug” for potential Alt-Righters here in the U.S. Dear Gordon insists women’s traditional underrepresentation in so many fields has NOTHING to do with any sort of structural barriers, but is, instead, due to us poor dear’s innate skills, which are “soft” and make us more naturally inclined, and, indeed, scientifically “meant” for support roles and “keeping the home fires burning.” I think a similar corollary applies to many non-white folk as well, an aspect of the Natural Order which is, indeed, convenient for white males such as… say… Jordan Peterson. : (

    Another way of thinking about his somewhat circular reasoning is that women make less than men not due to the fact that, they must not be “worth” more, since the market pays them less than men.


    Another way of parsing his rather intellectually flaccid reasoning:

    Women earn less than men due to the fact that the market pays them less, which proves that they are worth less, otherwise they would earn more.

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