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.









William Faulkner, ‘As I Lay Dying’: a review

Penguin edition of 'As I Lay Dying' used for this review

Penguin edition of ‘As I Lay Dying’ used for this review

Faulkner wrote  As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working nights at a power plant.  It was his seventh novel, published in 1930 when he was 33 (he died in 1962, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949).  It was recently filmed by James Franco.

Set in his usual mythical Yoknapatawpha County, based on his own Mississippi habitat, it’s a novel which Faulkner himself described immodestly but justifiably as a ‘tour de force’.  It tells the story of the Bundren family’s difficult quest to carry the body of matriarch Addie to her people’s home cemetery at Jefferson, some 30 miles north of the Bundren farm.  Neighbours think this is a crazy scheme, but ‘pa’ Anse insists he’d promised his wife that her dying wish would be fulfilled.

The coffin, made by Addie’s eldest son Cash, is carried on a wagon drawn by mules, but the journey is beset by disasters: the mules drown attempting to cross the swollen river, Cash breaks the leg he’d broken once before, and other mishaps keep occurring.

The plot has numerous twists and revelations, such as the illegitimacy of the third son, Jewel, and his biological father’s slightly hypocritical tussle with ‘Satan’ in trying to salve his conscience when he hears Addie is dying; the behaviour of the second son, Darl, who narrates many of the novel’s opening sections, becomes increasingly erratic, and after a particularly destructive act he’s callously committed to an asylum by the rest of the family.  The other major storyline involves the fact that Dewey Dell, at 17 the second youngest of the Bundren children, has fallen pregnant; in naively trying to get an abortion from a pharmacy she’s tricked by the assistant there into having sex with him.  She doesn’t get the abortion, and her selfish father takes the money her lover had given her and uses it to buy some false teeth.

Being too poor to buy shovels with which to bury his wife, Anse borrows some when he arrives at Jefferson, with the corpse of Addie by this time smelling so badly the people they pass are repelled and horrified.  After burying Addie and disappearing overnight, Anse presents to his children his new wife: the woman from whom he’d borrowed the shovels.

In summary the novel perhaps sounds unpromising.  It’s the style, structure and refracted, dreamlike narrative voices that make it so compelling.  In 59 short sections – some only a few words long (‘My mother is a fish’: Vardaman) – 15 different narrators relate their thoughts and perceptions in stream-of-consciousness interior monologues.  By narrating the same events from different perspectives, Faulkner is able to show how human minds work and intimate thoughts and emotions reveal themselves.  The quest structure invites all kinds of interpretation: is it an allegory, a sort of Southern Gothic Pilgrim’s Progress?  Why do buzzards, fish, fire and floods feature so prominently?

The rich deep-South patois of the characters takes some getting used to (‘It was nigh to midnight and it had set in to rain when he woke us.  It had been a misdoubtful night, with the storm making’, begins one of Tull’s chapters).  So does the looping, oblique narrative: often the significance of a chapter only becomes apparent pages later – but this is part of the fabric of the novel, and central to its appeal.  It’s strangely humorous, despite the dark themes.  Each narrator’s voice is deeply idiosyncratic and presented as ultra-free indirect thought; for example here’s the fractured childish syntax and elliptical voice of Vardaman, the youngest Bundren boy, aged about eight:

Bananas are gone, eaten.  Gone.  When it runs on the track shines again…I said God made me.  I did not said to God to made me in the country.  If He can make the train, why can’t He make them all in the town because flour and sugar and coffee.

Vardaman is obsessed with trains (as well as fish).  Older characters’ voices seem to blend in with Faulkner’s own erudite style, possibly revealing the influence of James Joyce and other modernists; here’s Darl:

How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant; echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls.  Cash broke his leg and now the sawdust is running out.  He is bleeding to death is Cash.

Read As I Lay Dying for an extraordinary experience.

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

(This article was first published as ‘Book Review: “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner on Blogcritics, Sat. July 27, 2013)