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…