May Sinclair: Life and Death of Harriet Frean

(2849 words)
  • Leigh Wilson

Life and Death of Harriett Frean was published first in serial form in North American Review through the winter of 1920/21. It came out in novel form in Anglo-American modernism's annus mirabilis, 1922, sharing its publication date with Jacob's Room and with the book versions of Ulysses and The Waste Land. Beyond this, the novel's modernist credentials have been noted by most critics, from contemporary reviewers onwards. Rather than take that for granted, however, this article will investigate the novel's modernism. It will argue that the novel's significance resides in the problems it throws up regarding modernism, rather than simply in its modernist status.

Harriett Frean is a very different kind of novel from the writer's fifteen previous ones. May Sinclair was 59 in 1922, at least twenty years older than Joyce, Eliot or Woolf, and by the First World War her reputation was already made. In the first two decades of the century, she was probably the most successful and well-known female British novelist. Her first novel, Audrey Craven, had been published in 1897, and the next few novels were, on the whole, variations on the Edwardian marriage problem novel, formally quite conventional, but challenging other conventions: those of class, sexual morality and gender expectations. However, an interest in telepathy and psychical research, an introduction to the theories and works of Freud and Jung a year or two before the First World War, and the continuing influence of Henry James had marked effects on her works. In the short story “The Intercessor” (1911), in the novella The Flaw in the Crystal (1912) and in the novel The Three Sisters (1914), her concerns turned to individual psychology, to the operations of the unconscious, and to the complex presences that exist in relations between people.

What these works also show is a change in tone and construction, an increasing interest in form per se. Sinclair's commitment to disposing of wasted words, of ornamentation and flourish, distinguish her from the pastiche and elegy of Joyce and Woolf, and reveal her association with some of the other midwives of high modernism. Sinclair had met Ezra Pound in 1908, and through him HD, Richard Aldington and other Imagist poets, and later staunchly defended HD, Pound and Imagism generally against charges of dryness, meanness and obscurity (see Sinclair's criticism collected in Bonnie Kime Scott (ed.), The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology , Indiana University Press, 1990). The effects of this association on her writing style can be seen early on, for example in The Flaw in the Crystal, first published in Ford Madox Ford's English Review, but it is Harriett Frean that has been consistently judged as being her major use of and contribution to modernist aesthetics. The Dial's critic called it “the skeleton of a novel”, and accused Sinclair of “parsimony” and “obscurity” (Raymond Mortimer, “Miss Sinclair again”, Dial, 72, May 1922, pp. 531, 533). Those who praised the book noted the stark economy too, but instead of meanness saw “a book of singular beauty” (C.A. Dawson-Scott, “Miss May Sinclair's new novel”, Bookman, 61, March 1922, p. 266), where “Every word does its work” (“Mother-complex”, Times Literary Supplement, 2 February 1922, p. 73).

Harriett Frean is indeed a novel stripped down to its barest essentials. Its short chapters are made up of sections separated from each other by blank spaces on the page, by the passage of time and by narrative ellipses. The staccato effect of this, and the novel's irony, both of plot and of tone, produce a cool distance between the reader and the characters. However, at the same time, the overall effect of the novel is unsettling. Eliot wrote that the novel reduced the reader to “the state of lucid despair” (T.S. Eliot, “London Letter”, Dial, 73, August 1922, p. 330). What Eliot's judgement captures is this strange combination of effects: a lucidity created by distance, through a kind of clinical observation, and a despair produced by a sense of being drawn in, by the activation of sympathy and pity.

Sinclair wrote seven more novels through the 1920s, but Suzanne Raitt, in her biography of Sinclair, calls Harriett Frean her “last major novel” (Suzanne Raitt, May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 8). Harriett Frean, then, grants Sinclair entry to the privileged critical category of “the modernist”, but it is a membership she cannot sustain. More recent interest in Sinclair has come from feminist as well as modernist critics. Even so, while much of Sinclair's oeuvre is of interest in terms of feminist concerns, it is her two most modernist works, Harriett Frean and Mary Olivier: A Life (1919), which have remained in print in the United Kingdom.

Certainly, Harriett Frean has a freshness and a power that has faded somewhat in other of Sinclair's novels. But there is a strangeness about it too. It is a disconcerting novel still. Unlike the works with which it shares a publication date, Harriett Frean is a novel stripped, not only of conventional rhetorical ornamentation, but of the present moment; it is stripped of cars, of advertising, of the living death of London commuters, of the First World War and its effects. It echoes with a fairy tale-like emptiness. For good or ill, contemporary reviewers all remarked on the novel's modernness; but one of its many severities is the split between its innovative form and the dead weight of its subject matter. If Harriett Frean is important because it is Sinclair's most experimental novel, it is for more complex reasons than a general grouping of her with Pound, Eliot and so on would suggest.

Harriett Frean tells the story of its eponymous protagonist from early infancy in the 1840s to her death in her sixties. Harriett is an only child, and her girlhood is spent with her gentle and cultured parents, reading with them, going to London for occasional lectures, and learning from them how to “behave beautifully”. It becomes clear, however, that her parents' “beautiful” moral code masks repression, renunciation and self-righteousness. In almost the only “event” of her life, Harriett is proposed to by Robin, the finance of her best friend, Priscilla. Although she is in love with him, she refuses him on the grounds that it would be dishonourable to ruin Prissie's life. Robin marries Prissie, and Harriett, although unable to “think of Robin married”, comforts herself: “When she thought of Robin and how she had given him up she felt a thrill of pleasure in her beautiful behaviour, and a thrill of pride in remembering that he had loved her more than Priscilla” (May Sinclair, Life and Death of Harriett Frean, Virago, 1980, p. 67). On a visit to the couple, Harriett refuses to see the consequences of her actions: Robin's unhappiness and Prissie's hysterical paralysis. When she is in her thirties, Harriett's father loses all their money through rash financial speculation and dies a broken man. Harriett and her mother attempt to continue their “beautiful” life together, but Harriett's life in fact has become embalmed – rigid, fearing change, held up by a frigid pride in the superiority of her family. When Harriett's mother dies, she attempts tiny changes, but it is clear that it is too late for her to develop an identity of her own. When she is diagnosed as having the same kind of cancer from which her mother had died, Harriett is pleased: “With every stab she would live again in her mother” (p. 178). Far from achieving an independent identity, Harriett's last word, and the last word of the novel, as she dies following an operation, is “Mamma – – – –” (p. 184).

As should be apparent from this summary, insistent throughout the novel is Mr and Mrs Frean's injunction to behave beautifully. As an incident from Harriett's childhood makes clear, their moral code is deeply aestheticised. At a tea party, a hungry Harriett sits down at the table, only to be asked by her mother to make way for the next child before she has eaten any cake. Later, Harriett's mother praises her for giving up her seat despite the injustice – “It's better to go without than to take from other people. That's ugly” (p. 14-15). Harriett internalises this conflation of the beautiful and the good, mediated as it is through her love of her beautiful mother: “Ugly. Being naughty was just that. Doing ugly things. Being good was being beautiful like Mamma. She wanted to be like her mother” (p. 15).

The Frean family's desire for beautiful behaviour is expressed through their actions, or more properly their refusal of action, but it is also embodied by them. In a paragraph describing Harriett's father, the word straight is used four times (p. 37). He is “straight and slender”, his arm as Harriett leans on it has a “strong, tight feel”, and even after his financial ruin he is “upright and alert”, his body “straight and calm” (pp. 37, 46, 85, 87). Mrs Frean too is insistently described as tall, slender, “wonderful in her pure, high serenity” (p. 93). When Harriett is 13, her friend Connie tells her a “secret” which is clearly of a sexual nature. Harriett's response is to stiffen, and “make [herself] tall and cold and silent” (p. 25).

This disavowal of dangerous knowledge, of the “ugly”, is further strengthened by Harriett's memory of something which happened three years before. Then, she had disobeyed her parents by venturing into the lane behind their house, and by walking as far as a “little dirty brown house” standing on “waste ground covered with old boots and rusted, crumpled tins” (p. 18). A man comes out of the house, and Harriett immediately knows that he is the reason for her parents' prohibition – “He was the frightening thing”. She returns to her garden, carrying red campion which she has picked during her walk. She meets her mother “coming down the garden walk, tall and beautiful”, and tells her of her disobedience. Mrs Frean's response, despite her fear, is to draw Harriett's attention to the flowers. “'Rose campion,' she said, parting the stems with her long, thin fingers. 'Look, Hatty, how beautiful they are. Run away and put the poor things in water'” (p. 20).

The beauty of the flower displaces Harriett's unpleasant experience. When Connie tells her “secret” and Harriett at last understands why the man was frightening, it is the image of the rose campion which rushes in to prevent any threat to the Frean tall straightness. The dirt and squalor associated with the sexual threat are forgotten: “when she thought of the lane she could see nothing but the green banks, the three tall elms, and the red campion” (p. 25). Indeed, throughout the novel, anything which would disturb the Freans – desire, passion, illness, anything “gross and material” (p. 37) – is resisted through a complex of restrained behaviour and rigid physical integrity, and the aestheticisation of both.

This is crucial, for it is the “reduction” of the beautiful to clean, hard, straight lines which is both the origin of the novel's formal distinction, and of Harriett's defeat. How can this be understood? In Eliot or Pound during this period, formal difficulty, a “hardness” in the sense of both a lack of ease of reading and of choice of diction and syntax , the creation of a new kind of beauty, is part of a response to modernity. The “futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (T.S. Eliot, “Ulysses, order and myth”, Dial, 75, 1923, p. 482) was to be warded off by new poetic and narrative methods that eschewed beautiful lies or the flourish which covered over a less elevated reality. Mass democracy, the rise of the demotic in matters of taste, the dominance of the urban, of technology and bureaucracy, this is modernity, these are ruins against which art must shore up its renewed fragments of beauty. However, despite Sinclair's alignment in some of her work with the “hard” aesthetic strand of English modernism, the relationship between her writing and “reality” is very different from that in Eliot or Pound. In Sinclair, evil, the destructive, is located not in modernity as such but in the deadening effect of tradition and convention. Her characters struggle because they are not allowed to enter fully into the present moment and experience newness – and not just the aesthetically new, but the social and the political also. “It's silly” Harriett's friend Lizzie says to her, “not to be able to look at a new thing because it's new. That's the way you grow old” (p. 115).

Sinclair's complex relation to modernity is demonstrated in the novel in its treatment of risk. Financial speculation is one of the few elements of modernity which penetrates the Freans' hermetic world. Early on, Mr Frean talks about his work to his wife and daughter:

“There's nothing gross and material about stockbroking. It's like pure mathematics. You're dealing in abstractions, ideal values, all the time. You calculate – in curves.” His hand, holding the unlit cigar, drew a curve, a long graceful one, in mid-air. “You know what's going to happen all the time. [...] The excitement begins when you don't quite know and you risk it; when it's getting dangerous. [...] This higher mathematics of the game. If you can afford them; if you haven't a wife and family – I can see the fascination.” (p. 38)

Among many of the early modernists, the increasing dominance of the financial markets in early twentieth-century capitalism was one of modernity's most significant dangers. The repudiation of this is one of reasons for the attraction of a number of these writers to fascism and anti-semitism. The anxiety around the gold standard, from its suspension in 1914 to its eventual abandonment in 1931, is the most obvious evidence of the sense of the shift at this time – from stable, fixed secure values, to the mobile ephemera of international finance (see David Trotter, The English Novel in History, 1895-1920, Routledge, 1993, chapter 3). At one level, Harriett Frean could be read as Sinclair's concurrence with this repudiation. Mr Frean's wife and family do not prove enough of a deterrent, and some years later he loses all their money, and that of their neighbour Mr Hancock, and dies a broken man. Sinclair's own family had experienced similar events in the late 1860s. However, Mr Frean's risk-taking has a more complex function in the novel. Mr Frean's description of his “fascination” is above all an aesthetic one. The fascination consists in going beyond the formal perfection of mathematics, where beauty consists of everything being in the right place, and risking the mess that may ensue (and of course does for the Freans and the Hancocks). What Harriett is condemned for, and by, repeatedly in the novel is not risking it; for remembering the red campion instead of the “little dirty brown house”. The “values” with which Mr Frean is associated through his work are indeed the shifting, risky ones of modernity. He “risks it” too in his reading – Darwin, Huxley, Spencer – at which Mrs Frean's orthodox piety looks askance. It is in his home life, in the feminine domestic world, that he settles for the fixed beauty of rigidity and repetition. And, of course, in keeping the two so separate he paradoxically destroys them both.

What is destructive, Sinclair seems to be suggesting, is the rigid avoidance of mess and disorder. This is in stark contrast to her male contemporaries, horrified as they are by loss of order (see David Trotter, Paranoid Modernism: Literary Experiment, Psychosis and the Professionalism of English Society, Oxford University Press, 2001). It is here that the relevance of the central characters in each of Sinclair's most formally innovative novels becomes clear. In The Three Sisters, in Mary Olivier and in Harriett Frean it is the struggles of women for autonomy on which she focuses. Harriett Frean dies in about 1913 – before the war and its shattering effects so clearly seen in the work of the “men of 1914”. But what she misses too are the emancipatory effects the war had for many women. Sinclair was active in the Suffrage movement; for her, modernity was not pure loss and degradation, but offered too an opening up of possibilities. Sinclair herself experienced the strange, paradoxical liberation – what she called an “ecstasy” – through proximity to the terrible destruction of the war (see Suzanne Raitt, “Contagious Ecstasy”: May Sinclair's War Journals”, in Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate (eds) Women's Fiction and the Great War, Clarendon, 1997). Harriett's death in 1913 is surely highly relevant in such a tightly controlled novel.

But this returns us to the question of the disjunction between the novel's form and what its content seems to suggest. How do we fit together a novel where every word occupies its proper place, where all excess has been stripped away, with a sense that the heroine's tragedy is a repression of exactly mess and excess? The answer, of course, is that we do not. The strange power of Harriett Frean resides precisely in this. While the novel seems so clinical and controlled, the vertiginousness experienced by the reader is provoked by those gaps and fissures – typographic, narratorial and epistemological – which lurk at the corner of the eye. In the novel, Sinclair's commitment to “hardness” does sit strangely with the implications of the narrative. It is this strangeness, however, which articulates a different story, a different sense of modernity, from her fellow early modernists.

Wilson, Leigh. "Life and Death of Harriet Frean". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 13 November 2002
[, accessed 02 March 2015.]