Posted by: zhiv | April 15, 2011

May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriet Frean

My hope is that May Sinclair, generally speaking, is a neglected gem. This book is good, interesting, and exceedingly readable, but I’m not sold on Sinclair’s quality by it, although there are plenty of positive signs. It’s a later work, from 1922; her first novel, Audrey Craven, was published in 1897, and she was born in 1862. The signal elements in Harriet Frean are brevity and flow, both of which are modernist trademarks, and they’re handled well here. When the title mentions the “life and death of,” it’s not kidding. It begins with infantile consciousness and a first memory and an objective correlative knickknack blue egg, and in a swift-moving river of a quiet, inconsequential life that never quite happens and its consciousness it ends with the same senile-infantile fragment of thought (“Mama!) after a final glance at the same blue egg.

Harriet Frean is a successful experiment and effort I think, an interesting study of a self that doesn’t come into actual existence because differentiation from the parents is never successfully achieved. So it has some nice psychoanalytical components, a novelistic experiment as I say, and a successful one as a narrative and character study within a severely confined space. If you’re looking for a book that can show how quickly life seems to pass by, this is a great one. Sit down, an hour later you’ve read the whole thing and lived through Harriet Frean’s entire, lengthy existence and you say “that’s it? I’m done? Goodbye already?” And such is our sad existence, I’m afraid to say.

Two items occur to me. The first is that Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh keeps coming up in the Robert Graves biographies as a crucial text, one that determined much of both his genius and crazy behavior, identifying the pernicious elements of Victorian parenting. This is very much Sinclair’s theme, but it is quiet and subtle, as an excessive morality and incipient hypocrisy is embedded in Harriet’s character. We see the process, which is based on the best intentions and yet insidious, but Harriet is never aware of it herself. This is all quite well done, as we see how Harriet’s morality is developed and determined in childhood, she never rebels, and soon, so quickly, she is making moral decisions in her adult life that mirror the restrictive values impressed upon her by her parents. These somehow bind her to them; she’s ever dutiful, and deeply attached. Her father’s hypocrisy in business is exposed, but Harriet, living in a rapid waking dream of a unified family nucleus, can’t process parental flaws and deceptions. All very Freudian, as I said, a study of imprinting and repression. And I want to read Samuel Butler.

The other note I wanted to make is that, sitting here and thinking about it, I realize that the story and especially the encompassing and relentless flow of dark, spare, existential narrative reminded me of a recent breakout favorite for everybody (including Tom Hanks!), John Williams’ magnificent Stoner. As in that book, fate and the rushing brevity of a long life filled with dread and moral quandaries create compulsive engagement for the reader. Combining it with a vague sense of the influence and effect of Butler, it makes me think that a psychoanalytical reading of Stoner works pretty well and makes sense, as it was written in 1965 when Freud was still significantly ascendant: Stoner’s fate was all there in the dirt farm and his squalid family trinity; he could never escape it.

So I’m bullish, very much looking forward to reading more May Sinclair, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that she’s an NYRB author–and yup, there she is, with Mary Olivier: A Life. And this whole lesser-known modernist thing looks like it could be a lot of fun.


  1. […] her sympathy. This storyline is a strong precursor to the solid Modernist accomplishment in Harriet Frean, and some important currents in Mary […]

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