The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

Not content with profoundly unsettling myself by reading the incredibly sad tale of an early twentieth century spinster in The Rector’s Daughter, I swiftly moved on to a similar story in the shape of May Sinclair’s The Life and Death of Harriett Frean – in for a penny, in for a pound! It didn’t move me as The Rector’s Daughter did, but it did leave me with a sense of real anger that so many women in the 19th century were bred to do nothing but be obedient to their parents and be good Christian women, sacrificing their own needs for others and waiting around for men to marry them. With no real avenues to a proper education, travel, or influence outside of their often protective and limited family circle, these women were not given the opportunities to ever think for themselves or develop a sense of true self. As such, many must have suffered dull, unfruitful, deeply unsatisfying lives that were spent pouring out tea in stuffy, cluttered parlours and caring for their rapidly ageing parents. Harriett Frean was one of these women, and her sheer helplessness and passivity both infuriated me and left me feeling desperately sorry for the generations of women like her who never had the chance to truly live.

This short book charts the life of Harriett Frean, from birth to death. She is born into a well to do Victorian tradesman’s family in a London suburb, an only child, and much doted on by both parents. Her mother and father are both very moral, good, upright people who consider themselves liberal intellectuals. They are a close, tight knit family and Harriett feels little need for other people, though she does have several close girl friends as she grows up and goes to school. Her mother instils in her a belief that self sacrifice for the good of others and behaving beautifully in all respects are the most important and meaningful things in life. And so, when love does come Harriett’s way in her early twenties, she convinces herself that the beautiful thing to do would be to give him up, as he is already unhappily engaged to her best friend Priscilla. This action makes Harriett feel morally superior and gives her great pleasure; that is, until her actions are called into question later in life by a younger friend, and Harriett starts to realise that perhaps her life has not been one of beautiful self sacrifice after all, but instead a catalogue of wasted opportunities and a lack of courage.

Henrietta does nothing with her life; she lives with her parents until they die, and then stays on in their home to be cared for by the family’s old maid. She doesn’t even particularly enjoy the company of her friends. So used to the safety of her family circle, she retreats into the warmth and security of her house and the reassuring routine of meals and reading and knitting and social visits. As she grows older, her life grows narrower, and any sense of adventure or excitement she once had slowly atrophies until there is no ambition and no purpose left in her life whatsoever. She is a woman who has allowed herself to become utterly useless, both to herself and others. She achieves nothing of note, creates nothing, brings nothing to the world she was born into. Cosseted by her parents and taught nothing but values that will not equip her for a fulfilling life in the real world, she is forever dependent on others and incapable of making any decisions for herself. The saddest aspect of her life is that she may as well never have existed; on her death, she simply fades away into oblivion, with no mark of her long life left behind to be remembered by.

I am currently reading Bluestockings, a study of the first British women to gain a university education, and the way they were treated; patronised, dismissed and jeered at, just for wanting to use their brains, is actually very helpful to me in understanding Harriett Frean’s mentality and upbringing. May Sinclair (whose photograph I have used to illustrate this post) is brilliant at portraying the sheer smallness of women’s lives in the late 19th century; education, as Bluestockings is demonstrating so well to me, was considered wholly unnecessary, and women were deemed to have been created solely as men’s ‘helpmeets’; submissive, docile, pretty creatures, bred to care for others and submit their own needs to those of their parents, brothers and superiors. Their brains were smaller than men’s, their bodies weaker, their emotions and constitutions feeble and prone to be unbalanced. They were not able to cope with the rigours of life that men were engaged in; work, education, travel, adventure; these were not to be a woman’s realm. Instead, she was to stay at home, be a sweet and comforting presence for those around her, engage in useful hobbies such as needlework and music, pay social calls, be a help to mother, and then eventually marry and produce lots of lovely babies, before sliding off into middle age.

Of course these men who dismissed the capabilities of womankind clearly never ventured outside of their comfortable middle class neighbourhoods; for centuries working class women had worked for their livings, supporting their families in factories, shops, or through home based labour such as washing or needlework, all while managing to bear children and run a home. These women weren’t dropping like flies from the effort, but for women like Harriett Frean, their lives were strictly protected from all such activities. With no facility to develop radical views, to feel or express a sense of injustice at her position, and no courage or will to break out and seize a life on her own terms, Harriett allows her life to ebb away. I was so angered by Harriett’s behaviour; I wanted to reach in and shake her, tell her to marry the man she loved, to dump her friends and find new ones, to use her money to travel abroad and widen her horizons and enrich her quality of life, but Harriett doesn’t have the imagination to do any of these things. The worst thing is, I couldn’t even blame her for it; as May Sinclair makes quite clear, what else could a woman like Harriett have done? She has no examples of any women living lives that we would consider fulfilled nowadays to inspire her, and as such, how could she have dreamed of anything better than what she has? I could cry for the many women who came before me who must have lived like this, starved of the true joys of life. How could society have done this, considered it acceptable to shut women up and leave them with no outlet to develop their interests, skills and intellect, for so long? Reading this made me so grateful that I was born in 1986, rather than 1886. What a life I would have had if I had been born then, I can hardly bear to imagine. However, the only real pleasure I got from reading this book was sensing the undertone of latent fury seeped into every one of Sinclair’s words; thanks to women like her, who stood up for the right for women to have equal rights to men, women like Harriett no longer have to exist. This is a remarkable book – frightening, angry, yet inventively, restrainingly, and sensitively written. A small masterpiece, I think, that should be read by everyone to show how far the Western world has come in a little over a hundred years in its treatment of women.

18 comments

  1. By coincidence, I picked up The Life and Death of Harriett Frean in an Oxfam bookshop the other week so your reading and review of it is very timely! It sounds like a fairly harrowing read in terms of the female position during this period – like you, books like this make me so grateful for all our foremothers who fought for us to have an education and legal rights and own our own property… I got Bluestockings for Christmas and am really looking forward to reading it! Though as its hard back might save it for a holiday….

    1. What a coincidence! With your Women’s Studies background, I think you will definitely enjoy it. Bluestockings is excellent and again, one for you considering your academic interests!

  2. Well written review, Rachel. Thank you.

    I applaud you and others for continuing to read and learn about what women have had to endure for basic rights, an education, a voice in society and more often than not in their own homes.

    Here in the states, women have had the right to vote for little more than 80 years. There is an excellent film feature on the suffragists called Iron Jawed Angels that you might want to see at some point depicting the women and what they had to endure.

    My mother-in-law was an elementary school principal who, as a young woman, had to forge ahead to get a college education, told by her grandfather that she didn’t need it, was a woman and it would be a waste of money. She perservered – it could not have been easy and, in the big scheme of things, it was really not that long ago. She was also told she did an excellent job, but would get a smaller salary because she was a woman with husband so didn’t need as much. This was in the early ’70s Things have changed a great deal, but have on the backs of others and we all need to be aware of this and, I think, no matter the age or era, grateful for those who came before us. My hats off to you.

    I am anxiously awaiting your review of Bluestockings. Our histories of two countries are so similar and this book looked like something I may want to delve into sometime.

    1. Thank you for your wonderful comment, Penny – what a fascinating and inspiring mother in law you have, and isn’t it shocking to think that it wasn’t so long ago that women experienced such barriers to personal fulfilment?

      I’d be really interested to see the film you mention – I will definitely look it up, thank you.

      I have written my review of Bluestockings and it should magically appear when I am away, so look out for it! I am sure it would be a book you would find fascinating Penny!

  3. I’ve always thought that the novels of Henry James (and, to a lesser extent, Edith Wharton) are primarily about the tension between the exterior and interior lives of women who are raised to be ready to do nothing but “marry well” but who discover that the number of men who qualify as husband material is far exceeded by the number of women wanting to marry them.

    And yet today there’s a strong contingent of voices (including, astonishingly, women’s voices) who feel that women were better off with limited choices, narrow lives, and suffocating obligations. It reminds me of the arguments before and after the American Civil War that slaves were actually better off as slaves.

    Le plus ca change, etc.

    1. That’s a really interesting comparison – I haven’t read widely across Henry James’ novels, largely because I find them a slog, but I can definitely see what you mean from my reading of Wharton. So many women with intelligence, beauty and ambition struggling in a world that only values the status of a married woman.

      Yes…I have seen these claims recently, saying that women are unhappy because they should never have tried to have careers. I don’t quite see how that follows myself..

  4. I’m reading this without my glasses, as I can’t find them at the mo, so all a bit blurry… but I’m pretty sure it’s a great review! and a great book. I mentioned it the other day as being a good companion to Stones in a Landslide – in terms of whole-lives-in-short-books – so, completely coincidentally, you have the opportunity of noting similarities!

    1. Ha! Thanks Simon! Yes that’s very interesting as a companion, actually – I will have to think about that and the comparisons between the two!

  5. I’ve had this book for years unread, now might be the time to pick it up. There are a couple of very readable and interesting books on the suffrage books you might like – The Virago book of Suffragettes, and the ascent of woman by Melenie Phillips – you might already know them, but if not – I found them very inspiring, everything from the birth of the movement to womens fight for education, and interestingly a lot of stuff about working women and trade unionism.

    1. Yes – do read it -it’s very quick as well. The Ascent of Woman and The Virago Book of Sufragettes I saw at the Museum of London when I went the other week – they both looked excellent and I’d love to read them – especially now after your recommendation! A trip to the library beckons I think!

  6. This looks great. I’ve got Ascent of Woman and A Room of One’s Own on my bedside table waiting for me to read them this year but I’m also waiting to get Bluestocking. It still amazes me to think that in the early 20th Century, even though some women came top of their year in the Maths Tripos at Cambridge they were not allowed degrees. Grrr…

    1. You’ve got some great books lined up! This is a definite must read if you’re having a time of reading about women’s history. I know – shocking and infuriating, isn’t it? I was amazed at what ridiculous attitudes men had towards women not even 100 years ago.

  7. What a really well-written review! I don’t think I could bring myself to read this (so much harder to go looking for depressing books :)), but I’m intrigued just the same. And I’m particularly interested in your response to this book, and to Bluestockings, in light of the post you made a few months ago about feminism and what it meant to so many different people. I could be completely off my rocker here, but it sounds to me like you’re working out some of your initial questions from that post.

    1. Thanks Kate! You know, I think I am working some stuff out, about what I really believe about women and their place in the world and how that effects me and how I live. These sorts of books have reminded me that in many ways that the position of women in relation to men hasn’t really changed and that there is a lot out there that’s still to fight against and challenge.

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