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.