To what extent is The Life and Death of Harriet Frean an experimental novel? Essay

To what extent is The Life and Death of Harriet Frean an experimental novel? Essay

Commenting on the nature of the emerging modernist novel, Henry James said: The novels uncanny penetrativeness, its ability to arouse and resolve an array of anxieties and aspirations, made it the great anodyne of the age. (…) the immediate aid given by the novel was a function, to some extent, of sheer presence, sheer visibility. (Trotter, D., 1993, The English Novel in History, 1895-1920. New York: Routledge. 1993. p.1). This essay explores the experimentalism of May Sinclairs 1922 novel, The Life and Death of Harriet Frean. The novel arises out of the passing Victorian age and values, and, as a reaction to late nineteenth century trends – such as the crisis of universal and individual faith, the loss of identity of the self – is an important hallmark of the modernist tradition. By the end of the Victorian age the novel was becoming a vehicle for the expression of a broader spectrum of ideas including aspects of Psychology and Science. May Sinclair, known for her pioneering combinations of literary and scientific thought, explores the life of a single woman from a single perspective in The Life and Death of Harriet Frean.
Henry James comment, sheer presence, sheer visibility defines the narrative style of Sinclairs novel. The book reads entirely from Harriets viewpoint creating a dynamic and sometimes sorely real form of consciousness. In her 1918 review, The Novels of Dorothy Richardson Sinclair borrowed William James term stream of consciousness from his 1890 Principles of Psychology (Janik, D., Nelson. S., (eds), Modern British Women Writers, Westport: Greenwood Press. p.297), dynamically introducing it into the realms of literary discussion. The distinguishing feature of this new literary phenomenon which set it apart from the realist novels of the 19th century, was the move away from the omni-present, omniscient narrator (..) who frames, judges and intervenes in human drama and toward a focus on the delimited, instantaneous feelings, thoughts and sensations of an acting, involved central consciousness. (Ibid. p.298) For example, when Harriet is growing up she attends a dance at the Hancocks house and we see the event from within her isolated state of mind:
She wasnt sure that she liked dancing. There was something obscurely dangerous about it. She was afraid of being lifted off her feet and swung on and on, away from her safe, happy life. She was stiff and abrupt with her partners, convinced that none of those men who liked Connie Hancock could like her, and anxious to show them that she didnt expect them to. She was afraid of what they were thinking. And she would slip away early, running down the garden to the gate at the bottom where her father waited for her. She loved the still coldness of the night under the elms, and the strong, tight feel of her fathers arm when she hung on it leaning towards him, and his There we are! as he drew her closer. Her mother would look up from the sofa and ask always the same question, Well, did anything nice happen?
Till at last she answered, No. Did you think it would, Mamma?
You never know, said her mother.
I know everything.
Everything that could happen at the Hancocks dances. (Sinclair, M., 2003, The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, London: Virago Press, pp.41-2)

Here, Sinclair uses repetitive sentence structure to reinforce the isolated and naive qualities of Harriets character: She wasnt sure; She was afraid; She was stiff and abrupt. The language is simple in order to reflect the simplicity with which Harriet views her world. And she would slip away early is important: Sinclairs use of and connects the two worlds of the Hancocks dance and Harriets return home, suggesting that nothing is separate from her home life. The young girl believes that she sees everything that could happen at the Hancocks dances; this symbolises her conviction that she can see and affect more serious social situations around her – for instance, her sacrificing her love for Robin so that he marries her needy friend Priscilla.
Arising out of the intense relationship with her parents, Harriet suffers from an overdeveloped ego – a delusion that by behaving beautifully she can determine the just future of those around her. Sinclairs interest in Freudian psychoanalysis is seen throughout this novel in Harriets repressed drives and emotions and the fraught and understated nature of her relationship with her mother. Perhaps one of the most powerfully Freudian circumstances of the novel is Prissies degeneration into hysterical paralysis. As Myers says in his Study of Characterisation in the British Novel, this paralysis is a device whereby her unconscious self keeps possession of the man whom Harriet has bestowed upon her. (Myers, W. L., 1927, Study of Characterisation in the British Novel, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp 50-1) This combining of science with literary form was new and experimental in the early part of the twentieth century. While other authors also incorporated Freudian knowledge into their work – such as D. H. Lawrence, known for his powerful Freudian and religious imagery – May Sinclairs prose is less explicit, more central to itself.
For example, the novel is short and although depicting the life of Harriet from beginning to end, it actually ends where it began with her last vision identical to her first:
The front curtains parted, showing the blond light of the corridor beyond. She saw the nursery door open, and light from the candle moved across the ceiling. The gap was filled by the heavy form, the obscene yet sorrowful face of [her old friend] Connie Pennefether.
Harriet looked at it. She smiled with a sudden ecstatic wonder and recognition.
Mamma. . . . . (The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, p.159)

This technique of coming full circle back to the beginning of the novel differs greatly to the style of the realist epics of the late Victorian period. Authors such as Eliot, Hardy, and Trollope are known for their longer novels which trace the progression of characters over time. For example, the plight of Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge is drawn out and the book appears to cover great distances of time and space. The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, however, reads fast, and although following Harriet into old age, her life within the novel passes within the blink of an eye. Work such as The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies published in 1889 suggests that writers were already experimenting with new forms of writing before the end of the century, but perhaps none so readily discarded the Victorian realism in the way that Sinclair did. Even in Lawrences The Rainbow (1914) the text is imbued with the values and traditions of past generations and their importance to the contemporary setting of the novel. (See the depiction of the generations of the Brangwen family in The Rainbow, 1995, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth ed, pp.3-4)
In Sinclairs novel we see a radical rejection of Victorian ideals. Harriet admires her mothers religiousness, but does not appear to feel as strongly about God:
Her mother had some secret: some happy sense of God that she gave to you and you took from her as you took food and clothing, but not quite knowing what it was, feeling that there was something more in it, some hidden gladness, some perfection that you missed. (The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, pp.36-7)

The young Harriet is so influenced by the moral conduct and sanctity of her mother that she is blinded to her own self. We see too, that the great books which her father and mother had taught her to read do not hold the same importance for her: after the death of her parents the books sit on the table while secretly and half-ashamed she played with some frivolous tale.
When Hilton Frean dies, Harriet struggles to cope in the way that her mother does; again her mother had some secret that she couldnt share:
She was wonderful in her high pure serenity. Surely she had some secret. She said he was closer to her now than he had ever been and in her correct, precise answers to the letters of condolence Harriet wrote: I feel that he is closer to us now than he ever was. But she didnt really feel it. She only felt that to feel it was the beautiful and proper thing. She looked for her mothers secret and couldnt find it. (The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, p.81).

The crucial last line of this paragraph she looked for her mothers secret and couldnt find it is what lies at the heart of the book – the undiscovered secret of her mother representing the lost Victorian attitudes and beliefs, both moral and religious. Likewise, the lighted candle (…) out of the room occurring at the beginning and end, symbolises the territory of the high Victorian era which is visible to Harriet through her parents, but ultimately eludes her. Sinclairs deliberately circular form, (which could also suggest zero) represents the fear of her own era – where in a society which had become increasingly secular – there risked, for all the new discoveries in science and psychology, being nothing left for the individual. In other words, for all the progress achieved, the self was in danger of stagnating, turning in on itself.
Furthermore, for all that it discards, The Life and Death of Harriet Frean does not push its experiment into the realm of offering anything to replace what has been lost. Its scientific explanations of behaviour – Prissies illness, Harriets repression – do not spur the imagination towards a hopeful outlook. As Katherine Mansfield criticises Sinclairs conjoining of science and literature the desire for an accurate rendition of the human mind (runs) counter to the telling of a good tale. (Janik, D., and Nelson, E., (eds), 2002, Modern British Women Writers, Westport: Greenwood Press. P.299) Compared to her contemporaries, Sinclairs minimalist style leaves little room for interpretation or guesswork. The compacted nugget of life within the novel hits the reader hard, and although experimental in form and style, the novel ultimately closes doors in the mind rather than opening them.


Janik, D., and Nelson, E., (eds), 2002, Modern British Women Writers, Westport: Greenwood Press
Lawrence, D.H., 1995, The Rainbow, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth ed, pp.3-4
Myers, W. L., 1927, The Later Realism: Study of Characterisation in the British Novel, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Sinclair, M., 2003, The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, London: Virago Press,
Trotter, D., 1993, The English Novel in History, 1895-1920. New York: Routledge

Further Reading

Hanscombe, G., and Smyers, V. L., 1987, Writing for their Lives. The Modernist Women 1910-1940. London: The Women�s Press
Johnson, G., M., May Sinclair: From Psychological Analyst to Anachronistic Modernist. Journal article from Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 25, 2004
Sinclair, M., 1917, A Defence of Idealism: Some Questions and Conclusions, New York: Macmillan
Sinclair, M., 1922, New Idealism, New York: The Macmillan Company

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *