Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

Virago Modern Classic #26


This is a short book but it spans a whole life, entering the consciousness of Harriett Frean and travelling with her from birth to death.

She is a much loved child but it quickly becomes clear that she will be brought up to “behave beautifully” and to always put that before her own wishes.

After a misunderstanding at a tea party Harriett relinquishes her plate without eating rather than be thought greedy.

When she learns what has happened, Harriett’s mother tells her:

“Well, I’m glad my little girl didn’t snatch and push. It’s better to go without that to take other from people’s share. That’s ugly.”

Harriett accepts her parents values without question and continues to live by them.

The course of her life is set when having fallen in love with the fiance of her closest friend, she finds happiness in the belief that she was right to give him up.

And nothing changes, even when Harriett’s parents are proved to be fallible, her friend’s marriage is shown to be troubled and the world changes.

Even at the age of 39 she proudly introduces herself as “Hilton Frean’s Daughter”.

Will Harriett’s high morals ever bring her reward or will she realise that there are other ways of living and maybe even change?

This is a short wonderfully constructed, intense study of one woman’s life and indeed a whole way of life in the nineteenth century. The prose is clear and not a word is wasted.

I thought it was hyperbole when I read the back cover desciption of this book as standing comparison with “the work of Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf as one of the great innovatory novels of this century.”

When I read the book I realised it wasn’t, it was a clear truth.

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