Secret Library

May Sinclair’s Modernist Masterpiece: The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle bangs the drum for an undervalued modernist novel

1922 was the annus mirabilis and high point of modernist literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room were all published. On 18 May 1922, Joyce and Marcel Proust, two titans of the modernist novel in their respective languages, met at a disastrous dinner in Paris; the two writers spent the meal discussing their ailments, before eventually admitting that they hadn’t read each other’s work. Also present at this historic dinner party were Picasso and Stravinsky. 1922 was the point where a number of modernisms appeared to converge and collectively reach their zenith.

Yet this handful of modernist classics fails to tell the full story. 1922 also saw the publication of another modernist novel by a writer who is far less celebrated than Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, or Mansfield. Yet she was an important figure in the movement and even now she is overlooked in our rush to get to Ulysses and to Virginia Woolf’s mature novels. May Sinclair (1863-1946) was, in fact, the one who first applied the psychological term ‘stream of consciousness’ to the work of one of her modernist contemporaries – another novelist often absent from discussions of modernist fiction, Dorothy Richardson. Sinclair championed the work of the Imagist poets led by Ezra Pound, and even wrote a novel in verse using the Imagist method, The Dark Night. Like much of her work, it is seldom mentioned in surveys of modernist literature.

Yet things are beginning to change. For one, Richardson has, in the last couple of decades, begun to receive some critical attention from scholars, and Sinclair’s complete prose works are being edited for publication by Edinburgh University Press. Of all of her works, I would nominate The Life And Death Of Harriett Frean (Virago Modern Classics) as the book to track down and check out. The plot of the novel (really a novella; it’s 184 pages of reasonably large-print type in the Virago reprint I own) is very straightforward: as its title implies, the novel charts the life of a Victorian woman named Harriett Frean from her infancy (when her mother and father read nursery rhymes to her) through her idolisation of her parents, through to her thwarted love for a young man, Robin, who marries her best friend, through to her continued spinsterhood, old age, illness, and death. All of this is told with a linguistic economy and moving simplicity which quietly reveals the lives of millions of Harriett Freans during the restrictive Victorian age. In some ways, it offers a challenge to Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier as ‘the saddest story I have ever heard’ – or at least, the saddest about the stilted and stale lives of many women before the various liberations, political, social, and sexual, of the twentieth century.

I’m not in the business of offering spoilers, but the title of Sinclair’s novel gives a rather large clue as to the fate of her protagonist. The closing pages of The Life and Death of Harriett Frean possess a quiet pathos which Sinclair doesn’t need to describe in emotive detail, but merely relate through the account of Harriett’s decline into illness, mental decay, and death. The novel begins with Harriett’s mother reading to her daughter: ‘Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been?’ It’s a line that Harriett, on the novel’s final page, recalls in her confused state, but one of the most touching scenes (also with a feline theme) is shortly before this, when the ageing Harriett is speaking to Dorothy, the young and pretty girl who moves into the house next door. Her cat, Mimi, is the focal point of their brief conversation – part of Sinclair’s success with this novel is the way she offers impressionistic glimpses into the characters through short exchanges – and Dorothy’s joyousness and boundless energy stand in stark contrast to the elderly and lonely Harriett. Sinclair could have simply settled for saying that Harriett felt sad that such a youngster had moved in next door and reminded her of her mortality, but instead she tells us that Harriett ‘could never think of the young girl without a pang of sadness and resentment.’ The fact that we are reminded of Harriett’s less admirable side – her all-too-human ability to resent Dorothy for merely reminding her of her old age – at the same time that we also feel a twinge of sympathy for her prevents the novel from spilling over into sentimental pathos.

Published the same year as Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean shows a writer in control of the new modernist techniques – chiefly the one that Sinclair had helped to popularise, stream of consciousness. Jacob’s Room is as much an impressionistic satire of Edwardian realist fiction (such as that written by Woolf’s bête noire Arnold Bennett) as it is an out-and-out ‘modernist’ novel. The style of Sinclair’s The Life and Death of Harriett Frean shows someone with complete confidence in this new mode, and is arguably closer to Woolf’s later Mrs Dalloway (not begun until a year after the high watermark of modernism was over) or to Mansfield’s short fiction of 1918-22.

Not that Sinclair uses such techniques showily or excessively. The Life And Death Of Harriett Frean (Virago Modern Classics) is told in spare, simple language, with a quietly understated use of stream of consciousness and free indirect style:

Either the operation or the pain, going on and on, stabbing with sharper and sharper knives; cutting in deeper; all their care, the antiseptics, the restoratives, dragging it out, giving it more time to torture her.

Dorothy Richardson disliked the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe her own style, which she considered to be more like immersion, with influences and sense-impressions coming from all directions rather than travelling in a linear fashion. For May Sinclair, it is more of a trickle than a stream: the narrative voice absents itself quietly, letting the thoughts of the characters, principally Harriett herself, take centre-stage on the page.

Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.

Oliver Tearle is the author of Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, published by John Murray.


  1. Pingback: The Term ‘Stream of Consciousness’ and the Forgotten Modernist | Interesting Literature

  2. Thank you so much for featuring this writer and her book. It sounds quite interesting. I always like to find out about neglected women writers and had never heard of Sinclair.

  3. Get her to come here?

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. this & 21 other book by may sinclair = available for free download at project gutenberg:

  5. I loved this novel (and also loved what you write about it, and the context you gave for it) – I’ve read a couple others, and am currently listening to an audiobook of Mr Waddington of Wyck. Not in the same league, but interesting nonetheless – and also interesting that she has been the topic of critical reappraisal. I do wonder if that’s the shape of things to come.

    • Thanks, Simon! Have you read Sinclair’s ‘Uncanny Stories’? They’re on my list to blog about in the near future. Mr Waddington of Wyck is an interesting window on the immediate post-war world: worth reading alongside such works as Mrs Dalloway and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End.

  6. I enjoyed this introduction to Sinclair, thank you Dr. Tearle.

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