Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Book of the Month: Life And Death of Harriet Frean (May Sinclair)

Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving.

May Sinclair (real name Mary St Clair) is a forgotten name these days. Yet, before Virginia Woolf’s emergence as a major writer, Sinclair was one of the most distinguished women writers from the Edwardian and Georgian age. Critically acclaimed and popular in both England and America, she was the author of twenty-four novels, of which Life and Death of Harriet Frean, (together with Mary Oliver: A Life) is remarkable as much for its exploration of Freudian themes as for its subtle and insightful analysis of English class and character of the Victorian era. In fifteen short chapters, the novel traces the life of Harriett Frean, from her birth to death, animadverting, in the process, some of the cherished values of the Victorians.

Harriet Frean, the eponymous heroine of the novel, like her creator, is a product of the Victorian era. There are no Victorian monsters in her childhood, though. Indeed, her parents are educated people—her father reads Herbert Spencer and Darwin, while her mother reads biographies of Great men—who are self-consciously free from any vulgarity in their personal conduct, epitomized by their refusal to deliver corporal punishment to Harriett. Little Harriett is brought up to believe that vanity is sin, and, like all those whose breeding is true, she mingles happily with the proles and tinkers. From an early age, her parents have inculcated her with a sense of moral righteousness: Self-denial and subjugation of will are two virtues that bring the greatest joy and make one morally beautiful. The deliberate deprivation of the self’s longing takes a poignant meaning when young Harriett renounces Robin, the man betrothed to Priscilla, one of her close friends, who declares that it is Harriett who he really loves. Harriett is convinced that she would be doing the wrong thing; she would not be happy, always thinking what she had done to her friend, and, even if she were happy, she had no moral right to get her happiness out of her friend’s suffering. It is a grand moment of self-sacrifice in Harriett’s life, a moment in which she puts into practice all that she has imbibed from her parents—indeed, Harriett’s decision of not reciprocating Robin’s feelings on moral grounds is subtly abetted by her parents. As the story unfolds and the once pretty Harriet mutates into a bitter, cynical, haughty, and impoverished spinster, the utter futility of that sacrifice is spread out for the reader.

The beauty of Life and Death of Harriett Frean is that the novel works at several levels. It can be enjoyed as a chilling case history of a life marred by the deliberate repression of one’s desires and instincts, of a life crushed by the weight of decorum and misdirected correctitude. However, it is more than that. It is also a severe indictment of oppressive influence of one’s family, derived in turn from societal moratoriums, thwarting individual aspirations. The narrative style, for the most part, strives to drive the point home via irony, occasionally sarcasm; except on one occasion: a dialogue between an old Harriett and a much younger woman, who censures Harriett, and suggests that she had been a selfish fool, her self-sacrifice having brought nothing but misery and unhappiness to all the parties. This didactic excerpt strikes a slightly contrary note in its directness, as though Sinclair, suddenly unsure whether the reader has grasped the message, decided to take a more direct approach.

Life and Death of Harriett Frean is also remarkable for Sinclair’s admirable, if somewhat clumsy, attempts at exploring Freudian themes. The novel was published at a time when Freud’s psychodynamic theories were at the height of their popularity in Europe. Sinclair, deeply influenced by the works of Freud and Jung, explored some of Freud’s defence mechanisms in her novels. In Life and Death of Harriett Frean she analyses repression and its consequences. Robin, spurned by Harriett, ends up marrying Priscilla with whom he had original fallen in love. Priscilla, realising soon enough that her husband’s heart belongs to her best friend, can give vent to her rage only by developing a hysterical paralysis. It is a kind of non-verbal pantomime, which castigates not only Robin—who, unable, perhaps by societal taboos and constraints, to end the sham marriage, is reduced for the rest of their married life, which mercifully comes to an end when Priscilla dies, to a glorified flunkey—but also herself, her ego killing two birds in one stone, so to speak, by punishing Robin for his emotional infidelity and herself for the intense hostility, albeit unconscious, she feels towards him for his betrayal. When Priscilla dies of pneumonia—it is not easy to die of hysterical paralysis—Robin marries Beatrice, who has nursed Priscilla in her final illness, and takes out his pent up bitterness and frustration on her by developing hypochondriacal symptoms, and Beatrice, with apparent willingness, takes on the role Robin had played in his unhappy marriage to Priscilla.

George Orwell once described Sinclair’s novels as an example of ‘good bad writing’. Orwell was unduly harsh on Sinclair. Sinclair’s writing style is deceptively simple, at times stark and trenchant; yet the writing has the lambency that many a writer with showy linguistic flourish would struggle to achieve. The sparse, parsimonious style also manages to effectively convey the misguided Spartanism that keeps Harriett in its vice like grip. It also conveys, without hyperbole, the gradual transformation of Harriett from an angelic girl, full of joi de verve into a sullen, peevish misanthrope. One wonders to what extent was Harriett was the author’s alter ego.

Harriett’s attitude towards men is kept tantalizingly enigmatic throughout the novel. In response to Robin’s declaration of love, never once does Harriett reciprocate. The author does not elaborate—deliberately, you get the impression—why Harriett chooses to live a life that many people, at least those from her generation, would describe as inefectual. Instead, she regresses more and more into the suffocating and cloying embrace of her parents, and fails to feel liberated even after their deaths. In real life, Sinclair did not have relationships with men throughout her long life and led, for all appearances, a life of celibacy. Youngest of six children, and the only daughter, Sinclair was very close to her family. She lived with her mother until the mother’s death, and nursed her brothers, all of whom suffered from an inherited heart condition, four of them dying before their fiftieth birthday. Whether Life and Death of Harriett Frean, written when Sinclair was fifty-nine (by that time Sinclair was showing unmistakable signs of early Parkinson's disease; ten years later she would stop writing completely), is a reflection on Sinclair’s own life, will remain a matter of conjecture. If it is, one can either admire the dispassionate dissection of an unfulfilled life, or wonder at the self-loathing that inspired the novel.