Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922) traces the eponymous character’s downfall from a promising child to a nonentity. Our protagonist, Harriett, the only child of upper-middle class parents, is raised to embody the Victorian ideal of an ‘Angel in the house’: she is led to believe that she must behave beautifully by enacting the virtues of moral righteousness, self-denial, and sacrifice. “She would always have to do what they wanted; the unhappiness of not doing it was more than she could bear. All very well to say there would be no punishment; their unhappiness was the punishment.”
We follow her uneventful life, as she is gradually deprived of a self of her own, and repeatedly falls into the delusion that she is made all the more special by that very loss. Trapped inside a narrow idea of what morality means, our Harriett lets herself be consumed by the illusion that she is doing the right thing – at least, the right thing in the eyes of her parents and her peers. “Ugly. Being naughty was just that. Doing ugly things. Being good was being beautiful like Mamma. She wanted to be like her mother. Sitting up there and being good felt delicious.”
She renounces love, knowledge, and true friendship, and lives a life of meaningless connections, hidden behind a false sense of self-importance. Not even with the closest people in her life – her parents – she is able to communicate her desires openly.
Even after her parents’ death, she will not be able to break free from the façade. “There is a standard.” Harriet lifted her obstinate and arrogant chin. “You forget that I’m Hilton Frean’s daughter.” “And I’m William Pierce’s, but that hasn’t prevented me being myself.” Lizzie’s mind had grown keener in her sharp middle age. As it played about her, Harriet cowered; it was like being exposed, naked, to a cutting wind. Her mind played back to her father and mother, longing, like a child, for their shelter and support, for the blessed assurance of herself.”
Well into her old age, she will continue to call herself by her father’s name, as if she didn’t have one of her own: she is not Harriett, she is Hilton Frean’s daughter – a man whom, by the end of her life, everyone would have completely forgotten.
Harriett Frean will bring nothing but misery to herself and the people around her. By the end of her life, she will have become a bitter, impoverished spinster, and even her belief in her father’s wisdom will have been shaken. Harriett will have achieved nothing, and she will end at the same place where she had started – alone, and babbling. “She had no clear illumination, only a mournful acquiescence in her own futility, an almost physical sense of shrinkage, the crumbling away, bit by bit, of her beautiful and honourable self.”
This sounds rather bleak, and, as the substance of a life (or lack thereof) it sure is – bleak, bleak, bleak. But, in your hands, it made for a fascinating reading experience. Your writing is sparse and sharp, with a dab of stream of consciousness here and there. Your sense of humour is disenchanted – cynical and bitter.
We can feel the angry undercurrent going through. But we can also feel loneliness, miscommunication, misguided tenderness, the shadow of might-have-been, and a pang of sadness – as in the scene where an older Harriett tries in vain to befriend a young girl who had just moved to the house next door.
“Being good felt delicious” – the Victorian age is far behind us, but anyone who has spent any amount of time on social media has seen one or two Harriett Freans who isolate themselves further in the safety of their bubbles, act beautifully according to some narrow morality code (or the appearance of one), and waste away in a self-righteous performance to please their audiences (and thereby themselves). Click like. Clap, clap, clap. “You forget that I’m Hilton Frean’s daughter.”
While we may readily choose to unfollow our contemporary Harriett Freans, yours is not so easily dismissed. We despise her, but, somehow, we feel for her. As you continue to ruthlessly dissect her life and death and she regresses more and more into her worst self – still, we feel for her. Your Harriett Frean has left no mark behind her, has had no illumination, and has created nothing of value. And yet, from her catalogue of wasted opportunities, you nudge us to root for her: may she never wake up from her delusion. May she be spared from the cutting wind.
“She found that by a system of punctual movements she could give to her existence the reasonable appearance of an aim.” – May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922)
“She had no clear illumination, only a mournful acquiescence in her own futility, an almost physical sense of shrinkage, the crumbling away, bit by bit, of her beautiful and honourable self. – May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922)