The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

It’s very likely I may have melted from the heat before finishing this review, so if it trickles off into vague mumbling about deserts, air conditioning and ridiculous dark jeans, you know why. You have been warned.

Amazon – ”Well, I’m glad my little girl didn’t snatch and push. It’s better to go without than to take from other people. That’s ugly.’ Harriett is the Victorian embodiment of all the virtues then viewed as essential to the womanly ideal: a woman reared to love, honour and obey. Idolising her parents, she learns from childhood to equate love with self-sacrifice, so that when she falls in love with the fiance of her closest friend, renunciation of this unworthy passion initially brings her a peculiar sort of happiness. But the passing of time reveals a different truth.’
This is a strange little book. It took me quite a while to understand what the point of it really was, as nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. It’s, quite obviously, the story of Harriett Frean’s incredibly mundane life, from her childhood to her death. However, after roughly 2/3 of the way through, Harriett’s perceptions start to slowly shatter one by one.
She is very, very proud of all the ‘good’ things she’s done, like not marrying the man her friend was in love with, moving to the town her mother wanted to, taking back her maid after she had a baby. She constantly refers to these, like she’s reassuring herself that she’s the good person her parents demanded she be. But then, in later life, she discovers that all these good deeds have turned out to not be the moral choice she’d expected, and that maybe she’d made the wrong decisions after all. It’s basically a story of disillusionment – how Harriett’s life didn’t turn out to be as morally superior as she’d thought.
Once I understood the point of it, I started to enjoy it. Otherwise, it’s just a mundane list of a woman’s life. Harriett is rather irritating, with her constant self-congratulations and smugness, although I did feel for her when her bubble was burst. I wish that Ms Sinclair had altered the ‘voice’ of the novel though, as it never changes, whether Harriett is five or eighty. Her opinions progress a little, but her vocabularly and tone never does. It may have accentuated her development a little and so got the point across a little more firmly.
The cover tells me that Cosmopolitan called it ‘shocking,’ which seems a little over-the-top. ‘Sad’ perhaps, but ‘shocking’ is the exact opposite of this book.

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