"In a few short pages," writes Francine Prose in her Introduction, "May Sinclair succeeds in rendering the oppressive weight and strength of the chains of family love." Young Harriett Frean is taught that "behaving beautifully" is paramount, and she becomes a self-sacrificing woman whose choices prove devastating to herself and to those who love her most. An early pioneer of
stream-of-consciousness writing, Sinclair employs the technique brilliantly in this finely crafted psychological novel. Evoking the style and depth of her contemporaries Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence, Sinclair's haunting narrative also reflects her keen interest in the theories of Jung and Freud. The text of this Modern Library 20th Century Rediscovery was set from the first American edition of 1922.
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November 04, 2003
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Excerpt from Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair
"Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been?" "I've been to London, to see the Queen." "Pussycat, Pussycat, what did you there?" "I caught a little mouse under the chair."
Her mother said it three times. And each time the Baby Harriett laughed. The sound of her laugh was so funny that she laughed again at that; she kept on laughing, with shriller and shriller squeals.
"I wonder why she thinks it's funny," her mother said.
Her father considered it. "I don't know. The cat perhaps. The cat and the Queen. But no; that isn't funny."
"She sees something in it we don't see, bless her," said her mother.
Each kissed her in turn, and the Baby Harriett stopped laughing suddenly.
"Mamma, did Pussycat see the Queen?"
"No," said Mamma. "Just when the Queen was passing the little mouse came out of its hole and ran under the chair. That's what Pussycat saw."
Every evening before bedtime she said the same rhyme, and Harriett asked the same question.
When Nurse had gone she would lie still in her cot, waiting. The door would open, the big pointed shadow would move over the ceiling, the lattice shadow of the fireguard would fade and go away, and Mamma would come in carrying the lighted candle. Her face shone white between her long, hanging curls. She would stoop over the cot and lift Harriett up, and her face would be hidden in curls. That was the kiss-me-to-sleep kiss. And when she had gone Harriett lay still again, waiting. Presently Papa would come in, large and dark in the firelight. He stooped and she leapt up into his arms. That was the kiss-me-awake kiss; it was their secret.
Then they played. Papa was the Pussycat and she was the little mouse in her hole under the bed-clothes. They played till Papa said, "No more!" and tucked the blankets tight in.
"Now you're kissing like Mamma??"
Hours afterwards they would come again together and stoop over the cot and she wouldn't see them; they would kiss her with soft, light kisses, and she wouldn't know.
She thought: To-night I'll stay awake and see them. But she never did. Only once she dreamed that she heard footsteps and saw the lighted candle, going out of the room; going, going away.
The blue egg stood on the marble top of the cabinet where you could see it from everywhere; it was supported by a gold waistband, by gold hoops and gold legs, and it wore a gold ball with a frill round it like a crown. You would never have guessed what was inside it. You touched a spring in its waistband and it flew open, and then it was a workbox. Gold scissors and thimble and stiletto sitting up in holes cut in white velvet.
The blue egg was the first thing she thought of when she came into the room. There was nothing like that in Connie Hancock's papa's house. It belonged to Mamma.
Harriett thought: If only she could have a birthday and wake up and find that the blue egg belonged to her??
Ida, the wax doll, sat on the drawing-room sofa, dressed ready for the birthday. The darling had real person's eyes made of glass, and real eyelashes and hair. Little finger and toenails were marked in the wax, and she smelt of the lavender her clothes were laid in.
But Emily, the new birthday doll, smelt of composition and of gum and hay; she had flat, painted hair and eyes, and a foolish look on her face, like Nurse's aunt, Mrs. Spinker, when she said "Lawk-a-daisy!" Although Papa had given her Emily, she could never feel for her the real, loving love she felt for Ida.
And her mother had told her that she must lend Ida to Connie Hancock if Connie wanted her.
Mamma couldn't see that such a thing was not possible.
"My darling, you mustn't be selfish. You must do what your little guest wants."
But she had to; and she was sent out of the room because she cried. It was much nicer upstairs in the nursery with Mimi, the Angora cat. Mimi knew that something sorrowful had happened. He sat still, just lifting the root of his tail as you stroked him. If only she could have stayed there with Mimi; but in the end she had to go back to the drawing-room.
If only she could have told Mamma what it felt like to see Connie with Ida in her arms, squeezing her tight to her chest and patting her as if Ida had been her child. She kept on saying to herself that Mamma didn't know; she didn't know what she had done. And when it was all over she took the wax doll and put her in the long narrow box she had come in, and buried her in the bottom drawer in the spare-room wardrobe. She thought: If I can't have her to myself I won't have her at all. I've got Emily. I shall just have to pretend she's not an idiot.
She pretended Ida was dead; lying in her paste-board coffin and buried in the wardrobe cemetery.
It was hard work pretending that Emily didn't look like Mrs. Spinker.
She had a belief that her father's house was nicer than other people's houses. It stood off from the high road, in Black's Lane, at the head of the town. You came to it by a row of tall elms standing up along Mr. Hancock's wall. Behind the last tree its slender white end went straight up from the pavement, hanging out a green balcony like a birdcage above the green door.
The lane turned sharp there and went on, and the long brown garden wall went with it. Behind the wall the lawn flowed down from the white house and the green veranda to the cedar tree at the bottom. Beyond the lawn was the kitchen garden, and beyond the kitchen garden the orchard; little crippled apple trees bending down in the long grass.
She was glad to come back to the house after the walk with Eliza, the nurse, or Annie, the housemaid; to go through all the rooms looking for Mimi; looking for Mamma, telling her what had happened.
"Mamma, the red-haired woman in the sweetie shop has got a little baby, and its hair's red, too. . . . Some day I shall have a little baby. I shall dress him in a long gown??"
"Robe, with bands of lace all down it, as long as that; and a white christening cloak sewn with white roses. Won't he look sweet?"
"He shall have lots of hair. I shan't love him if he hasn't."
"Oh, yes, you will."
"No. He must have thick, flossy hair like Mimi, so that I can stroke him. Which would you rather have, a little girl or a little boy?"
"Well?what do you think???"
"I think?perhaps I'd rather have a little girl."
She would be like Mamma, and her little girl would be like herself. She couldn't think of it any other way.
The school-treat was held in Mr. Hancock's field. All afternoon she had been with the children, playing Oranges and lemons; A ring, a ring of roses; and Here we come gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May: over and over again. And she had helped her mother to hand cake and buns at the infants' table.
The guest-children's tea was served last of all, up on the lawn under the immense, brown brick, many-windowed house. There wasn't room for everybody at the table, so the girls sat down first and the boys waited for their turn. Some of them were pushing and snatching.
She knew what she would have. She would begin with a bun, and go on through two sorts of jam to Madeira cake, and end with raspberries and cream. Or perhaps it would be safer to begin with raspberries and cream. She kept her face very still, so as not to look greedy, and tried not to stare at the Madeira cake lest people should see she was thinking of it. Mrs. Hancock had given her somebody else's crumby plate. She thought: I'm not greedy. I'm really and truly hungry. She could draw herself in at the waist with a flat, exhausted feeling, like the two ends of a concertina coming together.
She was doing this when she saw her mother standing on the other side of the table, looking at her and making signs.
"If you've finished, Hatty, you'd better get up and let that little boy have something."
They were all turning round and looking at her. And there was the crumby plate before her. They were thinking: "That greedy little girl has gone on and on eating." She got up suddenly, not speaking, and left the table, the Madeira cake and the raspberries and cream. She could feel her skin all hot and wet with shame.
And now she was sitting up in the drawing-room at home. Her mother had brought her a piece of seed-cake and a cup of milk with the cream on it. Mamma's soft eyes kissed her as they watched her eating her cake with short crumbly bites, like a little cat. Mamma's eyes made her feel so good, so good.
"Why didn't you tell me you hadn't finished?"
"Finished? I hadn't even begun."
"Oh-h, darling, why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I?I don't know."
"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."
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. And the smooth cream with the milk running under it, thin and cold, was delicious too.
Suddenly a thought came rushing at her. There was God and there was Jesus. But even God and Jesus were not more beautiful than Mamma. They couldn't be.
"You mustn't say things like that, Hatty; you mustn't, really. It might make something happen."
"Oh, no, it won't. You don't suppose they're listening all the time."
Saying things like that made you feel good and at the same time naughty, which was more exciting than only being one or the other. But Mamma's frightened face spoiled it. What did she think?what did she think God would do?
At the bottom of the orchard a door in the wall opened into Black's Lane, below the three tall elms.
She couldn't believe she was really walking there by herself. It had come all of a sudden, the thought that she must do it, that she must go out into the lane; and when she found the door unlatched, something seemed to take hold of her and push her out. She was forbidden to go into Black's Lane; she was not even allowed to walk there with Annie.
She kept on saying to herself: "I'm in the lane. I'm in the lane. I'm disobeying Mamma."
Nothing could undo that. She had disobeyed by just standing outside the orchard door. Disobedience was such a big and awful thing that it was a waste not to do something big and awful with it. So she went on, up and up, past the three tall elms. She was a big girl, wearing black silk aprons and learning French. Walking by herself. When she arched her back and stuck her stomach out she felt like a tall lady in a crinoline and shawl. She swung her hips and made her skirts fly out. That was her grown-up crinoline, swing-swinging as she went.
At the turn the cow's parsley and rose campion began; on each side a long trail of white froth with the red tops of the campion pricking through. She made herself a nosegay.
Past the second turn you came to the waste ground covered with old boots and rusted, crumpled tins. The little dirty brown house stood there behind the rickety blue palings; narrow, like the piece of a house that has been cut in two. It hid, stooping under the ivy bush on its roof. It was not like the houses people live in; there was something queer, some secret, frightening thing about it.
The man came out and went to the gate and stood there. He was the frightening thing. When he saw her he stepped back and crouched behind the palings, ready to jump out.
She turned slowly, as if she had thought of something. She mustn't run. She must not run. If she ran he would come after her.
Her mother was coming down the garden walk, tall and beautiful in her silver-gray gown with the bands of black velvet on the flounces and the sleeves; her wide, hooped skirts swung, brushing the flower borders.
She ran up to her, crying, "Mamma, I went up the lane where you told me not to."
"No, Hatty, no; you didn't."
You could see she wasn't angry. She was frightened.
"I did. I did."
Her mother took the bunch of flowers out of her hand and looked at it. "Yes," she said, "that's where the dark-red campion grows."
She was holding the flowers up to her face. It was awful, for you could see her mouth thicken and redden over its edges and shake. She hid it behind the flowers. And somehow you knew it wasn't your naughtiness that made her cry. There was something more.
She was saying in a thick, soft voice, "It was wrong of you, my darling."
Suddenly she bent her tall straightness. "Rose campion," she said, parting the stems with her long, thin fingers. "Look, Hatty, how beautiful they are. Run away and put the poor things in water."
She was so quiet, so quiet, and her quietness hurt far more than if she had been angry.
She must have gone straight back into the house to Papa. Harriett knew, because he sent for her. He was quiet, too. . . . That was the little, hiding voice he told you secrets in. . . . She stood close up to him, between his knees, and his arm went loosely round her to keep her there while he looked into her eyes. You could smell tobacco, and the queer, clean man's smell that came up out of him from his collar. He wasn't smiling; but somehow his eyes looked kinder than if they had smiled.
"Why did you do it, Hatty?"
"Because?I wanted to see what it would feel like."
"You mustn't do it again. Do you hear??you mustn't do it."
"Why? Because it makes your mother unhappy. That's enough why."
But there was something more. Mamma had been frightened. Something to do with the frightening man in the lane.