Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Life and Death of Harriett Frean” as Want to Read:
The Life and Death of Harriett Frean
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

3.56  ·  Rating details ·  845 ratings  ·  96 reviews
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, there is only one way to confront such an unworthy passion. Or so it seems.. ...more
Paperback, 184 pages
Published April 14th 1980 by Virago (first published 1922)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Life and Death of Harriett Frean, please sign up.
Popular Answered Questions
Joel A woman, or young girl, had been sexually assaulted "behind the dirty blue palings".

As Clari mentions in their answer, for Harriett it becomes all ti…more
A woman, or young girl, had been sexually assaulted "behind the dirty blue palings".

As Clari mentions in their answer, for Harriett it becomes all tied in with her fears of sexuality and maturity. I don't get the impression Harriett was assaulted herself, however - when Connie finally tells her what had gone on behind the palings, that she'd only been able to pick up vague hints about before, she seems shocked and surprised,

She also ends up tying it in with the Hancocks in general in her mind, with Connie's fondness for dirty jokes and stories, and the way her parents view Mr. Hancock as common and vulgar. (less)

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.56  · 
Rating details
 ·  845 ratings  ·  96 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Life and Death of Harriett Frean
Feb 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

What a strange little book it was. It spans the whole life, almost seventy years, of the title protagonist but it reads more like as a report of a single day, at most some hours. Harriett Frean was born and brought up in loving family, Mamma and Papa taught her to act and behave beautifully and indicated it as paramount virtue in life. She took that advice to her heart and lived her life quietly, at all cost trying to satisfy parents’ expectations, rejecting own chance for love, not noticing da
Paul Bryant
Mar 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: novels
I got this from the notorious 1001 Books you Must Read or We Will Put Your Household Pets in a Food Blender We Are Serious. I know some people do not like that list much but this slender bitter novel from 1922 would have otherwise passed me by completely.

This novel is a ferocious yet so genteelly understated attack on that exalted Victorian female virtue of self-denial. The idea is that you live a life of private misery because you do nothing to make your parents or anyone else the least bit ups
Apr 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: british, 20th-century
This could well be the banner for living a life of quiet desperation.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

May Sinclair 1898

(Mary Amelia St. Clair, 1863-1946)

Superficially, it is a nothing little book: a child is born, grows up leading a quiet, privileged life, and then seventy-odd years later dies as quietly as a falling leaf. That is the story. Nothing happens. Nothing moves. No breath of wind. No rustling skirt. No shouting children. No gnashing of teeth. No joy. No pain. Nothing. As smooth as proverbial glass, this life un
Aug 25, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In about eighty pages, Sinclair relates a whole life, one constrained because the title character never separates from her parents, not even after their deaths. Harriet’s charm as a child is squashed by her not desiring to ever make her parents unhappy. Freudian matters are hinted at; they’ll be recalled near the end. Harriet lives on her perceived importance of her father, writer of one book. She prides herself on her unselfishness after her one romance, the consequences of which are brutal to ...more
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
"Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been?
"I've been to London, to see the Queen.
"Pussycat, Pussycat, what did you do there?
"I caught a little mouse under the chair."

Baby Harriett (Frean) laughs everytime her mother recites this to her. Her parents wonder what it is here which their baby finds funny.

The very first novel I've read which starts with a nursery rhyme.

Later, after about an hour of nonstop reading, Harriet Frean is already 68 years old, dying of the same cancer which killed her mother
Nov 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: modernism
4.5 stars
This is a brief novella; readable in one or two sittings and was written by May Sinclair in 1922. It was Sinclair who coined the term “stream of consciousness” when reviewing Dorothy Richardson. Sinclair was a suffragist and modernist who also was influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis. Sinclair is an accomplished novelist, but most of her work is rather puzzlingly out of print.
This is a study of the Victorian notion of women and their role. The story of Harriet Frean’s life from birth
The graceful, simple writing wastes no time in making understood Harriett Frean's upbringing, her idolization of her mother and the desire to emulate a passed down sense of beauty and moral courage. This book will stick with me, I will probably analise Harriett's life with more interest than she did. ...more
I reread The Life and Death of Harriett Frean for my thesis, as Sinclair is an author whom I am focusing on. I loved the book the first time around, and my second encounter with it was no different. First published in 1922, elements of the novella feel incredibly modern. I love the way in which Harriett is followed from her early childhood until her last days. Sinclair's account of the life of a fictionalised Victorian woman, who goes against gender stereotypes in several ways, is a joy and deli ...more
Nate D
As a denunciation of the Victorian-era ideal daughter, dutiful to the point of total self-negation, this probably had considerable bite in its era. Nowadays, the protagonist seems almost mythologically empty, unable and unwilling to ever form any personality, goals, or really any relationship to the world whatsoever beyond a veneration of her father and the love she heroically (destroyingly) denied herself. In its singleminded satire of a long-buried standard, I found it totally depressing, stif ...more
Fiona MacDonald
A very strange book, but one with quite an important message to be had.
'Life and Death of Harriet Frean' follows our lead from the day she is born until the day she dies. It chronicles her hopes, desires, adoration of her parents and horror at being the love object of her best friend's husband. Each chapter is a few years ahead, and it's rather poignant to watch Harriet's slow decline as she loses first one, then both of her beloved parents and has to contend with living alone.
Oct 07, 2014 rated it liked it
Okay so even though I only gave this 3 stars I'm still really glad I read it. The author, May Sinclair, was a poppin' writer, feminist, and suffragette in the early 1900s who was hugely influential to modernist literature but she's almost completely forgotten. She wrote over 23 novels, 39 short stories, a couple poetry collections, and some crucial literary criticism. In fact, she was the first one to use the term "stream-of-consciousness" in a literary sense. Along with all this her books were ...more
The title says it all...The story started when Harriett Frean was a baby and her mother cooed over her, reciting a nursery rhyme. It ended when she was dying at the age of sixty-eight, while she listened to the same nursery rhyme from somewhere at the back of her head, and her last words were "Mamma".  If the author had made the title "The Life and Death of Spinster Harriett Frean", then there's nothing more to say in this review.

Harriett was an old maid; otherwise, hers was a very ordinary life
Aug 26, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An entire lifetime in 138 pages. A concise, poignant look at the dangers of being who we think we should be rather than truly living.
Sep 01, 2020 rated it liked it
3.5 stars. An engaging, sad, gentle novella about Harriet Frean. Harriet is brought up by her middle class parents to behave ‘beautifully’. Harriet is a woman who cannot allow herself to destroy her parent’s child. First published in 1922.
Mar 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 1001, get-paper-copy

Harriett Frean is an only child and she thinks highly of her papa and her mamma. As she grows older, she starts to think highly of herself. In her mind she is above all of her friends because her father is intellectual, her mother is elegant and she (herself) is such a good child.

later in life, she falls in love with her friend's fiancé but she refuses to act upon it at it would destroy her friend's life. Because of this choice, she has an even higher opinion of herself.
Aug 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A novel from 1922 that I gulped down in less than a day. The slimness of the volume and the generous margins helped (it's really more of a novella), but the prose was also nicely pellucid and readable. Although the story is sad, and has a very specific point to make about how Harriet's typically stifling (upper middle class) Victorian upbringing shapes her life, the fine spareness of the writing keeps the book from being heavy-handed and kept me turning the pages. ...more
Apr 18, 2015 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Wanda by: Karen and Bettie
18 APR 2015 - spied on Karen's update and on Bettie's update. Free download at Project Gutenberg:

Peter Nelson-King
Jul 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Originally written 12/31/19:

I typically avoid making a judgment of the best book of the year for the simple reason that I don't follow new books. I keep up with movies well enough (and Parasite appears to be the best this year) but I hate waiting months for library holds for new books and can't afford to drop $30 for the hardback, so budget and esoteric tastes means that I usually read old used books. That being said, I'm prompted to break my silence to talk about the surprise best book I read t
Dec 17, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: 1001-books
This is a very short novel but that doesn’t stop Sinclair constructing a complex character who spends her life bound by moral boundaries. Harriett grows up with parents who ensure she is protected in every way. I think they do their best but you can’t help thinking that Harriett also adds to the mix with a kind of supercilious self-righteousness that makes her kind of irritating to be around.

This is put to the test when she falls for her best friend’s fiancé, but her response is, by this point y
Karim Anani
Feb 19, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I don't get how it's been eleven years since I read The Life and Death of Harriett Frean, but it has been eleven, and the book has lingered.

I originally read it for a class, and found to my surprise that most of my fellow students didn't actually like it. "Nothing happened," they said.

I argued that that was the point. A girl is born, grows-up, and dies after a quiet, unassuming life. But it is a quietly tumultuous one. Harriet Frean is taught to be perfect and beautiful, at the expense of all el
Apr 15, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: 1001, english
Who is Harriett Frean? she is an insignificant women with no past no present and no future.
Her life is so empty, the book reminded me of the curious case of Benjamin Button , which contained an insignificant life as well.
There are a lot of lessons that you could learn from this book, such as never be too good, never give up your dreams , and be yourself.
Harriett seemed to me that she hadn't developed a personality of her own in her entire life, the book began with Harriett the child , and she ha
Feb 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011
What a sad little book. I could relate to Harriett who often sacrificed what she wanted for what she thought others wanted, and it just resulted in no one actually getting what they wanted. Such a sad existence, and even the most simplest choices turned out to be the wrong ones.

The story was written very clearly and simply, with little emotion, yet it was full of feeling and emotion. Definitely a surprising little gem.
T.L. Bodine
Dec 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
I read this novel in one sitting as part of a British literature course I took. I read dozens of books that semester, but this one stuck out and has haunted me ever since. It is, in its own quiet and understated way, one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read.

Essentially, the story revolves around the detached illustration of the way well-meaning social rules can create a monster.
Dec 15, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018, virago

It's hard to 'like' a novel that so ruthlessly and efficiently constructs a woman's cage of self-deprivation and extreme self-effacement to the point of near disappearance. As social critique it is devastating in its effectiveness; as a rainy Saturday afternoon read it was not the best choice. (2.5)
Jul 03, 2019 rated it liked it
Recommended to Nente by: GR auto-recommendations
Sometimes this was pretty sharp. On the whole, though, not only the heroine but the novel itself seemed limited in scope.
Still worth a read, especially as it's so short; I wouldn't put it past some modern writers to stretch the same story to 600 pages.
Ruth Mcauley
Jan 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
This short novel tells the disturbing tale of a Victorian girl named Harriett Frean and her attempt to live a "morally beautiful" life... a decision that becomes more difficult when she falls in love with her best friend's fiancé. The story calls into question whether or not doing the moral thing always leads to the greatest happiness for everyone involved and explores the concept that you may be mistaken when you let your actions be dictated by what you think other people want for you. I really ...more
This short novel concerns the life of Harriet Frean, a woman of the late nineteenth century. It's told in succinct, almost plain style, using select episodes to illuminate a whole life. It is also a dark and harsh critique of late Victorian morals and propriety as well as an examination of the dark side of familial bonds. Harriet makes several choices according to the repressive and self sacrificing dictates of her parents' Victorian values. However, instead of improving the lives of those affec ...more
Jun 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
I didn't necessarily "really like this book", but it did strike me and I found myself impatient to get back to it whenever I put it down, so it's 4 stars. This is a very sad, empty sort of book of a very sad, empty sort of life. Harriet wants nothing more than to be like her mother and to act "good" by the standards of her parents. She stifles herself, never giving thought to consequences, or her own views or ideas. She never goes for what she wants because it would be "improper". And then we le ...more
Oct 30, 2010 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Stephanie "Jedigal"
Enjoyable and quick read. I liked Harriet the child more than Harriet the adult, but I wouldn't if that wouldn't be true for the vast majority of human beings if I could know them all in both states. The author does a nice job of showing a person who doesn't even realize how insular and self-centered her viewpoint is until very late (too late) in her life. Somehow the reading of it is not nearly as depressing as the message of it. ...more
« previous 1 3 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Forgotten Classic...: 5/18 -The Life and Death of Harriett Frean 30 12 Jun 16, 2018 02:17PM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • Lolly Willowes
  • The Return of the Soldier
  • Bunner Sisters
  • Michael Kohlhaas
  • The Well of Loneliness
  • Quartet
  • The Fox
  • The Odd Women
  • For Your Safety Please Hold On
  • The Glimpses of the Moon
  • kipocihkân: Poems New and Selected
  • The Good Soldier
  • A Tale of a Tub
  • The Garden Party
  • Tender Buttons
  • Rashomon
  • The Voyage Out
  • The Garden Party and Other Stories
See similar books…
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

May Sinclair was the pseudonym of Mary Amelia St. Clair, a popular British writer who wrote about two dozen novels, short stories and poetry. She was an active suffragist, and member of the Woman Writers' Suffrage League. May Sinclair was also a significant critic, in the a

Related Articles

  Historian Alexis Coe's new book, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, arrived in U.S. bookstores in February. Coe...
146 likes · 30 comments
“She found that by a system of punctual movements she could give to her existence the reasonable appearance of an aim.” 3 likes
More quotes…