1924 photograph of May Sinclair by E. O. Hoppé
May Sinclair was born in Liverpool, England, in 1863; she was the youngest of six children and the only daughter. Due to her father's difficulties with business ventures and alcohol, her parents were separated. All of her brothers inherited heart disease that took the life of four of them before the age of fifty, and May Sinclair nursed most of them during their infirmity to their death. She had no formal education until she was eighteen, when she studied with Dorothea Beale at Cheltenham Ladies College. It was under Ms. Beale's influence that May Sinclair began her lifelong study and interest in philosophy, psychology, and Greek literature; she also began to write: poetry, initially, then fiction. Her first published novel was Audrey Craven in 1897. From 1908 May Sinclair was active in the campaign to secure the vote for women. She worked with writers such as Violet Hunt and Cicely Hamilton for the Suffragist cause.
May Sinclair wrote a total of twenty-four novels, as well as a variety of poetry, criticism, philosophical works, and short stories. For the last fifteen years of her life, however, she suffered from Parkinson's disease. In 1932 she retired from London to Buckinghamshire, where she died in 1946.Critically acclaimed in both Britain and America as one of the great writers of the Georgian Age, she was the friend and contemporary of Wells, James, Hardy, Galsworthy, Ford Madox Ford, and of Dorothy Richardson, about whose work she first coined the famous phrase 'stream of consciousness'. She was one of the earliest English novelists to be influenced by the work of Freud and Jung, and was influenced too by her friendships with the Imagists Richard Aldington, Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle.
--from the 1986 edition of Life and Death of Harriett Frean by Penguins Books--Virago Press
After the First World War, before the emergence of Virginia Woolf as a major writer, May Sinclair was considered the most distinguished woman novelist in England. She was widely read and at the same time emjoyed the respect of 'serious' writers like Pound, Forster and T. S. Eliot. A reading of Harriett Frean suggests reasons for both the respect and the popularity.
Her work was frequently compared with that of Charlotte Bronte, May Sinclair's own favorite novelist, whose influence can be seen most clearly in the novel she set in Yorkshsire entitled Three Sisters. Yet the heroine of Harriet Frean recalls another passionate, embattled nineteenth-century character, not Jane Eyre, but Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot's Mill on the Floss. The novel can be read as a delayed response to Maggie's question which has echoed down the corridors of women's writing:The answer May Sinclair provides in Life and Death of Harriett Frean is an emphatic 'No'. That whatever the peace--'even joy'--that may be achieved through self-denial and the subjugation of the individual will, it is 'not right' for women to resign or subdue themselves.Is it not right to resign ourselves entirely, whatever . . . may be denied us? I have found great peace in that for the last two or three years--even joy in subduing my own will.
--Jean Radford in the Introduction to Life and Death of Harriett Frean (New York: Penguin Books, 1986)