The blog has been celebrating the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth: this entry is about an author whom she claimed as an influence on her writing.
Her old servant, Hannah, had gone, and her new servant, Maggie, had had a baby.
After the first shock and three months' loss of Maggie, it occurred to Harriett that the beautiful thing would be to take Maggie back and let her have the baby with her, since she couldn't leave it.
The baby lay in his cradle in the kitchen, black-eyed and rosy, doubling up his fat, naked knees, smiling his crooked smile, and saying things to himself. Harriett had to see him every time she came into the kitchen. Sometimes she heard him cry, an intolerable cry, tearing the nerves and heart. And sometimes she saw Maggie unbutton her black gown in a hurry and put out her white, rose-pointed breast to still his cry.
Harriett couldn't bear it. She could not bear it.
She decided that Maggie must go. Maggie was not doing her work properly.
observations: I’ve recently been reading Agatha Christie’s Autobiography. In it she says this, about a time when she was in her late teens or early twenties (pre-WW1):
It must have been about this time that I began reading the novels of May Sinclair, by which I was much impressed – and, indeed, when I read them now I am still much impressed. I think she was one of our finest and most original novelists.Sinclair lived from 1863 till 1946, and wrote fiction, poetry and criticism. She seems to have been the first person to use the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’, and wrote a huge amount of fiction. While reading this book I came across an article by the novelist Jonathan Coe, who discussed the Virago Modern Classics of the 1980s and in particular this book, which he calls ‘a perfect gem’. His article is excellent, highly recommended – he also looks at one of my favourite authors, Rosamond Lehmann.
Harriett Frean is a very short book, telling a dismal story: she lives a careful Victorian life, and passes up her chance of love and marriage. She ends up alone apart from the servant above. She is shown as hard and ill-natured – but has let herself become like that. She still thinks she did the right thing in sending away a young man she loved, even though this has meant miserable lives for many, with a knock-on effect over the years.
To quote Coe again:
it manages to trace the whole arc of its heroine's life from birth to death….and her own descent into an increasingly vain and self-deluding old age. It looks unsparingly at the moral degeneration of one woman as her heart hardens into a protective bitterness, but that doesn't make it, in itself, a bitter novel. What gives the book its tragic force is the reserve of authorial compassion we can sense in the gaps between each fragmentary episode and every terse, clipped sentence.In one way it couldn’t be more different from Christie’s murder stories – which are full of change and movement, they have short time spans, few characters are followed through their lives. This book came out the same year as Christie’s The Secret Adversary, and you could hardly imagine two more different works of fiction. Tuppence Cowley (as she then was) and Harriett Frean have nothing in common. But you can see that Sinclair and Christie shared a fascination for people’s thoughts, the memories and moments going through a young woman’s head, the decisions about what is important. Harriett’s own thoughts reminded me of some of Christie’s passages inside her more introspective female characters’ heads (no, exactly, not Tuppence). You can clearly see Sinclair’s influence on Christie’s straight novels – the Mary Westmacott books – and on the autobiography itself.
And, hugely in its favour, Harriett Frean is a very short book. It is not cheering, but it is complete, and it won’t take up much of your time.
More Agatha Christie entries over the past two weeks, or by clicking the tabs below: the Christie Autobiography is here.
The picture is A Young Woman nursing a Baby by Jacob Henricus Maris, 1868, from the Athenaeum website.