Posted by: zhiv | June 3, 2011

About May Sinclair

The May Sinclair well is deep. That’s not a surprise, as it seems to me that a big part of the trick is just to have heard of her in the first place. I’m not sure if this is actually true, but there does appear to be a solid note of willed obscurity about her, as if she was all about the writing and thinking and the work, and she wasn’t very comfortable at all with the trappings of literary notoriety and fame. We forget, sometimes, about the distinction between writing books and even moving about in literary circles, and the ability to craft a viable public persona, and some people are just better at being public figures than others. And then there is reputation and literary posterity, where the will may be on the side of the masculine and patriarchal critics between the wars and in the 50s, obscuring the accomplishments of eminent modernists like Sinclair and Dorothy Richardson.

Mary Olivier and Harriet Frean both contain autobiographical elements, especially MO, and Sinclair’s life with her own mother was a complicated factor in her work, education, and role in society and literature. Sinclair was not just important, she was successful, at different times and in different ways. Her work is good, even great, and it covers all the stops. It fits quite neatly in between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and she can serve well as a missing link. But there’s something about the work and the woman that resists the embrace of the reader and student, keeping out of the view of active and dynamic scholarly attention. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and things are changing, and she’s one of the “silenced voices” that is finally being heard. And maybe it just takes time, given the 20th century circumstances, and a few extra decades, for things to come full circle, and for a serious, solitary woman like May Sinclair to find her place.

A century is a very round chunk of time, and it’s fun and easy to look at and think about what May Sinclair was doing in April 1911, when she was acclaimed and important and writing and working with great fluency and ambition. She was in her late 40s, and had been a well-known author for a little more than a decade. Just as a reference point, Virginia Woolf was past 10,000 days and headed towards literary maturity, about to turn 30, and we can follow her concurrent activities, just as we can ponder the vicissitudes of George Eliot’s reputation at the time. I was reading somewhere yesterday a reference to Woolf’s familiar statement that the world changed at some point in December 1910, just to highlight the century note. Does anybody remember anything especially significant about last December?

And mentioning Woolf, 20 years junior to Sinclair, prompts me to begin by tracking one example here about how the waters and connections run deep. I’m not sure why, but for some reason it sticks in my head that Virginia Woolf’s first published work is about the Brontes, the essay Haworth 1904, or whatever it is called. My earliest glances at Sinclair culled the note that her 1912 critical biography The Three Brontes was the first thorough feminist study of their work. It was only later, continuing Sinclair studies, that the idea started to sink in that Villette (and Lucy Snowe) is a pioneering text of psychological fiction, early mining of the vein later worked by Henry James and George Meredith. At first I was confused and didn’t see the distinction between The Three Brontes and Sinclair’s novel The Three Sisters (1914), written two years later and the first of her three important “psychological novels,” with Mary Olivier and Harriet Frean being the other two. My point, I guess, is that there was puzzle about women and writing, about feminism and psychology and modernism and the novel. And right about this time, a century ago, May Sinclair was starting to write about the Brontes, and making some important breakthroughs.

The Encyclopedia of British Women Writers entry opens by saying that “Sinclair wrote 24 novels and two major works of philosophy, as well as numerous poems, short stories, and reviews.” There isn’t a lot of work on Sinclair that comes readily to hand. The book I don’t have and haven’t seen is Suzanne Raitt’s 2000 May Sincliar: A Modern Victorian. I’ve looked at an excerpt, “May Sinclair and WWI,” online. I have a copy of T.E.M. Boll’s Miss May Sinclair, Novelist, which is interesting. But my main source, absolutely clear and very helpful, is the small 1976 Twayne series volume by Hrisey Zegger (fascinating name), which is an edited version of her dissertation. I learned quite a lot from this little book, not just about Sinclair, but also about philosophy and the novel and literary history. Zegger’s bibliographical comment on Boll’s book is that it errs on the side of hagiography, which I had noticed, but it’s nice to see that Sinclair has had at least one fervent scholarly supporter. We’ll see if Raitt’s book makes a major advance in the sparse field of Sinclair studies. But here’s what I know.

A key item is that Sinclair bears a strong resemblance to a late Victorian, Edwardian, and Modernist version of George Eliot. The “two major works of philosophy” shouldn’t be a throwaway item. It has been a very long time since I looked carefully into the biography of Georg Eliot, back when I didn’t know a single thing (not that I know anything now). Gordon Haight’s 1968 George Eliot may have been the first literary biography that I ever read (in 1979?), and at the time I had only the vaguest understanding of Victorian culture and literature, so I don’t know how I would have made sense of any of it. But I have a clear sense of some very broad strokes, more assured from gaining an old, basic familiarity with her work. The part that’s sketchy is her apprenticeship with John Chapman and the Westminster Review, her intellectual work before she went (semi-scandalously) to live with G.H. Lewes and before she started writing novels. She translated Strauss (1846) and Feuerbach (1854) and engaged in the religious and philosophical conflicts of the era, at the end of the 1840’s and through the 50s up to Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858. Both Adam Bede (which contains a fictionalized portrait of her upstanding, idealized father) and The Mill on the Floss have autobiographical elements, the latter a crucially important female Bildungsroman, despite the fact that it doesn’t really end or work quite as well as it should. I don’t remember Mill as well as I might, but my general impression is that Maggie is quick and smart and spirited, but she doesn’t have exactly the same intellectual capacity that Mary Ann Evans did. Still, Maggie is more intelligent that those around her, and the story tracks the limits of her role and her frustration and rebellion. When I read and studied it I doubt that I understood much about Bildungsroman in general, let alone the significance of the female version. Mary Olivier, of course, tracks a similar childhood and adolescence, and a comparison of the two books is a good place to begin a George Eliot-May Sinclair study. Mary Olivier contains a lot of details about Sinclair’s actual scholarship and intellectual development and journey. Her character reads Spinoza and later struggles with Kant. The story, Zegger informs me, develops both T.H. Green’s philosophical Idealism, the Oxford adaptation of Kant that Sinclair explicated in her books A Defense of Idealism (1917) and The New Idealism (1922), and more interestingly, Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (1911), which Sinclair may have helped to develop. Underhill’s book and method was a sort of practical non-religious spiritualism, kind of like the current mindfulness movement in meditation and neuroplasticity. Kind of, but not quite.

So another factor in Sinclair’s relative obscurity might be that she backed the wrong philosophy horse, and the Cambridge Neo-Realism of G.E. Moore, aided and followed by Bertrand Russell and Lytton Strachey, gave Bloomsbury a leg up and helped Virginia Woolf’s cause. I’m way out of my depths here, especially without making a few notes and figuring things out first. I could say that Sinclair was a genuine student and “working” philosopher, but Woolf had the advantage of growing up in a household of sophisticated rationalism (Leslie Stephen/Mr. Ramsay did make it to “R,” after all), and the adaptation of her circle and friends to an abstract realism broke nicely in her favor. But I don’t know that Sinclair was actually on the other side of some great divide, or if it made any difference in her work and how it was received and considered. The part that matters is that she was so sophisticated about philosophy in the first place, in something like the same way that George Eliot had her own solid intellectual credentials.

So let me go back to the Bildungsroman, where the ground is at least slightly firmer. I wanted to mention a couple of other books in the tradition of the female Bildungsroman, which is a good general topic for study. I think I first heard about the subgenre, seeing the title of an article about it, when I was reading S.O. Jewett’s A Country Doctor. Thinking now about that book, it seems to be a fairly successful combination of George Eliot’s work in Adam Bede (fictional idealized father) and Mill on the Floss–just what I mentioned above. Country Doctor pointed the way towards H.B. Stowe’s Pearl of Orr’s Island, a deeply intriguing book that could have been as good, while still flawed, as Mill on the Floss, if Stowe hadn’t stopped halfway through. It’s a good list though, with Mary Olivier looking strong at the finish. Interesting how the heroines, if they don’t die, like Maggie T. and zhiv in Pearl, end up alone. ___’s rejection of marriage in A Country Doctor seems to fit well into the tradition of Mary Olivier and The Rector’s Daughter.

As for the Bildungsroman in general, Zegger has a nice note from W.C. Frierson, how “the Edwardian and Georgian tendency to question traditional values and to seek new values found a convenient vehicle in the life novel, in which a protagonist struggled to come to terms with his society and to discover his own philosophy of life.” Zegger mentions H.G. Wells’ books Kipps, Mr. Polly, and Tono Bungay as in this vein, and cites Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe as an important best-selling instance. I have a vague memory of reading Buddenbrooks, as the first time I ever heard the term Bildungsroman, and maybe it’s all part of a very large, literary whole, once you branch out to Wilhelm Meister (there goes that Goethe again, Mr. Perfect, with Carlyle translating: never got that point before), David Copperfield and Pendennis, and Portrait of the Artist.

Another helpful term and category Zegger uses is “transitional literature.” I suppose this is a grouping of the work between Victorian and Modern, with writers making it part of the way. This approach gives the nod to Modernism over realism, of course, but that’s how things seemed to go. The trick is to match transitional up with psychological. H.G. Wells’ novels about marriage and society are transitional, apparently; Zegger cites The New Machiavelli, Marriage, The Passionate Friends, and The Wife of Sir Issac Harman. Sinclair wrote her own set of novels in this vein, including The Tryons and Kitty Trailleur. It’s kind of funny how I never spent any time thinking about or looking at Wells or Samuel Butler before, but I’m discovering that I have a rather sweeping general weakness in the Edwardian-Georgian era as a whole. I guess I thought I had it more or less covered (less, of course) with Conrad and Hardy and James and a few others.

I should note that Sinclair’s first major success was a novel of “philosophical idealism,” The Divine Fire (1902). Its major predecessor was our friend Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere (1888). Put that one on the list. The Divine Fire became a bestseller in the United States, and it was on the subsequent lecture tour that Sinclair’s discomfort with literary notoriety became apparent; at least that’s my guess. She had been sequestered with her family and her mother for so long, and she just wasn’t very good at public life, at least not at first. At any rate, The Divine Fire apparently provides an example of how to write a novel along the principles of Idealism, while Mary Olivier puts all three strands together: Idealism, psychology, and Modernism.

The psychological strand is crucially important, but first the “war interval” should be considered. It’s quite interesting to have come out of spending time on the literature of World War I and to circle back to Modernism, but with a feminist slant. You get a starter list of books and authors and poets, but new material keeps popping up. the war is everywhere and a part of everything, but you knew that. Adding new titles to the Lit WWI list is a separate post, but I’ll note that Hugh Walpole’s the Dark Forest, for instance, gets mentioned here, as Sinclair was impressed when it was published in 1916, but three years later she was grouchy and thought that Walpole was headed in the wrong direction. The main note is that Sinclair wrote two novels that could be considered WWI Lit: Tasker Jones (1916) and The Tree of Heaven (1917). The Tree of Heaven covers the development of a family from 1895 to 1916, and it “was one of the first novels to explore the psychological aspect of the war” (EoBWW). Tree of Heaven also includes portraits of contemporary literary figures, with characters based on Yeats (“Lawrence Stephen”–intriguing last name) and Ezra Pound. Also important is the fact that The Tree of Heaven was a bestseller in 1918, a popular work laced with patriotic enthusiasm that Sinclair later reconsidered. Having a better sense of sales figures and general popularity could be key to getting a better sense of Sinclair, but there’s no doubt that she was a well-known, successful author with a focused and completely serious literary ambition.

Sinclair’s actual war experience is another characteristic oddity. Raitt, mentioned earlier as the author of the book I’m missing that might put all of this together, has a National Center for the Humanities article called May Sinclair and WWI online. Sinclair tried to jump into action, as much as she could, on the ambulance side, but she linked up with a problematic character, Dr. Hector Munro, who blackballed her for taking wounded German soldiers from the front, amongst other conflicts. Need to know more about this, but Sinclair only spent three weeks with the ambulance unit before she was sent home and then blocked from returning. Still, she saw a lot in a brief time, and wrote a Journal of Impressions in Belgium (1915), and the episode made a strong impression on her.

Sinclair had already written her first important psychological novel in 1914, The Three Sisters. I like Zegger’s general formulation, how Henry James pushed the psychological novel forward, but Sinclair was adding the influence of Hardy and the Brontes. Zegger says that in TTS “MS… captured in this novel a dimension of passion, of emotional force, that one finds in the fiction of Thomas Hardy, the Brontes and DH Lawrence but that one misses in James’s novels” (pg. 65). This provides a good context for Tess of the D’Urbervilles. She adds that “S’s psychological novels echo both the subject matter and method of Charlotte Bronte’s novels, especially those of Villette” (pg. 67).

I stumbled on a copy of Robert M. Adams The Land and Literature of England (nudged to grab it by Amateur Reader, who was recently reading Adams), which is where I saw the already familiar note by Virginia Woolf about December 1910. Adams covers a lot of land (history) and literature, and this 1983 book might be called pre-feminist, at least in the sections I’ve read. The mile-wide, inch deep kind of thing, but it has its interest. In “the Watershed of 1910,” coming just before “the Ripe Society of PreWar England,” Adams talks about the impact of Constance Garnett’s translation of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov in 1912, the first from the Russian original (earlier ones had been from French versions): “Karamazov was gigantic, overwhelming in its direct emotional appeal; it made novelists like Henry James suddenly look timid and pale.” Adams notes how Crime and Punishment came two years later “and now the novels of Dostoyevsky, which for years had been dismissed as overstrained, hysterical, and exaggerated, seemed to express exactly the crises of the human soul in the modern world” (pg. 452). Adams goes on, talking about how English writers processed Dostoyevsky, “D.H. Lawrence and Virgina Woolf proclaimed their emancipation from D. at the very moment they were drawing intellectual sustenance from him.” The Russian craze (see Woolf’s essay on Russian novelists) is thus interesting as a supplement to the direction supplied by Hardy and the Brontes.

So these are some of the backgrounds to May Sinclair. Mary Olivier seems the obvious starting point, and Harriet Frean is a quick addition, a brief but valuable echo. But it seems that The Three Sisters is necessary, and reading those three books together gets one to the core of Sinclair’s accomplishment. There is a lot more, however, and I have a copy of a short, early work, The Tysons (1898). I could finish that and I also have Sinclair’s breakthrough book, The Divine fire (1904), and could read both while I’m waiting to find The Three Sisters. And I also have The Romantic (1920), one of the “psychoanalytic problem novels”–I didn’t get to Sinclair and psychoanalysis, did I–the story of “a young man, the son of an automobile manufacturer, who romanticizes war as a compensation for his impotence” (pg. 94). I have a note from Zegger that “war had not only engaged but had been a means of expressing the repressed sexual feelings of an emancipated class.” Ya think?



  1. […] spring of this year. I had built up a fair amount of May Sinclair momentum, and wrote out a lengthy introductory piece about her work as I was finishing this novel. And then I got so busy and distracted, and so far […]

  2. […] May Sinclair presents some challenges. You have to assume that there’s a reason that she’s obscure […]

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