After finishing a lengthy overview of May Sinclair’s work, I had one of her short, early books to finish reading, The Tysons. I had dipped into it previously, noting the change in tone and approach from her later work. The book is arch and only seems half-serious, at least at the beginning. Maybe it’s a 90s thing, and I was hearing echoes of Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm, with a sense of the narration coming from a detached, tightly reined observer, looking down on the gentry and the humble, gossiping village fold as barely worthwhile playthings. Even if things are overly spritely up front, the jaundiced gaze starts to focus eventually as the particular case of Nevill Tyson and his taking a wife, beautiful young Molly, develops in sad and surprising ways.
Sinclair seems to have put before herself a simple group of characters, and an even more routine setting, and then sailed forth on a journey through the difficult passage of marriage. Nevill Tyson is a man of experience, something like one of Austen’s county newcomers, the surprising inheritor of a landholding, and more on the Wickham side than a Darcy. In the local excitement at his onset, Sinclair evaluates him through her Lizzie Bennet character, Miss Batchelor, who is sharp enough to condemn his rough edges and mysteries and genuine self-absorption. Tyson has no intention of being challenged or interesting.
Sinclair does some interesting things with her Miss Batchelor character, who may be something of a surrogate. The acts of the Tysons are seen from two perspectives, that of the somewhat lofty narration, and the lowly, misguided and misunderstanding village gossip which is an ongoing story of rumors and mistakes. Miss Batchelor heightens the tone and threshold for accuracy of the village narrative, and they still get it wrong.
As readers we know more than the villagers, and we get to see the inside of the Tyson’s marriage and how it fragments. The narrative is primarily concerned with the connections and clash of two immature egos and their adaptations. What’s interesting is the way that certain elements of the characters are figured in the same way as Sinclair’s later novels, which contain portraits of her parents, the unreliable and alcoholic father, and the limited, emotionally voracious mother.
The pressure of the Tyson’s relationship becomes clear when Molly has a baby. From Nevill’s perspective it has marred her beauty, and he is wildly, inappropriately jealous of the male infant. The competition for affection within a closed nuclear family is a critical element of Mary Olivier, and the same strange patriarchal jealously is evident here. Molly becomes a maternal icon, Nevill giving her a Botticelli print to signify her role, but Nevill cruelly separates her from the baby, from nursing, effectively sealing the infant’s doom. Molly accepts the order because she couldn’t comprehend her oceanic, transcendent connection to the infant, and she only responds to her fear of losing the mercurial Nevill.
The Tysons is more about husband than father, although it does explore the flaws of Nevill’s character based on his relationship to his own father, a successful tailor who moved up to the gentry and grew orchids. In its extended view of husband, the book shows the longtime egoist as ill-prepared to accept the role and responsibility, and he simply leaves and goes to town. The level of separation between the central couple is profound and quietly radical, as is the critique of male assumptions.
Nevill Tyson eventually responds to jealousy, as his detached and worldly crony Captain Standiford is pulled in by Molly’s solitary beauty–they’re linked by the village gossip, and that’s the mistaken narrative Miss Batchelor confirms. As the bond between Molly and Standiford peaks, Nevill races back and reclaims his old authority.
And then, as in Mary Olivier and with Sinclair’s father, alcoholism creeps in. Here it’s only a couple of incidents, but in the second one Nevill passes out in his study and a curtain catches fire, and Molly’s nightgown ignites as she tries to put it out. She is burned and disfigured, but seems headed towards survival. Nevill believes that through his own guilt and Molly’s suffering he has entered a new life, but it is fleeting. Apparently she becomes pregnant again at this time, while Nevill’s good intentions dissipate and he determines the necessity of joining the army with greater gusto than his past forays, and seeking a heroic death. This is just what happens, while molly succumbs to desertion and brain fever. Sinclair adds an interesting additional narrative at the end, when Nevill is writing competing versions of his contradictory thoughts, a letter to Molly and a more honest journal of his flight to the Sudan and battles there. As he hears of Molly’s death and an attack begins, he rips up the letter and his memory is preserved by the journal as he finds the heroic death he had been seeking. Sinclair’s primary point is that everything the outside world, in the village and elsewhere, knows about the Tysons is completely wrong. It’s an oblique critique of late-Victorian social roles, proprieties, narrative, and hero worship. And like the rest of Sinclair’s work, it is interesting and well-done, but somehow unsatisfying. We know Sinclair can be charming, but she chooses not to be; she defies expectations and generates irony and insight, rather than attachment.