I guess I’m going to try to write some sort of post on this excellent book, which I read back in the 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 away from the blog and my amateur studies here that I completely forgot to write the post. What’s funny is how close I came: fortunately I jotted down a few notes about the main currents and characters, so I had everything more or less prepped and ready, and fell just one morning’s effort in the chair short of writing it out. But I can use the notes now to do a more generalized version, and then at least there will be a placeholder to go along with the rest of my May Sinclair materials.
I remember very well my reasons for and excitement in turning to The Divine Fire after reading Sinclair’s later, overtly modernist books Harriet Frean and Mary Olivier. DF is the book that became a bestseller in America and turned Sinclair into a literary celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. Apparently Teddy Roosevelt was a big fan, and my more recent studies have revealed that Sinclair became good friends and a close correspondent with Annie Fields during her American tour, and Sinclair’s letters to Fields are sitting over in Pasadena at the Huntington Library. The point, then, in reading The Divine Fire was to get a sense of the book that put Sinclair on the map and thrust her into the consciousness of the public and the intelligentsia, where her years of study and superior learning made her immediately authoritative and fairly comfortable, although she was not a natural public figure. If you want to draw the George Eliot parallel, I suppose that The Divine Fire was the rough and lesser equivalent of Adam Bede, a hit book that revealed a “new” novelist of surprising depth and insight.
The Divine Fire is fun and engaging and exciting, and it’s easy to see why it was a bestseller. the set-up and main character is almost too good to be truie, if you love literature and old books and libraries and the romance of the book trade, as I do. the hero is “Savage” Keith Richman, who has grown up from infancy in his father Issac’s bookshop, a business which has expanded to a larger and more central location. Richman, or SKR as he sometimes signs himself, is thus an 1890’s version of young Samuel Johnson, a prodigy and savant of books and literature–who happens to have the soul and spirit of a poet. The fact that the central character is male is also reminiscent of Adam Bede, as Sinclair was evidently evolving and seeking a readership, and wasn’t ready to cast a “new woman” as her protagonist.
Having her poet-bookseller as male affords Sinclair a broad latitude to make SKR a man of his time, and in the opening chapters he gets drunk, chases after an actress, and rumbles around comfortably in the demi-monde of Grub Street and the London music halls. All the while Sinclair does a good job of making us believe that Richman has a deep soul and profound learning, the the hungover expert clerk at the bookshop dreams in Greek and has inherited the mantle of British poetic genius from Dryden, Pope, Gray and Johnson, Byron, Scott, Tennyson and Hopkins. And Keats of course, always Keats, and throughout the book we wonder if Richman is too fragile and precious for the rough world in which he lives. There’s great suspense all along that Richman will perish unknown and forgotten in a garret–that’s a major part of the story.
With Richman established as the contemporary, proto-modernist poet hero, Sinclair introduces her complementary heroine, Lucia Harden, a scholarly young woman of transcendent beauty who comes equipped with an ancient estate and family library, both under duress because of her charming, roguish father’s excesses. It’s a library that only Richman can properly value and appreciate. He shows up humble, hungover, and torn about neglecting his poetic calling to engage in commerce. He’s shocked to meet his soul mate when he’s at such a disadvantage, with a clearly unbrigedable gulf of class and means standing between them. And thus an updated, wide-ranging Austenian game is afoot, one that stretches from country houses with rare books to up-to-the-minute portraits of Grub Street and the new generation of writers, modernists trying to claw their way out of the mire.
Divine fire is fairly lengthy, and the odyssey of Savage Keith Richman is a proper extended saga with all sorts of trials and tribulations, twists and turns. His initial significant conflict is with his father Issac, and it’s a characteristic divide between the Victorian elder against the new century’s young man. Sinclair deftly plays this out in the world of bookselling, which Issac has always treated as a business, while knowing that his son might fall prey to the content of his wares. SKR’s break with his father shifts the scene to a Bloomsbury boarding house, where Richman toils away at journalism and composes immortal sonnets, abandoning hope that he will ever see or know Lucia Harden. Richman goes well down the road in a relationship with a loving, blooming young woman living at the boarding house, Flossie, who is comically called “the Beaver” throughout her appearance in the text. Simclair’s comedy is serviceable, balancing out the high-pitched aspirations of her characters and narrative.
The poet struggles on and years go by. The narrative really is extraordinary as a canvas for the tale of a romantic poet living in the modern world of London at the turn of the century. It’s somehow populist and standard plotting on the one hand, with the elements that made it a bestseller, and dead serious about literary ambition and the trappings of literature and learning and poetry all at the same time.
Is Divine Fire a great book? No, probably not, but it has all sorts of wonderful qualities. It’s fun and serious, exciting and romantic and thoughtful and deep. Sinclair writes engagingly and well, with range and humor and energy, and the book is a strong announcement that she deserved to be known and read and supported. And the book also makes a good argument that Sinclair deserves to be known as a whole, that her substantial body of work deserves and repays study, that there’s a lot more to her accomplishment than a solid secondary Modernist classic, Mary Olivier, along with its condensed companion, Harriet Frean. I still have a long way to go with Sinclair–The Creators is next–and it’s a very enjoyable ride.