Reading May Sinclair presents some challenges. You have to assume that there’s a reason that she’s obscure and neglected, that others before you have gone beyond Mary Olivier and Harriet Frean and lost momentum somewhere and somehow. The Divine Fire was a good stop, as it was a bestseller and it has engaging characters and settings and themes. It’s a little long, but that’s a good thing in a rich story that’s so enjoyable. Divine Fire is a strongly representative novel that was written at the beginning of the century (published 1904), it deserves to be better known, and might be read alongside a number of books from the same moment, Jewett and Schreiner and Chopin and Wharton, not to mention Hardy and Conrad and James. It made Sinclair’s name well-known, and she toured America and became one of Annie Fields’ last literary friends.
The Creators is Sinclair’s book from the watershed year of 1910. It almost seems to take the charming and hopeful and somewhat old-fashioned romance of Divine Fire and turn it upside down, in order to make an even more careful examination of the underbelly of writing and gender roles and the world of publishing and the audience for literature. Sinclair’s novel isn’t especially engaging or compelling or fun, but it has many layers of meaning and a lot to consider in its own way, in something like the manner of Henry James or George Meredith. An obvious note is that it’s a “comedy” the way that The Egoist is a comedy, but it accomplishes the rare feat of making that book actually seem funny, which it isn’t, as I recall. The Creators is a challenging, uber-high-minded read, one that takes itself extremely seriously and wants to have its irony at the same time, a neat trick but rather exhausting. Like reading James or Proust, there’s an engaging level of insight and style within the sentence or the paragraph, but at times its hard to connect to the larger story and maintain one’s general bearings, although that’s overstated. The book is relatively straightforward and just laborious, Sinclair doesn’t go as far as the Masters, but there’s a strong drift in that direction. You end up with a book that can be a chore to read much of the time, but you feel like you’ve accomplished something, and can breathe a sigh of relief, when you’re finished. And then it becomes interesting to step back and look at the whole, how it works and how it was put together. But it’s not an ideal reading experience, and it was a challenging follow up to The Divine Fire.
The Creators tells the story of five writers, two men and three women. Although it’s not as entertaining as The Divine Fire, it marks a major advance as a study of the creative process, and brings gender quite powerfully into the equation. Divine Fire has an engaging opening, as we meet a young poet, Keith Richman, the voice of the next, modern generation, who happens, like Samuel Johnson, to have been raised from infancy in the booksellers’ world of infinite learning, and the narrative steers him slowly towards union with a classic, discerning and sympathetic heroine who is the guardian of a magnificent library. We like Savage Keith Richman, and we will happily read a few hundred pages of his struggle to survive his garret and Grub Street existence to probe himself and find his way to Lucia Harden’s arms and diminished estate. In the opening of The Creators we meet a pair of seemingly similar would-be lovers, Jane Holland and George Tanqueray, two novelists who are just coming out of their youthful struggles, and Jane has recently become recognized and celebrated, she has broken through with a hit, just as Sinclair did with The Divine Fire. The extended scene is a good one, and an intriguing way to begin a novel, very Jamesian, as Jane becomes aware that Tanqueray is realizing that he loves her and he’s ready to marry, but those two things aren’t necessarily connected, and Jane suffers from corresponding scruples and doubts. C’mon you crazy kids, we want to say today, a century later, down a couple of shots, go for it!–don’t wait until the end of the book!–now it’s the right thing, and then it will be wrong and sad. But that’s the way it goes, of course–no story otherwise. They both tell themselves that love and romance will kill their destiny as writers, that mutual absorption will distract them from their higher purpose as observers and creators. Jane isn’t sure she believes it, but this has been Tanqueray’s mantra through their years of struggle; it got them this far, and Jane to her new status, to recognition and a degree of comfort in a simple Kensington flat of her very own.
Sinclair thus begins with placing her heroine at a critical autobiographical juncture, and from there she breaks out and starts working a series of permutations on the viability and challenges of female creativity and authorship. It’s a major flip and advance from the set up of Divine Fire, where the creative struggle belongs entirely to the male protagonist. While Jane is interesting and sympathetic, Tanqueray puts art above all else, dismisses romance, marries a sweet declasse woman who nurses him through an illness and then brutally ignores her to focus on his writing. Richman had a similar near miss, as he almost married “the Beaver.” We get to see here how a relationship like that might have played out, and it isn’t pretty. Sinclair throws Tanqueray away from our sympathy, making him an uncompromising artist. And he’s very male and authentic throughout, we know he understands Jane and he inspires her and is her best intellectual companion, but we’re with her through this story, and we live with her choice not to be with him.
Sinclair gives us two other women writers as principal characters, Nina Lempriere and Laura Gunning. All three women were in love with Tanqueray at one time or another, “Tanks” as they call him, in their youth, before the story begins. Nina is wild and fiery and was always more jealous of Jane’s primacy in Tanqueray’s emotions and estimation. She had to go away to get over her heartbreak and disappointment. She is the most romantic character in the book and after Jane and Tanks position themeselves separately, Nina discovers the other major character, Owen Prothero, an adventurous doctor turned poet and mystic. She hides him away from the others, giving him a room and supporting him for a year before anybody else even knows of his existence.
Sinclair establishes Jane at an autobiographical moment, but as she moves on she splits her own experience into the other two women writers, Nina and Laura, both of them much closer to elements of her later life as a writer and her art. Laura is the painstaking, steady creator of small but perfect, charming fictions. Her dilemma, like Sinclair’s was with her mother, is being saddled with caring for a demented and demanding parent. Laura’s struggle gives Sinclair a chance to study and show the cost of female filial and domestic obligations on authorship, how painful and exhausting they can be. Laura’s efforts, both creative and filial, are heroic, as her deep ambivalence almost drives her mad but it never overwhelms her sympathy. This storyline is a strong precursor to the solid Modernist accomplishment in Harriet Frean, and some important currents in Mary Olivier.
Sinclair sets up an effective triangle between Nina, Laura, and Prothero as the story develops. Nina can’t support Prothero and keep his poetic genius hidden, and she reveals him to Jane and Tanqueray. Prothero is a sort of seer, immediately recognized in all his poetic power by Tanqueray. Prothero is attached to Nina, but he doesn’t love her, she’s too strong and independent, but as soon as he meets Laura they bond and fall in love. It takes some time for all of this to work itself out, and Sinclair again pulls away from her own experience. The Prothero-Laura relationship is a romantic bone thrown to the patient reader, and it shows another realm of complexity in authorship and gender, as a hard-working, modestly successful female novelist encounters prejudice about supporting her poet husband, an ironic situation when she nearly died supporting her incompetent father. Prothero is worked to death on Grub Street and dies, leaving Laura alone at story’s end, but she has both loved deeply and found herself.
This plotting allows Nina to take up the mantle of Sinclair’s own experience. Nina seems to be a product of Sinclair’s deepening involvement with the Brontes and their authorship, exile, and virginity; her book The Three Brontes appeared two years later, in 1912, with her novel The Three Sisters following in 1914. Nina disappears again, going into exile a second time (the first we as readers have experienced, although we don’t see it) after Prothero and Laura fall in love. And this exile allows her to write her own great book. Nina is the most distant and detached of Sinclair’s main characters, staying in the background through most of the story, and we don’t even get a strong impression of her work and her successful book, only learning that her disappointment, exile, and isolation enabled her to write it.
The central storyline of The Creators concerns the domestic relationships of Tanqueray and Jane Holland. Tanqueray’s relationship with Rose is an advance, in a rather scary way, on some of the central themes explored by George Gissing in New Grub Street (which I have read now, and it is a critical text for understanding The Creators, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself). But Sinclair seems to be breaking completely new ground with Jane Holland as the central character in her novel. Jane’s choices and challenges are strikingly modern and even contemporary. The story begins as she has served her literary apprenticeship and achieved success and independence, and she that modest Kensington flat, the same one Sinclair herself achieved, anticipating Woolf’s Room of One’s Own. The story seems to focus on how Tanqueray is ready to take a wife, and how it might be Jane, but as things evolve it turns out that the Tanqueray equation is relatively simple and harsh, while Jane’s desire–and that’s the ultimate subject of the novel–is much more complicated and nuanced. Jane wants to write and love and have children and enjoy intellectual companionship; she wants it all.
Sinclair portrays a number of good complementary characters in this story. Tanqueray’s working class wife Rose is a strong creation, as we seem to know and understand her better and with more sympathy than Tanqueray does. Laura Gunning’s father plays a good, minor role. But the primary accomplishemt in this vein in The Creators is the Brodrick family into which Jane marries. Hugh Brodrick is a magazine editor and fervent admirer of Jane’s genius, seemingly a fit helpmate and intellectual companion, though he’s no Tanqueray. Brodrick has a bourgeois and conservative, close-knit family of brothers and sisters, all of them living within walking distance around Putney heath, and they gather regularly at each others’ genteel homes. Sinclair rings all sorts of sharp changes on Jane’s entry and immersion into the life of Brodrick and his family. Hugh is immediately devoted to Jane and earnestly pursing her, but she at first fervently believes he will marry his secretary and housekeeper, Gertrude Collett–it just seems natural. At the same time Hugh launches his review by publishing Tanqueray, at Jane’s request, whose manuscript is “corrected” by Gertrude, in way over her head. Jane comes to see the value of Hugh’s love, and she enjoys married life and domesticity for a time, and she even manages the challenge of motherhood with a difficult infant. Hugh married her for her insight, beauty, and genius, which he worships but also fears, and part of him is always trying to domesticate and silence her. The Brodrick clan sees itself as the bedrock of polite society, never surprised and unemotional, deeply attached to prescribed roles. Sinclair deftly notes how they all see themselves as exceptional, and ultimately hypocritical, evidenced by the way that Hugh loves and sponsors Jane’s artistry, but wants to squash and undermine it at the same time. Moreover, the Brodrick’s see genius and creativity as neurotic and pathological, especially in women, and Hugh’s doctor brother Henry has decided views on the subject. Jane’s creative bent veers towards mania, and all of the “creators” are on edge, as Sinclair uses the novel to explore and express her early and keen interest in depth psychology.
May Sinclair is quite amazing–she’s not just a direct inheritor of the German philosophy absorbed by George Eliot, Leslie Stephen and so many Victorian intellectuals, but she was also working on the cutting edge of the psychological revolution of William James and Sigmund Freud. And she was focused, in this book specifically and everywhere else in her work, on gender and women’s roles and feminism, while she was attending to the literary avant garde and the slow but steady birthing of Modernism. It’s all a delicate balance, and there’s certainly rich ground for study and analysis in her work. The psychological complexities of The Creators is a challenging topic all on its own. But perhaps more intriguing, and certainly easier to note, is the plot solution Sinclair explores, as Jane brings Gertrude Collett back to run her and Hugh’s household. This means, in maturity, that Hugh gets the domestic order, efficiency and peace that he craves so intensely and will never receive from Jane, and he’s pushed toward close companionship and sympathy with Gertrude, restoring Jane’s independence and her ability to commune with her true creative and intellectual mate, George Tanqueray. Tanqueray, with the primary body of his work established at this point, becomes, or continues to be, very male, believing it’s finally time for him and Jane to exercise their prerogative and higher calling as artists and join together. It certainly works for him, but Jane isn’t so sure, and Sinclair leaves the ending ambiguous, leaving us with Jane’s own self-knowledge and maturity, able to act on her own desires and with a great sense of her fulfillment. Jane doesn’t need Tanqueray in the same way he needs her, and she seems more inclined to choose her family and life with Hugh, unthreatened by the presence of Gertrude. Jane seems to know who she is at the end of the novel, just as Nina and Laura do, they’re all accomplished writers, and sadder, wise, mature women. All we really know, as readers, is that it’s 1910 and all bets are off–anything goes.