The Case of May Sinclair

This is quite a bold title for somebody who is far from a May Sinclair expert, but it’s meant to mirror an article Q D Leavis wrote, ‘The Case of Miss Dorothy Sayers‘, though I do recognise that her article isn’t exactly canonical. In Leavis’ article, she wrote about how Sayers fell between two stools – considered highbrow by middlebrow readers, and middlebrow by highbrow readers. I think Sinclair is something of the opposite. I’ll explain what I mean by that shortly.

You might have seen that Edinburgh University is going to release a new critical edition of all of May Sinclair’s works. For those outside academia, that essentially means expensive matching editions with introductions and thorough footnotes from a volume editor, and they’ll only expect university libraries to buy copies. I recognise a few of the editors’ names – one of them I’d count as a friend, from the conferences we’ve both been to – and I have no doubt that it will be done very well. But why May Sinclair? Why has she been singled out for this golden key to the gates of academe?

Every good student of 20th-century English literature will know Sinclair’s name, though a large percentage will only know what fact about her: she coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’. It was done in a review of Dorothy Richardson’s high-modernist novel sequence Pilgrimage; I don’t know how the term caught on so broadly, though I’m sure somebody has written that thesis. My slightly cynical side thinks that fact alone might have been enough to warrant the feting she is now receiving – not that it is her only claim to being remembered, but because she already got a foot through the door.

In terms of her novels, her most famous is probably Life and Death of Harriett Frean, which was one of a small handful of her books republished as a Virago Modern Classic. It’s a very good, melancholy short novel about a wasted life. You may also have heard of Mary Olivier, which Ali recently blogged about, and I’ve previously written about The Three Sisters and Uncanny Stories. But she was extremely prolific – scrolling through her Wikipedia page brings up all sorts of novels I’ve never seen while hunting in secondhand bookshops – though quite a few of them are available as free audiobooks from Librivox. I’ve just listened to Mr Waddington of Wyck (1921), which is what inspired this post.

Mr Waddington of Wyck is about an egocentric and maddening man who is writing a tedious book on the area, and who gets caught up in an awkward affair – observed by his new secretary, who also happens to be rather enamoured with his previous secretary. It’s all very entertainingly done (and the narrator, once I’ve got used to his voice, was pretty good – even if he doesn’t know how to pronounce Cirencester). But what it didn’t seem to be, to me, was modernist.

That’s the thing – those of us who delight in middlebrow writers have happily included her in that number. She writes about middle-class domestic lives, sometimes quietly and sadly, and sometimes comically. Her short story ‘Where Their Fire is Not Quenched’ is an especially brilliant supernatural twist on sexual guilt, done with amazing spatial metaphor (and equally excellent illustration in the original publication). But she doesn’t dismantle prose and put it back together again; she doesn’t use stream of consciousness – or at least not more so than many authors confidently characterised as middlebrow (for purportedly modernist techniques are commonly found across all echelons). Again, I give the caveat that there is plenty by her that I haven’t read – but I doubt the four books I have read are wildly uncharacteristic.

I’m certainly not upset that she is getting this attention – I think she’s a very good writer, and I’m pleased for any added attention she does get. But I don’t think she is in a different literary category from E.M. Delafield, Rose Macaulay, Margery Sharp, or any number of authors who haven’t had this treatment. Indeed, I feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea of transferring an author from literary outsider-dom to literary respectability, rather than elasticating the idea of canonicity. I don’t think that’s what these critical editions are trying to do, but it is sometimes what the label ‘modernist’ does – puts a mantle of respectability on what was previously just read by people who liked reading.

This debate has waged since the 1910s, and I find it a fascinating one – and rather less catty than it was when Desmond McCarthy and J.B. Priestley were going up against each other. But I remain fascinated by which authors fall in the middle – the ones who are clearly neither Virginia Woolf nor Ethel M. Dell; who don’t fall easily into either side of the highbrow vs middlebrow dichotomy. And May Sinclair seems to be all things to all people. The scholars can now claim her for our own, and pure-and-simple readers can still have her. And, after all, most of us fall – to some extent or other – on both sides of that divide anyway.

The Three Sisters by May Sinclair

The Three SistersI want to have a stern word with Virago Modern Classics – or, at least, whoever was in charge of cover design back in the 1980s. Normally pretty great, the choice of cover image for their reprint of May Sinclair’s 1914 novel The Three Sisters is pretty unforgivable. I’m going to give you a top tip, right from the start: this is not a novel about the Brontes.

It seems, to me, completely bizarre to put this famous painting on the front of a novel which is only very, very loosely inspired by the Bronte sisters – an ‘imaginative starting point’, as the blurb acknowledges. But we’ll forgive that and put it to one side. The similarities are that there are three sisters in a remote Yorkshire vicarage – that’s about it. They don’t have a brother or two deceased sisters; they aren’t writers; their personalities aren’t even that similar. And the vicar has lost three wives – variously to death and abandonment – and has settled into an angry, unwilling celibacy.

The sisters are Mary, Gwenda, and Alice Carteret. Gwenda is passionate and artistic, striding over the moors and wanting much more than the small community can offer her. Alice is considered weak by all, but has an iron core of determination – and not a little spitefulness. Mary is rather less easy to grasp on the page – starting off staid and dependable, and gradually getting rather less pleasant.

Into this world comes the one eligible man in the district – Dr Steven Rowcliffe. In turn – or, indeed, somewhat all at once – the sisters fall in love with him. He finds these attentions annoying and beguiling, depending which sister is under consideration: it is clearly Gwenda that has caught his eye, but he must cope with all three of them eyeing him as a prospective husband material.

Their father is firmly against any of them marrying anybody, though. He is fired by selfishness, cloaked in supposed holiness. Like most vicars in fiction, he sadly doesn’t come across very well. (Septimus Harding might be the only sympathetic clergyman I can remember, and also by far the closest to the real vicars I have known. Do better, novelists.) His faith and morality seems mostly to emerge in unkindness – such as making the maid Essy leave when she is discovered to be pregnant. It does, at least, lead to an amusingly handled scene where Essy tells her mother – who pretends astonishment, whereas she really ‘only wondered that she had not come four months ago’.

Despite a slightly stereotypical set up, The Three Sisters is really engaging. Sinclair was ahead of the curve, in terms of the psychology of romantic relationships, but – more importantly – she knows how to make the reader find the relationships between all the characters interesting, whether sister/sister, father/daughter, or maid/employer. The dialogues between Gwenda and her father remind me of Austen’s battle-of-wits exchanges, and the prose treads the line between beautifully descriptive and pulling-the-plot-forward extremely well. Sinclair was a very good writer.


Oh, but…

WHY the dialect and transcribed accent? This accounts for probably no more than one in eight pages, but it’s pretty unbearable when it comes. Only the working-class characters speak this way, in what I suppose is meant to be Yorkshire voices, but could equally be anything from Cornwall upwards. I can’t face typing out any of it, but here’s a photo of some of the dialogue…

The Three Sisters accent

Unsurprisingly, I skimmed most of this. Why not just write ‘she spoke with a heavy Yorkshire accent’, and leave it at that? But the rural/dialectical novel was running unchecked around 1900-1920, so Sinclair was only falling into the trap of her time. Suffice to say, if this had accounted for much more of the novel, I definitely wouldn’t have finished it.

But, if you can face with skimming over these pages, there is a lot to like in The Three Sisters – particularly in the second half, where the wheels start to fall off a bit. It’s a sensitive, often fairly wryly amusing, and very well crafted novel. Just don’t expect it to be about the Brontes.


Others who got Stuck into it:

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore: “this book is a strange hybrid of Edwardian values and Victorian conventionality”.

Fleur Fisher (Beyond Eden Rock): “May Sinclair spins a compelling story, full of rich descriptions of people and places, and with a wonderful understanding of her characters and their relationships.”

Uncanny Stories – May Sinclair

To those of us in this particular corner of the blogosphere, where reprint publishers of early twentieth-century women’s novels are our bread and butter, the name May Sinclair is probably most closely connected with her 1922 novel Life and Death of Harriett Frean (and perhaps for coining the term ‘stream of consciousness’, in print).  And a very good novel it is too (my thoughts here.)  What gets less attention is that the following year she published a collection called Uncanny Stories.  Indeed, she was astonishingly prolific, publishing fourteen books in the 1920s alone – and, as Uncanny Stories demonstrates, was not afraid to venture into different genres.

Truth be told, there is only really one story which stands out in this collection, and that is the first one: ‘Where Their Fire is not Quenched’.  I’d read it a while ago, and hoped that the others in the collection would match up – sadly they didn’t really.  The atmosphere, characters, and writing were all good, but they often follow essentially the same premise: a ghost returns to clear up some unfinished business, usually romantic. I suppose that is as good a ghost story prototype as any, and Sinclair is careful always to incorporate some psychological angle, but ‘Where Their Fire is not Quenched’ is excitingly original by comparison.  (Oh, and there is ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, which is a posthumous discussion about adultery and Kant… but that was mostly bizarre.)

The term ‘uncanny’ had only recently (four years earlier) been used as the title to an influential essay by Freud (‘Das Unheimliche’) and it is likely that Sinclair deliberately chose her title to connect with his, especially given her interest in psycho-analysis.  But the relationship between sexuality and the supernatural is not hidden in ‘Where Their Fire is not Quenched’.

The story concerns Harriott who, like her near-namesake Harriett Frean, misses out on an early chance at love.  No further opportunities present themselves until, after her father’s death, she embarks upon an affair with a married man, Oscar.  They spend a fortnight together in the Hotel Saint Pierre, Paris, and the affair drags on… and on…

She tried hard to believe that she was miserable because her love was purer and more spiritual than Oscar’s; but all the time she knew perfectly well she had cried from pure boreom. She was in love with Oscar, and Oscar bored her.  Oscar was in love with her, and she bored him.  At close quarters, day in and day out, each was revealed to the other as an incredible bore.
At the end of the second week she began to doubt whether she had ever been really in love with him.

When Harriott wonders whether or not she could marry Oscar, she thinks ‘Marriage would be the Hotel Saint Pierre all over again, without any possibility of escape.’  Little does she realise the fate that awaits her after her death… Although she lives many years after the end of her affair, even becoming a deaconess, after her death it is Oscar she sees.

The rest of the story is hauntingly surreal, and incredibly filmic.  It would make a superb short animated feature, actually – think Tim Burton meets Salvador Dali.  Harriott keeps escaping Oscar, running through past memories of a church, her village, her childhood home and garden… but every corner she turns, the rooms and streets rearrange themselves into the corridor of the Parisian hotel.  Sinclair writes this so well, vividly and visually.  I thought that Jean de Bosschere’s illustration, which accompanies it, gives a good idea of what Sinclair was trying to convey:

Ineluctably Harriott is forced back to the scene of her loveless affair, overriding everything else she has done.

“In the last death we shall be shut up in this room, behind that locked door, together.  We shall life here together, for ever and ever, joined so fast that even God can’t put us asunder.  We shall be one flesh and one spirit, one sin repeated for ever, and ever; spirit loathing flesh, flesh loathing spirit; you and I loathing each other.”
“Why? Why?” she cried.

“Because that’s all that’s left us.  That’s what you made of love.”
It is unpopular these days for a work of fiction to have a moral; the much-fated quality of ‘openmindedness’ has led to people being extremely closed-minded in this area.  It was pretty unpopular for stories to have morals even in the 1920s, but Sinclair has dared to.  The story is not so much a warning against adultery as a cry against sexual relationships where there is no love – as such I think the story is very resonant today, and chilling in ways that Gothicised tales of horror cannot be.  It’s a shame that the rest of Uncanny Stories is fairly pedestrian – entertaining and diverting enough, but never experimental.  But I do recommend you track down ‘Where Their Fire is not Quenched’, in or out of this collection.  In fact, you can read a pdf version here

Life and Death of Harriett Frean

Today we’re headed to more Stuck-in-a-Book familiar territory – good old Virago Modern Classics.

I’ve heard quite a bit about May Sinclair (she first used the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, doncha know) but not read anything by her – in Thame I came across Life and Death of Harriett Frean, and, being so short, it leapt immediately to the top of my tbr pile. And I read it in a morning – it’s got 184 pages but there’s so little text on each one that it’s more like 90 pages of an average book. And somehow, in this tiny amount of space, May Sinclair manages to include an entire, long life.

There aren’t many incidents in Harriett Frean’s life, at least not significant ones. She lives her life as a spinster, in the benevolent shadow of her parents – to the end of her days, she proudly and frequently announces ‘I’m Hilton Frean’s daughter’. The one event of note is a tangled love triangle (doesn’t that sound very like Hollyoaks? Obviously it’s nothing of the sort.) Her close friend Priscilla always protests that she will never be married, and forces Harriett to pledge the same vow… when Robin comes along, both their resolves are tested. The novel becomes a ‘what might have been’ – questioning whether moral choices are black and white, and what happens to those who choose the path not labelled ‘happy ever after.’

The thread I found most interesting (and one familiar from other Virago Modern Classics such as The Love Child by Edith Olivier, and The Third Miss Symons by F. M. Mayor, as well as Persephone Books’ Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson which I must write about soon) is the life of a spinster with her mother. Or, more importantly, the life of a spinster once her mother has died. These paragraphs are subtly rather clever:

Next spring, a year after her mother’s death, she felt the vague stirring of her individual soul. She was free to choose her own vicar; she left her mother’s Dr. Braithwaite who was broad and twice married, and went to Canon Wrench, who was unmarried and high. There was something stimulating in the short, happy service, the rich music, the incense, and the processions. She made new covers for the drawing-room, in cretonne, a gay pattern of pomegranate and blue-green leaves. And as she had always had the cutlets broiled plain because her mother liked them that way, now she had them breaded.

And Mrs. Hancock wanted to know why Harriett has forsaken her dear mother’s church; and when Connie Pennefeather saw the covers she told Harriett she was lucky to be able to afford new cretonne. It was more than she could; she seemed to think Harriett had no business to afford it. As for the breaded cutlets, Hannah opened her eyes and said, ‘That was how the mistress always had them, ma’am, when you was away.’
Lives of mutual self-sacrifice have, in the end, benefited neither of them. Sometimes May Sinclair seems to be dragging her novel into polemic territory – not necessarily a bad thing, but I’d question some of Sinclair’s advertised morals on occasion – but that aside, Life and Death of Harriett Frean is a slight, sharp view of so many women’s situations in the early twentieth century. Not particularly cheerful, it must be said, but very powerful – the blurb compares it to Woolf, and others which I forget, but they’re right – if this novel doesn’t quite deserve to be considered a classic of Modernism, it’s not very far off. What’s more, it’s in print from Virago – though if I know you, and I think I do, you’ll be hunting for the proper green VMC edition…