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.

9 thoughts on “The Case of May Sinclair

  • February 1, 2018 at 8:21 am
    Permalink

    Fascinating post. I’ve only read two May Sinclair novels, so certainly not qualified to make much comment. Interesting that May Sinclair is enjoying a revival in academic circles, though I would rather see her books re-issued for the rest of us. I don’t think I would categorise her with E M Delafeild and Margery Sharp (nothing wrong with either of those excellent writers) I don’t know how to correctly categorise writers though. However Mary Olivier felt like a particularly serious, literary novel, with a more complex structure than Harriet Frean. I didn’t find her writing as modernist as Virginia Woolf say, though there some suggestions of that sort of style.

    Reply
  • February 1, 2018 at 9:43 am
    Permalink

    I have read 5 Sinclair novels.FAR END has been described as a thesis on male infidelity rather than a novel.I enjoyed it.

    I wish Rhododendron Pie was re issued .Was is it overlooked?

    Reply
  • February 1, 2018 at 4:32 pm
    Permalink

    Really interesting post, Simon. I’m not one for labels, although I recognise that it can make it easier to track your way through the forest of literature. And canonicity is an issue too because at the end of the day who should actually *decide* what is canon and not – doesn’t it just develop naturally over time (or is that too simplistic a view?) I guess as long as everyone can get to read her, we should just be happy about that…

    Reply
  • February 1, 2018 at 9:37 pm
    Permalink

    It not familiar with Sinclair, but there may be a case to be made, Simon, that historically fiction by women about domestic life was dismissed by editors and academics as not really being worthy and that now more of it should be considered literary. Of course, for example, no one would say nowadays that Jane Austen didn’t write literary fiction, but for years that was the case. “Women’s fiction” was considered slight. I’m certainly a fan of many middlebrow books, and I know you like woman writers, but I think we should stop considering subject matter in judging whether a work is literary or not. Your comments about her treatment of prose are the ones I think are important.

    Reply
    • February 1, 2018 at 11:30 pm
      Permalink

      That’s a good point – thanks for making it!

      Reply
  • February 2, 2018 at 9:54 pm
    Permalink

    Hate labels! Hate canons! Thoughtful writing from you as always Simon.

    Reply
  • February 7, 2018 at 6:07 pm
    Permalink

    I’m one of the General Editors on the Sinclair Critical Edition’ project, and together with Rebecca Bowler edited the latest volume of collected essays on Sinclair, ‘Rethinking Bodies and Minds’. I think you hit the nail on the head in your final paragraph: ‘May Sinclair seems to be all things to all people’, as it’s this very diversity I believe is key to Sinclair’s value as an author. Her work straddles numerous categories: cultural and intellectual, modernist and middlebrow, philosophical and psychological, or in the context of the literary marketplace, women and history, or simply general interest. She was a public intellectual, philosopher, influential critic and literary historian as well as a versatile fictional author who wrote in various genres from uncanny short fiction (a particular love of mine) to psychological novel. When these numerous strands are taken together, showing how each speaks to the others, I believe Sinclair occupies a unique place in the canon of late Victorian and modernist women writers which makes her worthy of far more consideration in her own right than she’s received to date. And should any fellow textual editors choose to bring out editions on the other writers you mention – Macaulay in particular – I’ll be first on the waiting list for copies! The recent spate of new scholarly editions has been such a positive development in early twentieth-century literary study: long may it continue.

    Reply
    • February 8, 2018 at 6:15 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks so much for leaving a comment! You put it very well – and it’s great to have Sinclair receive this attention.

      Reply
  • February 19, 2018 at 7:14 pm
    Permalink

    Just read Harriett Frean & hope to post about it soon. There’s a May Sinclair Society with a Twitter account, as I’m sure you know

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: