The Inner Lives of Quiet Women

Joanna Kavenna

  • May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian by Suzanne Raitt
    Oxford, 307 pp, £19.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 19 812298 5

With the decline of religious faith, we drift, so it’s said, on the current, clinging to the raft of materialism. The last flickers of collective spiritual belief were doused by the technological advances and grotesque warfare of the early years of the 20th century. Which led, the argument runs, to the mimesis-warping nihilism of Dada and the Vorticists, the semiotic anarchies of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Think of Ulrich, the hero of The Man without Qualities, and his ‘dreadful feeling of blind space’, of nothingness at the heart of everything.

What the interpretation of High Modernism as a terrain of non-belief can’t account for is the wild popularity of spiritualism which was such a feature of the time. Table tapping, séance-gatherings and spirit-photographing were part freak-show, part parlour-game. W.B. Yeats experimented with symbols and trance-states, and for much of the 1920s was in close communication with his personal spirit-guide. Conan Doyle publicly endorsed those infamous snapshots of pathetically fey (and tragically superimposed) fairies. Media mogul W.T. Stead was convinced that he had experienced telepathic communion with close relatives; there is even a theory that he communicated telepathically with his secretary as he went down with the Titanic, though this is difficult to prove.

The poet and critic Arthur Symons argued – in The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) – that shadowy flickers of worlds ‘unseen’ might be as real as the invisible ‘reality’ of the atom. The reign of the ‘material’ was over; now came the turn of a literature in which ‘the visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world no longer a dream.’ Symons had in mind the French Symbolists and their precursors – Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé – as well as Yeats, whose revolt against ‘dogged naturalism’ expressed his fierce impatience with Newlyn School portraits of windburnt fisherman, the grimy poverty-scapes of Zola and the psychological disquiet of Ibsen.

As in the heyday of Romanticism, the poet or artist was now destined to channel invisible energies into language or paint. Imagism enshrined the poet as a scientist of the Absolute. Science could project voices across the Atlantic, reveal the interior contours of objects by X-ray and formulate equations to explain the mysteries of motion, but only the poet could decipher the ‘radiant world’.

Allied with the Imagists, though never entirely of their number, was the poet, philosopher, novelist and spiritualist May Sinclair, the inauspicious subject of May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian, a serene, elegant biography by Suzanne Raitt. ‘Inauspicious’ because Sinclair, living in interesting times, contrived to spend most of her days in self-imposed isolation. She called herself a monist, a seeker after Absolute Reality. She abhorred Bertrand Russell’s ‘realism’ and William James’s pragmatism. She thought ‘real life’ existed only in annihilating moments of perfection, brought on by intense danger, or intense recollection, or a glimpse of an object and, at the same time, that such moments could never be summoned at will. For the intimations of truth they afforded, she was prepared to sacrifice marriage and social success.

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