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

Born in 1863, Sinclair spent the first third of her life struggling to disentangle herself from notions of propriety inherited from a mother with pursed lips who stares from the photograph in this book. Her rebellion, though softly spoken and methodical, was decisive. Despite fervent attempts by friends and suitors to keep her lashed to the mast of Christianity, she emerged into the 20th century a confirmed agnostic. Her early writings in philosophy and poetry made her no money, and after the deaths of her father and all three of her brothers, she was forced to find another means of supporting herself. She turned to novel-writing and found herself a smash – particularly after the 1904 publication of The Divine Fire. In total, she produced 21 novels, two philosophical works, a biographical study of the Brontës, an autobiographical account of her time with a nursing unit in World War One and scores of short stories, essays and poems. Her great literary works tell of the inner lives of quiet women – Mary Olivier: A Life (1919), Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922) – and of the shattering effects of war: Tasker Jevons: The Real Story (1916) and The Tree of Heaven (1917).

Sinclair had little time for gossip or the literary life and was rarely to be found lolling in the long grass at literary teas. She was suspicious of the ‘vortex’ of collective movements such as Suffragism, disliking their mantras and banners. She was neat, hard-working, cloyingly dutiful and older than most of the Modernists. By the time Ezra Pound sidled on to the London literary scene, she had established herself as a writer of bourgeois Bildungsromans. She met Pound and was immediately converted. So while the Imagists played the enfant terrible, she went through an ungainly metamorphosis, teaching her Victorian characters to speak stream of consciousness. Despite all her work, she was sniggered at by Pound and dismissed as prim by Virginia Woolf. As the 1920s progressed, she became more be-bunned and anachronistic, and was avoided by Dorothy Richardson (the author of Pilgrimage, one of the longest streams of consciousness of the period), who found her too wary and easy to offend.

The equally diffident, if yet more isolated poet Charlotte Mew courted Sinclair with a wrecker’s passion, but found herself rebuffed. Sinclair generally discouraged any kind of intimate approach, and chose to work in remote moorland retreats and inhospitable huts. She was occasionally listless, occasionally wildly energetic. Her writing descended in the 1920s into repetitive pallor and was attacked from all sides. With the onset of Parkinson’s she retreated into absolute seclusion and was thought to be dead by former friends. When she did die, her will lavished books and sculptures on three of the leading lights of Imagism – Pound, Richard Aldington and Hilda Doolittle (it was Aldington who had published her war poem ‘After the Retreat’ in a special Imagist edition of the Egoist in 1915). The impression was that of a woman who had ceased to develop after her frantic espousal of the Modernist mode and whose attachment to early Modernism had been the vital fire of her life.

All this gives Raitt two problems: an absence of information, and an absence of awe. Sinclair was precise, intelligent, ambitious and stoical, but she had nothing of Woolf’s intellectual megalomania and venom, or of Amy Lowell’s brassy self-sell, or of Doolittle’s gaunt-cheeked hypnotic beauty. In photographs she resembles an eternal prefect rather than an absinthe-dosed iconoclast.

She was also, as Raitt puts it, ‘determined to give nothing away’, and was known for her ‘inscrutability’, the ‘impersonal scrutiny of her black eyes’. She burned letters she found embarrassing. She was curt with inquisitive journalists. At a time when Charlotte Brontë’s novels were read as freakish outpourings inspired by her love for Paul Héger, Sinclair was afraid that any details of her personal life would deflect attention from her work, that she might be remembered ‘not as a writer, but as a woman’.

This biography argues rather admirably that Sinclair’s wish should be respected. Raitt hesitates to go down gossipy avenues, finding there only ‘tiny clues’ and ‘vague rumours’. But, practically, concessions must be made. It is impossible to write a Life which ignores ‘feelings or occurrences’ no longer deemed ‘shameful or humiliating’. Raitt fills the early stages of her account with a wealth of rewarding biographical detail. She alludes quietly to previously undiscovered material – connections, love affairs, friendships – which she mainly uses to dismiss earlier gossips and embellishers. She motions towards Sinclair’s father’s bankruptcy and alcoholism, which Sinclair ‘was at pains to conceal … throughout her life’ and she also ‘allows herself’ to ‘speculate’ about Sinclair’s romantic life.

Raitt always assesses Sinclair with a level gaze, however. She never clasps her in a sisterly clinch. She accepts that had she clashed forks with Sinclair at a literary lunch, she might have found her, as Woolf did, self-important and over-serious and she has produced a cool-headed study of Sinclair as a certain sort of intelligence, interceding between our curious stares and the secretiveness of her subject. She stains Sinclair as little as possible with muddy might-have-beens. She refuses to supply a minute-by-minute unfurling of the particularities of Sinclair’s life: her penchant for suet pudding, her loathing of the cummerbund, her refusal to bathe more than twice a week. Like the bouncer of a slightly weird club, Raitt holds up her hands and doesn’t allow us in.

Unlike their retiring author, Sinclair’s novels are candid and unabashed. They show a sympathy for mediocre artists aspiring to be great, and for talents lost to wage-slavery. In The Divine Fire, a poetic genius, Savage Keith Rickman, has been burdened with ‘the soul of a young Sophocles battling with that of a … junior journalist in the body of a dissipated cockney’. Though he writes like a sage, he is doomed to the fringes of artistic society by a tendency to drop his aitches. This is the sort of class-riddled literary ‘what if?’ attempted by Somerset Maugham in The Moon and Sixpence: what if a stockbroker suddenly realised he was an artistic genius? Would he leave for Paris? Or kick the muse into a cupboard and bolt the door? What of his wife and gambolling, well-scrubbed children? Would he succeed, or would he starve?

Sinclair’s preoccupation with the inner lives of apparently mundane people explains some of Pound’s ridicule, given how desperate he was to drag literature from the clutches of the minutiae-obsessed, bourgeois controllers of the market: the publishing houses, the literary agencies, the little reviews. The writer should ‘damn the man in the street’, Pound famously spluttered, and speak only to those intrinsically in sympathy with ‘his pleasure in forces’.

Sinclair gave money to the Imagists, and was frequently called on to produce puff-journalism for them. In return, they lambasted her as just one more ‘drab personage’: Aldington called her 1913 novel, The Combined Maze, an ‘affectionate study in minor mediocrity’, an ailing attempt to do something against ‘her nature – to write … scientifically, à la Madame Bovary’ – an attempt, worse still, to fashion ‘high tragedy’ from the prosaic ‘lives of the middle classes’.

It was Sinclair’s unfashionable belief, as it was Maugham’s, that grandiose passions could lurk behind the drabbest, most prosaically Pooterish of exteriors. She knew they could, because she enjoyed her own wild flights, though she lived with her mother and rarely courted people of a charismatic or roaming disposition. Even the generally unflamboyant Mew took to wearing a man’s suit that was much too large for her, and smoking cigarettes and keeping parrots, but Sinclair kept herself inconspicuous and out of reach, fixed always on the teeming inner life. The point, as she saw it, was not the social dalliance, the semantic quibble or the literary clique, but the rhapsodic moment of inner vision, and such moments were the sacred possession of the individual. Anything was valid which inspired the vision, including physical danger – war, particularly. During such moments, the recognisable façade of things dropped, to reveal the ordinary world in ways never fully registered before.

It was on these grounds that Sinclair (in A Defence of Idealism) embraced reincarnation as the blanking out of individual personality at each turn of the wheel. The self as she imagined it was anyway precarious, as shown by ‘multiple personality, telepathy and suggestion’. Psychic life, she said, had ‘porous walls, and is continually threatened by leakage’. So, although she would rather keep her existing self from one stage of reincarnation to another, she accepted the possibility ‘that individuality is only one stage, and that not the highest and most important stage, in the life process of the self.’ The individual might ‘even have to die, so that the self might live’.

Fearing the individuality-snuffing effect of mass political movements, Sinclair nevertheless accepted the annulment of the mortal personality both by the eternal potential of a greater self of which it might be merely a part, and by the overarching Absolute Reality in which all selves had their origins. The flux-bound individual was less important than this Absolute. Raitt makes the vision rather than the bedraggled day-to-day the basis for a beautifully disciplined, shockingly unrevealing portrait.

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