Sinclair, Catherine (1800–1864)

views updated

Sinclair, Catherine (1800–1864)

Scottish novelist and children's writer. Born on April 17, 1800, in Edinburgh, Scotland; died on August 6, 1864, in London, England; daughter of Sir John Sinclair (a politician and agriculturist) and Diana (Macdonald) Sinclair; never married; no children.

Selected writings:

Charlie Seymour; or, The Good Aunt and the Bad Aunt (1832); Modern Accomplishments, or the March of Intellect (1836); Modern Society: or, The March of Intellect (1837); Hill and Valley, or Hours in England and Wales (1838); Holiday House: A Series of Tales (1839); Scotland and the Scotch; or, the Western Circuit (1840); Shetland and the Shetlanders; or, The Northern Circuit (1840); Modern Flirtations; or, A Month at Harrowgate (1841); Scotch Courtiers and the Court (1842); Jane Bouverie; or, Prosperity and Adversity (1846); The Lives of the Caesars; or, the Juvenile Plutarch (1847); The Journey of Life (1847); The Business of Life (1848); Sir Edward Graham; or, Railway Speculators (1849); Lord and Lady Harcourt; or, Country Hospitalities (1850); The Kaleidoscope of Anecdotes and Aphorisms (1851); Beatrice; or, The Unknown Relatives (1852); Popish Legends or Bible Truths (1852); The Priest and the Curate; or, The Two Diaries (1853); Lady Mary Pierrepoint (1853); Frank Vansittart; or, The Model Schoolboys (1853); The Cabman's Holiday: A Tale (1855); Cross Purposes, a Novel (1855); Modern Superstition (1857); Letters (1861–1864).

Catherine Sinclair was a prolific and popular writer whose early children's book Holiday House: A Series of Tales (1839), marked a turning point in the history of children's literature. Those who objected to whimsy and imaginative literature for children (and there were many in that era) had difficulty finding fault with a book that was highly moral and instructive, and at the same time allowed children the right to be young and boisterous and make mistakes.

Born in 1800 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sinclair was the fourth daughter of Diana Macdonald Sinclair and Sir John Sinclair, a politician and the president of the Board of Agriculture. At age 14, she became her father's secretary; she held that position for the next 21 years, until his death in 1835. She never married, devoting her life to her father, her writing, and acts of charity.

Sinclair was both an enthusiastic Protestant and a writer with a vivid and lively imagination. These nearly conflicting elements helped in the creation of novels that gained her an enduring reputation despite the moral tone of her work. Nearly all of her books were written for young people, with a special emphasis on attracting them to the right path rather than forcing them to it. The majority of her works stress the pitfalls of growing up and the dangers faced by young people—especially young women—as they prepare to enter the adult world. Her attention to detail is highlighted in her several guidebooks, including Shetland and the Shetlanders and Scotland and the Scotch (both 1840), which are steeped in the history and folklore of the regions.

Many of Sinclair's tendencies as a writer are found in her first book, Charlie Seymour; or, The Good Aunt and the Bad Aunt (1832), which was written, as were many of her early books, for her niece Diana Boyle and nephew George Frederick Boyle. Sinclair did not publish another book before her father's death in 1835; soon thereafter, however, she produced two lengthy but well-received novels, Modern Accomplishments, or the March of the Intellect (1836) and its conclusion, Modern Society: or, The March of Intellect (1837). Aimed at young women on the brink of maturity, these books endeavored to show the reader the bad results of making shallow choices and presented the Christian way of life as highly desirable.

Sinclair's most important literary contribution, Holiday House (1839), is the written version of a series of tales she had told her niece and nephew, featuring three children whose natural goodness cannot be quashed by the adversities of life. In the midst of their adventures, Sinclair placed the "Nonsensical Story of Giants and Fairies," in which Master No-book is tempted from home by the fairy Do-nothing and saved by the fairy Teach-all from the giant Snap-em-up who devours lazy, fat, selfish children. Although heavily moral, the collection is hailed as one of the first books for children intended chiefly for pleasure, and it is groundbreaking in not condemning children for their natural inclinations for play or to get into mischief. While most books of the times polarized children as good or bad, obedient or disobedient, Sinclair created stories in which children were allowed to laugh and play and experience life.

A devout Christian, Sinclair was strongly anti-Catholic and used her writing to expose "papists" as dishonest and deceitful. Popish Legends or Bible Truths (1852), Modern Superstition (1857), and the scathing Beatrice (1852) make it abundantly clear that she was horrified by what she considered the Catholic Church's ability to use the stories of saints' lives, attractive to children's imaginations, as a tool for mind control. She saw in the bland and boring stories given to children by strict Protestants the annihilation of the "right" Protestant way of life; hence her interest in writing literature that appealed to childish fancy while retaining its ability to "improve" the reader.

Sinclair's other works are primarily concerned with the teaching of children, especially young girls, and on setting them on the right path to heaven. Jane Bouverie (1846), Modern Flirtations (1841), Lord and Lady Harcourt; or, Country Hospitalities (1850), and, in some respects, Beatrice all perform this function. Among her books aimed at boys were Charlie Seymour and Frank Vansittart; or, The Model Schoolboys (1853). She also wrote a number of unabashed religious tracts, for example The Journey of Life (1847) and The Business of Life (1848), which are not stories so much as conversations and advice for living. Sinclair's final and most popular projects were her Letters (1861–64) for children. These books, in which certain words were replaced with pictures, were extremely popular, selling some 100,000 copies each.

In addition to her writing, Sinclair also devoted her energy to philanthropy, providing money to build seats for pedestrians along welltraveled roads, establish drinking fountains around Edinburgh, where she lived all her life, found soup kitchens, and fund a mission station. She died while staying with one of her brothers in Kensington, England, on August 6, 1864.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

John, Judith Gero. "Catherine Sinclair," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 163: British Children's Writers, 1800–1880. Edited by Megan Khorana. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. British Authors of the Nineteenth Century. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1936.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Lisa C. Groshong , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri

About this article

Sinclair, Catherine (1800–1864)

Updated About content Print Article