Sinclair, May (1863–1946)

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Sinclair, May (1863–1946)

Influential English novelist, critic, suffragist, and philosopher of the early 20th century, whose novel The Divine Fire was the sensation of 1904. Name variations: (pseudonym) Julian Sinclair. Born Mary Amelia St. Clair Sinclair in Rock Ferry, Cheshire, England, in 1863; died in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England, on November 14, 1946; sixth child and only daughter of William Sinclair (a shipowner) and Amelia (Hind) Sinclair; educated by tutors, self-taught, and spent one year at Cheltenham Ladies' College (1881–82); never married; no children.

Selected writings:

(novels) The Divine Fire (1904), Mr. and Mrs. Nevill Tyson (1898), The Helpmate (1907), The Creators (1910), The Belfry (1916), The Tree of Heaven (1917), Mary Olivier: A Life (1919), Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922), The Allinghams (1927); (biography) The Three Brontës (1912), as well as a fictionalized version of their lives, entitled The Three Sisters (1914); (autobiography) A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (1915); also published a number of collections of short stories, including Uncanny Stories (1923) and The Intercessor and Other Stories (1931).

May Sinclair was a famous English novelist between 1904 and 1930, whose reputation has now evaporated. Chronologically she holds a place in English women's literature after George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ) and before Virginia Woolf , and she is one of the authors who created a transitional literature between Victorianism and Modernism. Prolific and energetic, she wrote 24 novels in all, using several distinct styles: early works on philosophical idealism, a "middle period" series advocating social reform, and a later group bringing the insights of Freudian psychology to a wide popular audience. She pioneered in "stream of consciousness" writing and, like her contemporary Samuel Butler and her successor D.H. Lawrence, specialized in depictions of the intense, suppressed emotionality of English family life. She was also a poet, critic, and essayist, befriended many of the great literary modernists, including Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and helped them in their early struggles for publication and recognition.

Sinclair was born in 1863 in Cheshire, just across the River Mersey from the port of Liverpool. Her Scottish father and Irish mother had five sons before May, but were an incompatible couple. Amelia Hind Sinclair was puritanical; William Sinclair was a heavy drinker and womanizer. He had inherited a shipping business but in 1870, when May was seven, he went bankrupt. The family broke up, never to reunite, and from then on May lived in a succession of different parts of England with her mother, suddenly forced into genteel poverty. She was always secretive about her early years and biographers have found it difficult to unravel the details. Several have inferred its outline from her later novel Mary Olivier, however, which appears to be strongly autobiographical. It implies that she was involved in a prolonged love-hate relationship with her mother and that, thirsty for the formal education that had been granted to her brothers but denied her, retreated into books and learning.

We do know that at the age of 18 she was sent to Cheltenham Ladies' College, a pioneering boarding school for girls, where she made a highly favorable impression on the principal, Dorothea Beale . Her first published work was a school essay on Descartes that Beale published in the college's magazine, which shows incredible maturity and insight for a largely self-taught teenager. After just one year Sinclair left school but her friendship with Beale persisted in a long and profound correspondence. Beale was alarmed to find Sinclair losing her conventional Christian faith but introduced her to the writings of T.H. Green, whose Anglicized version of German philosophical idealism filled part of the religious void in her life, as it did for many of her spiritually restless contemporaries. Beale remained an influential figure and tried to discourage Sinclair from writing fiction, which she regarded as a frivolous alternative to straight philosophy. Sinclair was strong enough to go ahead with her fiction in any event but never lost interest in its philosophical underpinnings and wrote two full-scale philosophical studies, A Defence of Idealism (1917) and The New Idealism (1922), much later in life.

If the isolation and the battles with her mother in her early life left her outwardly timid, they also left her with an unyielding core, with a tendency to question and challenge authority, and with great sensitivity to any incursions on the freedom and integrity of the individual.

—Hrisey D. Zegger

Sinclair spent the next 18 years (1882–1901) nursing her sick mother whose death in 1901 finally enabled her to concentrate on her own literary career. All her brothers were heavy drinkers and all died prematurely, as did her estranged father, leading her to expect that her heredity probably condemned her too to a premature grave. In any event, she lived to be 83. During the 1880s and 1890s, chronically impoverished, she published several translations from German, in which she was fluent, on subjects as diverse as church history and army reform. She also wrote and published a book of poetry, Nakiketas, a poetical rendering of her philosophical quest, under a male pseudonym, "Julian Sinclair." Her first novel, Audrey Craven (1897), coincided with a move to London after more than a decade in secluded coastal Devonshire. It too was a fictional vindication of her idealistic philosophy. With letters of encouragement from two of the great novelists of her day, Henry James and George Gissing, Sinclair then began work on The Divine Fire. Its publication in 1904 transformed her overnight from a struggling, almost anonymous figure into a novelist famous throughout the English-speaking world.

The Divine Fire also bears the imprint of Green's philosophy, which emphasized the importance of self-realization and of being true to one's self in the face of all obstacles. It tells the story of a Cockney poet who overcomes a series of adversities, including low social class and being disowned by his father, in pursuit of a career in literature. His inner reward is the knowledge that he has been true to himself; his outer reward is the hand in marriage of Lucia, the heroine, whom he wins from an opportunistic rival. The novel's popularity in England was outstripped by the acclaim it received in New York. Sinclair's American publisher, Henry Holt, invited her to tour America and promote it. On this visit, she met President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House and stayed with novelist Sarah Orne Jewett . She also attended Mark Twain's 70th birthday party. He found her so impenetrably shy and silent that at the end of dinner he thanked her for "a remarkably interesting silence." From then on, she visited America regularly and remained a favorite of American readers until the 1930s.

Despite her reticence, Sinclair gradually became an important figure on the British literary scene, not only as a writer but as a critic of fiction and poetry. Like her contemporaries H.G. Wells and Samuel Butler, and like her juniors James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, she was in revolt against what she thought of as the stifling conventions of Victorian middle-class life. She was sympathetically interested in daring literary experiments, opposed censorship, and was among the first critics to see real genius in the poetry of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. She acclaimed Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" at a time when it was slighted by most other critics, and she protested in public against the suppression of Lawrence's novel The Rainbow in 1915. She became a London literary host, encouraging and welcoming writers from her own and younger generations to her house in St. John's Wood. Among them were many of the prominent English writers of the years 1900 to 1930, including H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Bertrand Russell, Hugh Walpole, Rebecca West , and the spiritualist Evelyn Underhill , and such visiting Americans as Upton Sinclair, Ezra Pound, and Sinclair Lewis. She never served alcohol, however, remembering her father's and her brothers' fatal drunkenness.

Her own writing continued to explore the psychological burden of family life. In The Helpmate (1907), a censorious Victorian bride discovers that her husband had had a sexual affair before meeting her. She punishes him by trying to "uplift" him to a form of perpetual chastity but the husband regards sex as a physiological drive he cannot deny, and he eventually reacts by having another affair. His bitter comment: "It's as simple as hunger and thirst: and if there's no clean water you drink dirty water." The reconciliation scene at the end, where the wife yields to his demands, was shocking for its time; its message was that spiritual love needs the support of sexual love and that the Victorian ideal of the sexless helpmeet was destructive.

The Helpmate, and other successors to The Divine Fire, began to address themes of social injustice. It was a jarringly "realistic" view of family life by comparison with her earlier works. A later novel, The Combined Maze (1913), explored the economic forces pressing down on lower middle- and upper-working class families and stifling their aspirations. A social and political reform particularly close to Sinclair's heart was votes for women. She became an advocate of female suffrage, contributed regularly to the journal Votes for Women, and wrote a treatise on the philosophy of feminism. She even marched on behalf of suffrage in a London parade and later conveyed her experiences into The Tree of Heaven (1917), a pro-suffrage novel. At the same time, she was dismayed by the increasingly violent tactics used by some of the militant suffragists led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst , which included arson fires and campaigns of smashing London shop windows in the years 1910 to 1912. Her characters Mrs. Blathwaite and her daughter Angela are thinly disguised versions of the Pankhursts and her heroine, Dorothy, condemns their bullying intolerance.

Sinclair also pioneered in the use of "stream of consciousness" narration, particularly to invoke the feelings of young children as they come to apprehend the world. She reacted enthusiastically to the works of Sigmund Freud, sharing his view of the psychological struggle and repression that takes place as a child is socialized into the world, and the psychosexual drama of parent-child relationships. She befriended Ernest Jones, the pioneer of English psychoanalysis who was also Freud's first English translator, and contributed funds for establishing the first psychoanalytic clinic in London. Her novel The Three Sisters (1914) is an early fictional treatment of suppressed sexuality and intergenerational sexual rivalry. Some critics (especially the men) found it embarrassingly frank in its insistence on women's sexuality and its denial of the Victorian ideals of saintly self-sacrifice in women. Her postwar novel Anne Severn and the Fieldings (1922) pursued Freud's themes of sublimation and hysteria, showing how energy that cannot be used sexually is diverted into the constructive work of civilization or, if something goes wrong, into hysteria.

In 1914, the outbreak of the First World War interrupted Sinclair's literary and philosophical work. Although she was now 51, she volunteered to serve in an ambulance brigade with the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium. She had expected to be terrified by the carnage of battle but, oddly, found her role exciting and even pleasurable; she said seeing the war was a way of "touching Reality at its highest point in a secure and effortless consummation." Independent-minded, and far older than most members of the force, however, she soon proved unsuited to the work and her commander, Dr. Hector Munro, urged her to return to Britain where she could put her considerable talents to work as a fund raiser. Her few weeks in Belgium did, however, give her a taste of the war's reality and prevented her from the romanticization of the conflict which remained common to Britons on the "home front." Nevertheless, she did think the war worth fighting and shared the spirit of war-glorification of most of her contemporaries—a theme evident in the last sections of The Tree of Heaven. She published her Belgium journals and donated the royalties to the ambulance service. Tasker Jevons (1916) was another element of her contribution to the war effort, a novel about a successful writer who saves his failing reputation by acting heroically as an ambulance volunteer in the war. She modeled the character of Jevons on her friend and literary rival Arnold Bennett.

In the postwar years Sinclair continued to publish prolifically. Mary Olivier (1919), a fictional rendering of her childhood in impressionistic or "imagist" style, is now regarded by many critics, especially feminists, as her masterpiece. Unlike her wartime books, it was self-consciously artistic, with the stream of consciousness method more highly developed than ever before, and comparable to that of Dorothy Richardson 's Pilgrimage, which she had praised in an enthusiastic review. Some of it was written in the second person singular: "When you smelled mignonette you thought of Mamma and Mark and the sumach tree, and Papa standing on the steps, and the queer laugh that came out of his beard. When it rained you were naughty and unhappy because you couldn't go out of doors." It contained an attack on Victorian religiosity as shallow and punitive, and built up a powerful indictment of parents' stifling of their children's ambitions. Its heroine, Mary, struggles against the constraints of convention and propriety to become a real individual, a struggle played out in a symbolic interaction of light and darkness. Although Mary spends 20 years nursing her mother and is forced to renounce her lover, she begins to succeed as a writer (as had Sinclair herself) and to feel she is true to her real self.

Throughout the 1920s, Sinclair was one of the established figures of English literature, widely admired, much published, and a regular press pundit. In 1931, however, after a last burst of creativity and the publication of four novels in four years, she was forced to stop writing because of the onset of Parkinson's disease. She moved from London to Bierton, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where she lived with her housekeeper and companion Florence Bartrop , who had joined her in 1919. The last 15 years of her life were a disappointing anticlimax after her three decades of eminence. By then, such philosophers as Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein were eclipsing the memory and reputation of her mentor T.H. Green, while a new literary generation, notably Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, was pushing further the literary methods she had helped to develop. Sinclair lived through the Second World War and died quietly in 1946 at Bierton.

Her works were all out of print by the 1960s but her reputation did enjoy a minor revival during the new feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, where she was acclaimed for her psychological insight into gender issues. As critic Jean Radford wrote in 1980, introducing a new edition of Sinclair's Mary Olivier, that novel "contains one of the most sustained and concentrated portraits of a mother-daughter relationship in fiction…. In nineteenth century fiction there is a curious silence about the mother-daughter relationship. In a surprising number of texts the mother is dead, usually in childbirth, but fictionally 'killed off' as an active agent in her daughter's characterization. In Mary Olivier the reverse is true; father, brothers, lovers fall away, one by one, leaving the two women confronting each other in a symbolic return to the mother-child relation." Her eclipse is not entirely surprising. She was one of several daring innovators of her era but was always conventional enough to attract a big and admiring audience. Much of her work can still be read with pleasure, but more as a historical curiosity than as great literature in its own right.


Boll, Theophilus E.M. Miss May Sinclair: Novelist. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973.

Ford, Ford Madox. Return to Yesterday. London: Gollancz, 1931.

Kaplan, Sydney. Feminine Consciousness in the Modern British Novel. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Sinclair, May. The Divine Fire. NY: Henry Holt, 1904.

——. Mary Olivier: A Life. Originally published 1919, reprint NY: Virago, 1980.

Tynan, Katharine. The Middle Years. London: Constable, 1916.

Zegger, Hrisey D. May Sinclair. Boston: Twayne, 1976.


Sinclair Papers, University of Pennsylvania.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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