Posts Tagged ‘May Sinclair’

As many of you will be aware, the British Library have recently launched their Women Writers series, the first three titles are now available with more due out later in the year. Each of these new, beautifully designed editions come with an afterword written by Simon of Stuckinabook. The Tree of Heaven is a novel that has been sadly out of print for a very long time, May Sinclair is probably best known for her novel The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, one of three Sinclair novels that were re-issued by Virago in the 1980s.

The novel depicts the lives of a reasonably ordinary middle class family; the Harrisons, beginning in the late nineteenth century. As the novel opens Frances Harrison is resting beneath the tree she insists on calling the tree of heaven – but is identified as rally being just an ash tree. She is expecting her husband Anthony home for tea soon. It’s a peaceful little domestic scene. The tree referred to throughout the novel becomes something of a symbol of something positive. Frances is surrounded by her children; Dorothy (sometimes Dorothea) Michael, Nicky and John. The elder three children are to go to a party, and straight away we start to see something of the different personalities of these children whose best years will be framed by the First World War. Nicky, whose first party it is, excited full of life and enthusiasm, Michael suddenly deciding not to go, wanting to remain at home and do his own thing.

The family represent something of the new non-Victorian age that was almost upon them, while Frances does seem to favour her boy children over her daughter, there is a feeling of kindness and support in this family. Contrasted with the Harrisons are other relatives, spinster aunts, a very disreputable uncle, the wife of whom eventually leaves him, sends her daughter Veronica to live with the Harrisons and sets up home with another man out of wedlock.

The disreputable uncle had served in the Boer war, and war is unsurprisingly a major theme of the novel. The Harrison boys grow up before the 1910s, complete their education and begin the make their way in the world in the years before the Great War. They each have their own concerns, Michael, so often out of step with those around him, taking up the cause of Irish nationalism – much to his family’s bemusement. Nicky, becoming romantically entangled with the wrong woman, while assisting with work on a machine of mechanical warfare. John, just a few years behind his brothers, destined to work alongside his father. Dorothy we understand early on is a forward looking, intelligent young woman very much of the new age, she studied economics at Newnham, back at home her concerns have turned toward the women’s suffrage movement.

Dorothy’s involvement in the suffrage movement is a key theme in the novel, she is committed to her independence, though like other young women of the period lives at home. She even holds a meeting here while her parents are entertaining guests elsewhere in the house. She joins the (fictional) Women’s Franchise Movement, immediately certain the cause the only right one, though Dorothy refuses to indulge in what she calls ‘blind unquestioning obedience.’ Still, she is a passionate supporter, despite knowing the man she cares for abhors all suffragette activities.

“For Dorothy was afraid of the Feminist Vortex, as her brother Michael had been afraid of the little vortex of school. She was afraid of the herded women. She disliked the excited faces, and the high voices skirling their battle-cries, and the silly business of committees, and the platform slang. She was sick and shy before the tremor and the surge of collective feeling; she loathed the gestures and the movements of the collective soul, the swaying and heaving and rushing forward of the many as one. She would not be carried away by it; she would keep the clearness and the hardness of her soul. It was her soul they wanted, these women of the Union…”

Later, having spent time in prison – an experience she in no way regrets – Dorothy seems somewhat disillusioned by some of the antics of other suffragettes, working instead for the Social Reform Union. In Dorothy, we see something of May Sinclair’s own attitude to the suffrage movement.

When war finally comes, it is the man who Dorothy loves who leaves first, Michael declares himself against the whole thing, and says he won’t go. His position, as time goes on, both awkward and worrying for his family. Nicky enlists with his typical enthusiasm – his father, despite his age tries and is rejected and younger brother John rejected because of a heart murmur, still Michael says, not yet.

“With the exception of Michael and old Mrs Fleming, Anthony’s entire family had offered itself to its country; it was mobilized from Frances and Anthony down to the very Aunties. In those days there were few Red Cross volunteers who were not sure that sooner or later they would be sent to the Front. Their only fear was that they might not be trained and ready when the moment of summons came. Strong young girls hustled for the best places at ambulance classes. Fragile, elderly women, twitching with nervous anxiety, contended with those remorseless ones and were pushed to the rear. Yet, they went on contending, sustained by their extraordinary illusion.”

The war will take its toll on this family – I’ll say no more than that – in different ways, but it is a poignant depiction of a family living through tumultuous times.

First published in 1917, May Sinclair could not have known when she was writing what the outcome of the war would be. Neither would she have known that the first women would be allowed the vote in 1918 – all women a decade later. The world we encounter here is one on the brink of change, where the future is still an uncertainty. A thoroughly enjoyable, thought provoking novel, The Tree of Heaven weaves together several major themes, in the story of a family we can’t help but care deeply about. I am so very glad it has been brought back for modern readers to enjoy.

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mary oliver

Two or three months ago there was a lot of talk on Twitter and elsewhere about #Neglectedladynovelists (not my hashtag or definition) which I wrote about here. There were many people who named May Sinclair as being one of their number. So neglected, is May Sinclair that she didn’t manage to win much support in a Twitter vote either. I wondered if that was because people didn’t know much about her or her work.

May Sinclair wrote widely, both fiction and non-fiction – though the majority of her work is out of print now. The Life and Death of Harriet Frean is possibly her best-known work, and along with this novel the easiest to find. Though I believe some print on demand versions of some of May Sinclair’s other books are also available. She was a modernist writer, who – it is said – was the first to use the term stream of consciousness in a review she wrote about Dorothy Richardson.

“If you looked back on any perfect happiness you saw that it had not come from the people or the things you thought it had come from, but from somewhere inside yourself.”

Mary Olivier: a life is a novel – though one can’t help but take the name May Sinclair and put it in the place of Mary Olivier. The novel is enormously autobiographical and tells the deeply personal story of a woman’s life from the time of infancy to middle-age.

Mary Olivier is born into a middle-class Victorian family in the 1860s, the fourth child and the only girl. The novel opens while Mary is a young infant – and the viewpoint is that of a very young child –even the language is more childlike. Time passes quite quickly in the early sections of the novel, and as she grows up we begin to see a young girl eager to learn, with a keen interest (like Sinclair herself) in literature, philosophy, religion and spirituality. Mary is not a girl to merely believe what her elders tell her, she is questioning and thoughtful – her beliefs not always fitting in with those of her conservatively religious family.

The house hold is ruled over by Mamma – little Mamma as she is often called by her sons. She is very much a typical Victorian wife and mother, her strength existing in her apparent weakness. As Mary turns from a very little girl into an older child and then an adolescent, her relationship with her mother becomes ever more difficult. Mary comes to realise her mother doesn’t love her – not in the way she does her brothers, especially the eldest Mark, the brother Mary loves with a fierce, loyal adoration. Mary comes to believe that if only she could have remained a tiny little child her mother would have loved her more.

“Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird. She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never rest till she had broken you, or turned and twisted you to her own will. She would say it was God’s will. She would think it was God’s will.”

As Mary comes to the end of her schooling, the family suddenly leave Ilford, moving North to Greffington Edge, where her father begins his descent into Alcoholism. Back in Essex are Mary’s aunts Charlotte and Lavvy and Uncle Victor, and bit by bit we start to see something of their lives. The narrowness and fear that stopped them from moving forward – a fear that briefly transfers itself to Mary – a fear of madness.

Years pass with terrifying speed, men come along who Mary might be able to love – but they don’t stay around – and gradually Mary’s life becomes one of sad routine and sacrifice. Her brothers go off to see something of the world – her adored bother Mark away for several years – and when he returns they are both changed – and Mary starts to see something of their little Mamma in her brother.

“Mark turned in the path and looked at her; his tight, firm face tighter and firmer. She thought: “He doesn’t know. He’s like Mamma. He won’t see. It would be kinder not to tell him. But I can’t be kind. He’s joined with Mamma against me. They’re two to one. Mamma must have said something to make him hate me.”

Persuaded by her brothers, that their mother is a poor weak little woman, Mary comes to understand that she cannot leave her mother and live her own life as her brothers have– and so she stays.

As she gets older Mary longs for an identity of her own, she wants to know love, and begins to think differently about the drawer full of writing she has amassed over the years. She starts to send things she has written, out into the world, to magazines, and meets a man who will be her greatest love – and her greatest sacrifice.

Although there is a sadness in this novel – Mary is a woman who discovers an inner freedom, and despite everything her own perfect happiness.

This is a brilliant exploration of a mother, daughter relationship, and May Sinclair is a writer who deserves to be more widely read.

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One of the best things about social media is how it allows us to share our enthusiasms and discover new ones.

Over on Twitter just lately I have been very much enjoying the #NeglectedLadyNovelists tweets from writer Judith Kinghorn – and the conversations resulting from them. Now I do like a good bit of Twitter banter.

I found the World cup of #NeglectedladyNovelists particularly good fun. Several rounds and a semi-final have come and gone – with Twitter folk having to vote for who they consider the most neglected of the lady novelists in each round. Now, I have always taken my democratic responsibilities very seriously – and so I naturally thought very carefully over my choices. For women writers of a certain period – whether neglected or not – are very much my thing. It was really, really hard – and sparked a bit of debate – for instance in group 1 we had Elizabeth Taylor pitted against Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys and Rosamond Lehmann, while in group 3 the choice was between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flora Mayor, Storm Jameson and EM Delafield, to me it seemed quite impossible to choose. In each group there were at least two writers I wanted to vote for. In all seriousness I want all these writers to enjoy a resurgence in popularity, that is why I love Persephone books and the VMC publications of the 1980 and 90s so much.

I began to wonder how people were voting – surely if we were looking for those women writers who have become truly neglected then I would have expected the likes of Flora Mayor, EH Young or May Sinclair to have made it through to the final. May Sinclair made it to the semi-finals but neither of the other two did terribly well. It’s hardly surprising that people ended up voting for writers they loved most – and I was guilty of this myself. I couldn’t help but vote for Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann as I love them so much. I do, also consider them to be rather neglected, however in truth some of their novels are still in print. Virago still publish three or four Rosamond Lehmann titles – and Selina Hastings’ biography of her is also available. VMC print on demand editions of some Sylvia Townsend Warner novels are available – as well as some NYRB editions (though why they felt it necessary to change the title of Mr Fortune’s Maggot is a mystery) – so are these writers truly neglected? Knowing all this I cast my votes – perhaps wrongly. In truth it is perhaps those writers who work is only to be found on second hand book sites, and on the shelves of (very good) second hand bookshops that are truly neglected – so in some rounds I voted with my heart and not my head. I do feel a little guilty – but at least it has got us all talking about these wonderful women writers, and that can’t be a bad thing. I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Taylor despite my great love of her writing because I can’t honestly say she is as neglected as she once was – that is definitely a good thing. How many of these writers’ works can be found in high street bookshops though is another matter – easily bought from a certain online seller perhaps – but how many times do readers get a chance to idly pick up Sylvia Townsend Warner or Rosamond Lehmann in their local branch of Waterstones I wonder?

When I start thinking about the list of #Neglectedladynovelists I would compile – it begins to get very long. Two writers I have been enjoying during this past week would definitely be on the list; Pamela Frankau and Pamela Hansford Johnson, both very good writers and excellent storytellers.

Many of the other novelists considered under that hashtag however – are exceptionally good writers, women who really did have something to say – they were not merely the tellers of good stories – although they did that too. When I consider the likes of Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, Antonia White and Winifred Holtby and others I am reminded what amazing, varied lives, they all lived. They each had so much to tell us – worlds to show us, so much to say – of course I want more people to read them.

I have wondered before how it is that some writers fall out of favour – while others endure – fashion and tastes change I suppose, and new writers come along. It is sad how many wonderful writers get forgotten during that process – when it comes to books I might sometimes be swayed by a pretty new edition, but I don’t much care about fashions. It is probably unrealistic to expect lots of these writers to be re-issued in shiny new editions – the cost for a publishing company would I suspect be prohibitive.

Still no reason why we who love these #NeglectedLadyNovelists shouldn’t continue to scour the bookshelves of second hand bookshops and celebrate our finds on our favourite social media sites. That way these wonderful voices will still be heard – at least by some of us.

Should you still want to get involved in the chat – the final of the world cup of #NeglectedLadyNovelists is at the end of the week. Make sure you are following @Judithkinghorn if you don’t want to miss it.

The original list has now been whittled down to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Jean Rhys – both truly wonderful writers – but I wonder if you can guess where my vote will be going? If neither of them take your fancy (and why wouldn’t they) who would be your choice of most NeglectedLadyNovelist?

(Incidentally, Sylvia Townsend Warner will be the Libraything Virago Group’s author of the month in December – and I am going to be re-reading Lolly Willowes as I have persuaded my very small book group to read it in December.)


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Some books don’t need 500 pages in which to deliver a powerful punch. This 1922 novel could easily have been stretched to a much longer length, yet it is far stronger for being short. This novel about female self-sacrifice is sadly ironic, and unforgettable.
At 183 pages of fairly large type – this novel could be read in just one sitting – though I read it in two. Harriet Frean is the only child of Victorian parents, whose main concern when growing up is to make sure that she behaves herself beautifully.

“Ugly. Being naughty was just that. Doing ugly things. Being good was being beautiful like Mamma. She wanted to be like her mother. Sitting up there and being good felt delicious.”

As Harriet grows up she is often thrown into company with girls who are supposed to be her friends, but whom Harriet doesn’t really care for. When away at school Harriet meets Priscilla who becomes Harriet’s best friend, and swears to never marry but dedicate herself to Harriet. When later Priscilla does become engaged – she sends her fiancée to visit the Frean’s –and Robin falls in love with Harriet. Harriet sacrifices herself – sending Robin back to Priscilla – and continues to behave beautifully.

“There is a standard.” Harriet lifted her obstinate and arrogant chin. “You forget that I’m Hilton Frean’s daughter.”
“And I’m William Pierce’s, but that hasn’t prevented me being myself.”
Lizzie’s mind had grown keener in her sharp middle age. As it played about her, Harriet cowered; it was like being exposed, naked, to a cutting wind. Her mind played back to her father and mother, longing, like a child, for their shelter and support, for the blessed assurance of herself.”

Idolising her parents Harriet isolates herself from the world, seeing just a few of the same dull people she has always seen and only wishing to do what will please her parents. Harriet’s actions – towards Robin, and in other decisions she later makes – have unforeseen consequences. The Life and Death of Harriet Frean satirises the upper middle classes, and their way of life. Harriet is so busy behaving beautifully and congratulating herself on it that she totally fails to see the destructive nature of her decisions and the devastating effect they have on both herself and others.
I actually really enjoyed this strange little novel which was sent to me some months ago by Belva from the Librarything Virago group.

may sinclair

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