Celibate passion

May Sinclair
September 8, 2000

Like Charlotte Brontë , with whom she closely identified, May Sinclair lived "an outer life of a strange and almost oppressive simplicity and silence", dying in 1946, childless and alone save for her housekeeper. Yet she wrote intensely sensuous - and still resonant - novels, whose theme was the suffering inherent in women's experience and the elusiveness of the search for an authentic female identity.

Sinclair wrote of marriage, love and children, her imagination fed not by experience but by powerful memories of childhood and a voracious consumption of ideas.

Forgotten in her lifetime and barely remembered now, she was famous in the early years of the 20th century. Her 1904 novel, The Divine Fire - an attack on the commercialisation of literature - gave her the recognition that she had long awaited and became, ironically, a bestseller. She wrote more than 20 novels, including the celebrated modernist work Mary Olivier: A Life (1919) and the poignant Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922), both reissued by Virago in the 1980s.

Suzanne Raitt rises to the challenge of bringing Sinclair out of obscurity, a task made more difficult by the paucity of material. Sinclair left no journal and few letters, what friendships she had were awkward and distant, and she refused to discuss her private life. Personal publicity was an artistic betrayal, but she was happy to discuss the many preoccupations of her tenacious intellectual life.

Born in 1863, Sinclair grew up with the values of a Victorian world but lived through a period of social and cultural upheaval, which she was at pains to explore and understand. In her youth she became an agnostic and eventually found spiritual solace in Hegelian idealism and Jungian mysticism. She was an ambivalent suffragist, supporting the cause in print yet retaining a horror of collective action. She more readily embraced psychoanalysis, and was an outspoken defender of the poetry of Ezra Pound (while at the same time promoting the poetry of "one of the last Victorians", Charlotte Mew). Her experimental instincts were encouraged by her discovery of Dorothy Richardson's novels, whose complete absence of structured experience delighted her. Although not all her novels were modernist in form, she stuck to the belief that reality was subjective, that "the world arose in consciousness".

Caught between the emotional allegiances of Victorian constraint and the yearning for an autonomous self, Sinclair traded intimacy for intellectual freedom. It was not a choice without anguish, and the fact of her celibacy was to engage her all her life. In novel after novel she would confront what she perceived to be the conflicting demands for women: sexual desire and creativity. Here she would invoke Freud and Jung, often crudely, as she wrestled with the notions of repression and sublimation, reaching the arguable conclusion in Mary Olivier that sublimation of the libido, at least for geniuses, was something that could be willed.

Elaborate self-denial or courageous self-exploration? Raitt does not judge, rather she emphasises courage in the face of a painful period of transition. If Raitt allows herself to speculate about affairs, even an illegitimate child, she does so fleetingly. Her respect for her subject, her interpretive strengths, her subtle appreciation of Sinclair's novels and her sense of historical moment combine to bring Sinclair alive. If she has become, as Raitt laments, the stuff of footnotes, then this book proves Raitt's further point that footnotes can carry intriguing stories.

Mary Tomlinson is fiction editor, Bloomsbury Publishing.

May Sinclair

Author - Suzanne Raitt
ISBN - 0 19 812298 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 320

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