May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian

May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian

by Suzanne Raitt


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May Sinclair (1863-1946) was a bestselling novelist who was one of the first British women to go out to the Belgian front in 1914. May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian draws on newly discovered manuscripts to tell the story of this woman whose emotional isolation bears witness to the great price Victorian women had to pay for their intellectual freedom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780198122982
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 05/11/2000
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

University of Michigan

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Learning Philosophy

* * *

One day in the early 1870s, in a house in Ilford, East London, near the gloomy City of London cemetery, a lonely, studious little girl, the only sister of five older boys, sat down to read a book. Decades later the girl, now a well-known and wealthy novelist, recalled that day:

Years and years ago, when I was a child, hunting forlornly in my father's bookshelves, I came upon a small shabby volume, bound in yellow linen. The title-page was adorned with one bad wood-cut that showed a grim, plain house standing obliquely to a churchyard packed with tombstones, tombstones uptight and flat, and slanting at all angles.... Tombstones always fascinated me in those days, because I was mortally afraid of them; and I opened that book and read it through.

    I could not, in fact, put it down. For the first time I was in the grip of a reality more poignant than any I had yet known, of a tragedy that I could hardly bear. (TB, 276-7)

The impressionable, frightened little girl was May Sinclair, and the volume was Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). This image of a silent child, head bent over a book that told of lives even more restricted than her own, anticipates the adult Sinclair's ambivalent fascination with the Victorian morbidity that saturated her formative years. Even as, in her fifties and sixties, she defended experimental fiction such as Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage, and in 1919 published her own unconventional novel, Mary Olivier: A Life,she continued to return to the years of her childhood as if in search of an answer to the questions raised by her own development.

    All her life Sinclair relied on books for instruction and solace. Paradoxically for someone whose novels reveal such an intensely sensuous imagination, her conscious life was dominated by her passion for intellectual enquiry and for writing. The sombre, preoccupied little girl in her father's library developed into a woman whose habits were formed by the pleasures and the dangers of the imagination and the inner life. As she found herself increasingly at odds, especially in matters of religious belief, with the mother whose approval she craved, she retreated more and more into philosophical enquiry in an attempt to understand and master her own doubts. Her journey into the twentieth century began with a characteristically Victorian crisis of faith.

    There was little in Sinclair's background to indicate that she would grow into such a solitary, studious woman. Her parents were not intellectuals, although her father, William Sinclair, was interested in books and had a fairly substantial library in which young Mary (she did not become May until 1891) browsed freely. William was part-owner of a shipping business in Liverpool, while Sinclair's mother, born Amelia Hind, was the daughter of a Northern Irish Protestant, whose commercial interests allowed him to settle some money on Amelia. Thus Sinclair's family was not especially privileged in class terms: they came from the mercantile middle class, involved in trade and commerce, aspiring to a comfortable and cultured life. After their marriage in Belfast on 26 September 1850, William and Amelia Sinclair settled in Cheshire at New Ferry, Lower Bebington, near Liverpool. Those early years were prosperous. Amelia was preoccupied with raising her growing family; William seemed to be making a reasonable success of the shipping company. Their eldest son, William, was born about a year after they married, on 18 October 1851. A daughter, Gertrude Elizabeth, came next, born on 7 July 1853, but she survived only just over a year, dying of scarlet fever on 24 September 1854. A year after Gertrude's death, on 29 July 1855, a third child was born, Joseph Walter, and a fourth, Francis Edwin, followed on 11 March 1857. After Francis's birth the family's prospects had improved enough to allow them to move from the little village of Lower Bebington to a house at the much more desirable address of Thorncote, Rock Park, Higher Bebington, a purpose-built development with secluded lanes, and large, ostentatious houses. The development was designed for the families of businessmen who, like William Sinclair, worked in Liverpool, and one of its attractions was that it was close to the Mersey ferry, which departed regularly for the city. In later life Sinclair described it as 'by no means a romantic spot, a sort of suburb of Birkenhead & Liverpool'. Here, on 12 September 1858, the fourth Sinclair boy, Harold, was born, and another boy, Frederick Amelius St Clair (later called Reginald), followed on 23 January 1861. Mary Amelia St Clair, born on 24 August 1863, was the last of the Sinclairs' six children, all boys apart from her.

    In later life, Sinclair was unusually reticent about her childhood and adolescence. As Catherine Dawson Scott and Witter Bynner discovered to their cost, she resisted all attempts to publish biographical pieces about her. But, all the same, she did occasionally break her silence, in interviews, in little vignettes like the one of her childhood reading of The Life of Charlotte Brontë with which I started, or, more extensively, in her account of her weeks with an ambulance unit at the beginning of the First World War, A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (1915).

    She was slightly less guarded in her fiction, where she could disguise or distort the events of her life so that their autobiographical origins were more ambiguous. In many of her novels she returned obliquely to certain crucial scenes and events—her childhood in Liverpool, her father's bankruptcy and alcoholism, her brothers' deaths from mitral valve disease—as if her imagination could never quite break free of them. As autobiographical fiction (especially the female Bildungsroman, or novel of development) became increasingly common and popular after the First World War (Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage from 1915 onwards, Katherine Mansfield's 'Prelude' in 1918, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse in 1927), Sinclair grew bolder. The lives of the protagonists of two of her later novels, Mary Olivier: A Life (1919) and Arnold Waterlow: A Life (1924), follow her own biography closely enough that it is clear that she conceived them as semi-autobiographical, and drew closely on her own experiences as she wrote them. Indeed Sinclair admitted to Marc Logé, who translated Mary Olivier, that Mary Olivier was the story of her own life (although she explicitly dissociated herself from Mary's love affairs) and she referred to Arnold Waterlow as 'a male "Mary Olivier"'. Her creativity fed off the childhood and adolescence she kept well hidden from critics and friends alike. The lonely little girl in her father's library grew into a woman whose primary mode of self-exploration and self-expression was through her fiction.

    Little Mary Sinclair grew up in an atmosphere dominated by the boisterous activities of her elder brothers. She recalled in a 1912 review of Cicely Hamilton's Man that 'Until I was twenty-seven (but for a few inconsiderable terms at school) I spent the greater part of my life with men, sharing largely in that open air life which shows my sex what is best in theirs, besides being mixed up even more in those critical and intimate family relations which most infallibly reveal the worst in it.' Even in middle age Sinclair remained physically active and fearless, riding, cycling, walking, skating, sailing, and swimming. An article based on an interview in 1905, when she was 42, noted that Sinclair liked 'cycling [and] ... most things that can be done actively and in the open air'. Ten years later her enthusiasm was still just as strong: in October 1915 she told H. G. Wells: 'I love life—the very feeling of my feet on the ground is an exquisite pleasure, & out-of-door games & hard exercise, all the robust side of it.' The foundations of this love of exertion were laid during long afternoons in the large garden at Thorncote, when young Mary ran after her brothers, desperate to join in their games. Years later she would use that childhood experience of exclusion to describe her feelings during the two weeks she spent in Belgium at the start of the First World War:

It is with the game of war as it was with the game of football I used to play with my big brothers in the garden. The women may play it if they're fit enough, up to a certain point, very much as I played football in the garden. The big brothers let their little sister kick off; they let her run away with the ball; they stood back and let her make goal after goal; but when it came to the scrimmage they took hold of her and gently but firmly moved her to one side. If she persisted she became an infernal nuisance. (JI, 105-6)

Sinclair never forgot what it felt like to be admitted to the company of males only on sufferance, and decades later, in spite of her fear of drawing attention to herself, she ventured out with a collecting-box in support of the women's suffrage movement. But as a child she was not yet sensitive to masculine injustice, and was overjoyed to be allowed to join in at all. Her favourite brother, Frank, was the leader of the younger group of children (Frank, Harold, Reginald, and Mary), who all played noisily together while William and Joseph formed their own alliance. Frank and Mary had a special affection for one another: they would jump brooks together, and sometimes Mary would climb the stairs and fling herself into the air, confident that her strong, handsome elder brother would be there to catch her. Sinclair never forgot the excitement and the security of sibling attachments, describing them over and over again in her novels. In Anne Severn and the Fieldings (1922), Anne even ends up becoming her adoptive brother's mistress.

    But the carefree pleasure of Mary Sinclair's outdoor life was not matched by the life she led indoors. Her mother was an unimaginative and inflexible woman who took no pains to hide either her preference for her sons, especially Frank, or her disappointment with her husband. Her austere Northern Irish Protestantism dominated the household. In later years Sinclair described it as a 'cold, bitter, narrow tyranny'. William seems to have been jealous and resentful of the attention his wife gave to her sons, particularly Frank; and Amelia in turn grew irritable in their defence. Family occasions were formal and chilly with tension. In 1915 Sinclair wrote that her youth was 'spoiled with too many ceremonies ... ceremonies that lacked all beauty and sincerity and dignity' (JI, 32). In this emotionally charged atmosphere Mary Sinclair was largely left to fend for herself: she barely saw her father, who was always either at the office, or sailing in his yacht the Windward. As a little girl in the 1860s her love of tomboyish games was frowned on. She spent hours sitting with her mother learning to sew and to play the piano. However hard she tried, it was difficult for her to act like the demure and obedient shadow-self her mother wanted her to be. The early chapters of Mary Olivier show Mary in constant competition with her brothers for her mother's attention. Mary Sinclair too must have felt rivalry with these older boys whose opportunities and achievements were always so far ahead of anything she could hope for.

    But Amelia Sinclair's early lack of interest in her daughter belied the intensity and the ambivalence of the relationship that developed between them as Mary grew older. In spite of her resentment of her mother, Mary longed for her approval and for some token of affection. Although her elder sister Gertrude's life and death pre-dated Mary's birth by about a decade, it is hard, from the evidence of Sinclair's fiction, not to feel that her imagination was haunted by the spectral presence of her sister. Dead children appear in almost every story she ever wrote: 'The Intercessor' (1911), Mary Olivier, and Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922), to name but a few examples. The evidence of these texts suggests that Sinclair was dogged by the fear that her mother compared her unfavourably to the daughter she had lost. In Arnold Waterlow young Arnold comes upon his mother caressing photographs and locks of hair, one set belonging to her favourite son Richard, and the other to an unknown child. She tells Arnold that he had another brother who died three days before Arnold was born. Arnold is horrified:

He didn't know what was the matter with him. He couldn't put into words what he felt about the little dead brother whose likeness should have been his and wasn't. It was as if he had looked into his mother's heart and had found no place for himself there. But her eyes made him frightened and ashamed.

His mother has no photograph of Arnold, and no lock of his hair, and in her embarrassment tells him he must never mention his dead brother again. If Mary Sinclair grew up under a similar injunction, it is no surprise that dead children appear obsessively in her fiction. In 'The Intercessor' the ghost of an elder daughter even takes the place of her younger sibling who has died at birth. It was perhaps because of this consciousness of a bereavement in which she felt in some way implicated that Sinclair reacted with such fascinated horror to the frontispiece in her father's edition of Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë. She continued to be afraid of graveyards all her life.

    The circumstances of Mary Sinclair's life became even more difficult when she was 7. Until then, however fraught her inner world, she had at least enjoyed the luxuries of affluent middle-class life in a large and well-appointed home, with an extensive garden lovingly supervised by her mother. But in the late 1860s her father's business began to fail; one by one things and people started to disappear: first the yacht went, then the parlourmaid, the kitchenmaid, and the gardener. Arnold Waterlow describes the changes that came over Arnold's house when his father, like Sinclair's, was no longer bringing in enough money to support the household:

The dandelions and daisies and ladies' slippers spread higher up the lawn, and in the wild places the peacock's legs were hidden in the long grass ... Then Miss Rodick [the governess] went. And the same day Richard [Arnold's brother] left off going to Miss Peppercorn's. Holidays began the first week in May.

    You would have thought that summer would have been a happy summer, but it wasn't; because whoever went away or didn't go Papa was always at home. There had been a time when he was hardly ever there at all. That time, Richard said, was too good to last.

As Sinclair told Willis Steell fifty-four years later, her 'family had lost everything'. Eventually Mary was sent to stay with her uncle in Liverpool and, when she returned home, it was not to the house at Rock Ferry, but to another, much smaller one.

    The movements of the family after the failure of the shipping business are very hard to trace. Sinclair remained extremely reticent about her family's sudden descent into genteel poverty: the comment she made to Steell during the 1924 interview is the only recorded public reference she ever made to their financial difficulties. But they must have been acute: William Sinclair seems never to have worked again, and some at least of the Sinclair boys took office jobs to supplement what remained of their mother's income. Sinclair told Steell that the family were financially dependent on relatives for quite some time. We can be fairly sure that they left the Liverpool area soon after the disaster: in 1870 there are records of a William Sinclair living briefly in Brentwood, Essex, where the Waterlow family in Arnold Waterlow also goes immediately after their business fails. In 1872 the Sinclairs left Brentwood for Ilford, in those days a village just east of London, and ten years later, they moved again, still in the same area, to Forest Gate. Their living conditions were cramped and unhappy. They held on to as much of their furniture as they could, but that meant that the rooms were crowded with inappropriately large sofas and beds. The pathos of such households is carefully recorded in many of Sinclair's novels. The bedroom in the house Mary Olivier's family move to after Emilius Olivier's shipping insurance business fails is 'nearly filled with the yellow birchwood wardrobe and bed' (MO, 162), and Juliana Quincy and her aunt, in their small house in the suburb of Camden, in 'Superseded' (1901), 'crowded themselves out with relics of their past, a pathetic salvage, dragged hap-hazard from the wreck in the first frenzy of preservation'. Some of Mary's brothers were no longer around to lighten the gloom of the claustrophobic Ilford house: in 1874 Frank entered the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, and three years later left the country to serve with the army in India. Mary's mother, already angry and depressed at the downturn in her family's fortunes, become even more demanding after Frank's departure. In the mid-1870s Mary's brother William started work in an office in the City, and then, in 1879, married Eleanor Adeline Cook and settled in Hull, where he worked for Finningley & Co., a firm of provision merchants. With two of her sons gone Amelia Sinclair felt even more abandoned and humiliated. It was Mary's task to stay home with her and keep her entertained.

    Boll and Zegger both assume that at some point during the 1870s William and Amelia separated. Certainly much of the documentary evidence points in that direction: William's death in 1881 was registered by someone called Martha Mitchell, and not by any member of his family, and his address on the death certificate (and in a directory for 1879) is not the Ilford address where the family seem to have been living, but one in Fairford, a small town about twenty miles south-east of Cheltenham. Sinclair herself was evasive and contradictory about the family's movements during these years. In 1905 she told an anonymous interviewer for Outlook magazine that she had 'lived a very quiet life in the country' until she moved to London in 1896, and she wrote to critic Witter Bynner that she 'did not settle in town till' 96'. During the 1920s, when she had a writing retreat at Stow-on-the-Wold, about twenty miles from Fairford, visitors would regularly be taken there to see the church and the house where she claimed to have lived. All these comments suggest that the whole family went into retreat together in an attempt to conceal William's growing dependence on alcohol. However, Sinclair was not above falsifying—or at least repressing—the uncomfortable details of her own past. In direct contradiction to the story she had told other people, she said to Steell in 1924 that she had never lived outside London, commenting that after her father's financial failure, 'We were living all over—that is, we were constantly moving, of course in London, where I have lived since I was five years old. I was not born in London, but have no recollection of any other home'. She was clearly concerned to cover her tracks. On balance, it seems likely that the family did not, in fact, separate, and that even if they did break up for a brief time, with William moving to Fairford and Amelia and the children staying in London, Mary and her brothers stayed in close touch with their father. (Her mother, on the other hand, finally severed all ties: she and her husband were not even buried together.)

    Whatever her living situation, Mary was forced to witness, and to try to conceal, her father's, and possibly one or more of her brothers', episodes of drunkenness. The detailed descriptions of alcoholism in her fiction suggest that Sinclair had first-hand experience of sharing a house with someone whose drinking was out of control. In Mary Olivier Mary's brother Roddy steers his father home from the pub every night, 'and Papa would stiffen and draw himself up, trying to look dignified and sober' (MO, 180), while his wife refuses to acknowledge that anything is amiss. Arnold Waterlow's father has 'floppy moods': 'Mr. Waterlow carried himself very straight and stiff, balancing himself affectedly and putting his feet down with exaggerated care. When Arnold spoke to him he didn't answer and his face had a queer, uneasy look, as though he were holding liquid in his mouth'. Matty's son in The Rector of Wyck (1925) even vomits on the threshold of his father's church. Literary critic Frank Swinnerton commented that in 1904, after reading The Divine Fire: 'the most intelligent and sophisticated man known to me then shook his head over May Sinclair's knowledge of what a man felt like when he was drunk. My friend said, gravely: "She knows too much."' Disgusted by all that she had seen, Sinclair herself remained a teetotaller for the rest of her life. Her father's death on 19 November 1881 at the age of 52 from cirrhosis of the liver and kidney disease only reinforced her sense of alcohol's danger. In Mary Olivier Sinclair described the death of Mary's alcoholic father in chilling detail. He has been given an emetic:

The basin kept on slipping from the bed. She could see its pattern—reddish flowers and green leaves and curlykews—under the splashings of mustard and water.... The curtains were drawn back, holding the sour smell of sickness in their fluted folds.... Papa's head was thrown stiffly back on the high pillows; it sank in, weighted with the blood that flushed his face. Around it on the white linen there was a spatter and splash of mustard and water. His beard clung to his chin, soaked in the yellowish stain. He breathed with a loud, grating and groaning noise. (MO, 188) Mary Olivier watches with a feeling of hysterical pity—as perhaps Mary Sinclair had done—as the father for whom she has had less and less respect finally spews out his last breath.

    But by the time her father died, Mary Sinclair had a place of refuge. She had met the deprivations and the loneliness of her teens with a characteristically intense determination. Struggling against her mother's constant disapproval and resentment, envious of her brothers' education, and increasingly unsure of her belief in Christian orthodoxy, she put as much energy as she could manage into educating herself in languages, the classics, and philosophy, partly as a way of trying to resolve her questions about religion. By 1881 Mary had taught herself German, Greek, and French, and read works by Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay, Plutarch, Locke, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Euripides, Shelley, Plato, Hume, and Kant. It became increasingly clear both to Mary herself and, more ominously, to her mother, that she was developing not only a defensively solitary temperament, but also a remarkably agile and enquiring mind. She retreated from the frictions and the petty frustrations of her everyday life into an unusually strict and demanding regime of thought and study.

    In the autumn of 1881, when Mary was 18, her scholarly dedication was rewarded: she was sent for a year to Cheltenham Ladies' College where, many years earlier, her mother had once been a pupil. The College was founded in 1853 and, by 1881, under the extraordinary leadership of Dorothea Beale, it was flourishing and widely recognized, along with the North London Collegiate School founded by Frances Buss in 1850, as a landmark educational institution for girls and women. Mary Sinclair's year at school was the first time that she had been exposed to the exclusive company of her own sex for any sustained period of time, and it was the first time, too, that she had had formal intellectual guidance from trained and experienced teachers. After years of strain at home, with her father's alcoholism and her mother's dissatisfaction dominating the household, Sinclair found herself suddenly responsible to no one but herself. She was not studying for any formal examination, and she was free to live a life centred around intellectual enquiry and philosophical speculation. Sinclair derived enormous benefit from her time at the college, brief as it was. She enjoyed the rigorous academic discipline of lessons every morning, in a range of subjects including scripture, history, literature, English language, geography, arithmetic, geometry, algebra, natural science, physics, physiology, chemistry, French, German, Latin, and Greek. As one of the older girls at the school she was also permitted to undertake, as Beale recommended, 'some systematic reading regarding the history and foundations of philosophy in general and Christian philosophy in particular'. Much of this reading (Beale assigned Plato, for example) was, of course, already familiar to Sinclair.

    Mary Sinclair soon came to Dorothea Beale's attention. Their relationship began with a conflict: Sinclair refused to write an essay that Beale had assigned on God. In spite of her fear and mistrust of agnosticism (in the late 1870s she had herself been traumatized by religious doubt), Beale was impressed by Mary Sinclair's insistence on her right to think for herself. Sinclair's obituary in the Cheltenham Ladies' College Magazine notes that Beale was struck most of all by her strength of mind: 'Whilst still at College May Sinclair showed conspicuous qualities of independence, originality and intellectual integrity which gained her the special interest of Miss Beale who encouraged her to write.' Beale's concern with women's place in the world, her passionate but troubled Christian faith, and her enthusiasm for philosophical speculation, made her an ideal intellectual guide for Mary Sinclair. Janet Hogarth (later Courtney), who taught philosophy at Cheltenham in the late 1880s, wrote that 'though inclined ... to be pontifical', Beale could also be 'extremely human', with 'a wonderful instinct for dealing with girls'. Unlike Sinclair's mother, Beale was willing to listen to her religious doubts without simply dismissing them as infantile or wicked. She encouraged and guided Sinclair's study of Western and Eastern philosophies in an attempt simultaneously to acknowledge her anxieties, and to strengthen her wavering faith (Hogarth noted that Beale herself 'yearned to complete the link between Greek thought and Christian mystical interpretation'). Like her cousin, Caroline Cornwallis, anonymous author of a series of pamphlets on philosophical and other matters, Beale had no fear that the study of philosophy would weaken religious belief and echoing Cornwallis's own phrase, she believed that philosophy was necessarily the exploration of 'the grounds of a rational faith'. For Beale the object of education was to understand the world's, and the child's, relation to God, and the development of an enquiring mind was to her an article of faith. Schools linked the material and the immaterial worlds, as well as helping pupils make their own links and transitions: 'The school is the link between infancy and mature life, between the home and the world, the secular and the spiritual'. The intertwining of the secular and the spiritual, though, could only be experienced if the life of the mind were taken seriously, if girls and women were encouraged to develop their own intellectual autonomy. For a belief to be convincing, it must recognize both 'liberty and obedience': the liberty to ask questions and the obedience to abide by their answers. As editor and founder (in 1880) of the Cheltenham Ladies' College Magazine Beale encouraged Sinclair to think of herself first and foremost as a independent-minded philosopher, and the Magazine published a number of Sinclair's early essays and poems on philosophical topics. When in 1895 Sinclair began to publish short stories Beale admonished her: 'You really must not let yourself be diverted altogether from philosophy. You have not thought and suffered so much for nothing, and though your philosophy will come out in most things, even in stories, you must give it us sometimes "neat". Although she could not afford to stop publishing pieces that would earn money, Sinclair, perhaps mindful of Beale's advice, continued to write philosophical books alongside her fiction almost until the end of her career. Beale consolidated her emerging sense of herself as a thinker, a woman of ideas, who had the right to challenge even the beliefs which her mother held most dear.

    Sinclair did, however, have some doubts about some of Beale's methods. Beale insisted that women, however domestic their habits, should devote as much time as they could to academic study and learning. In her testimony to the Schools' Enquiry Commission of 1864, she stressed the ill effects of intellectual idleness: 'For one girl in the higher middle classes who suffers from overwork, there are, I believe, hundreds whose health suffers from the... irritability produced by idleness and frivolity and discontent. She recommended to her girls that, even after they had left the school, they should enhance their own well-being, both physical and spiritual, by disciplined programmes of reading and study. She encouraged them in what she called 'the work of self-culture': 'Bear this first in mind, that to continue the work of education, of drawing out and developing your powers, is still your duty, and will be to the end of life.' Ethics and philosophy were only formally taught to the young women who stayed at school beyond the age of 18, but Beale recommended philosophy, along with physiology and domestic and political economy, as a suitable subject of study for school leavers. She thus demanded an extraordinary amount of effort and self-discipline from the girls under her care even after they had left the school. Sinclair, already habituated to a life dominated by long periods of solitary reading and learning, was sympathetic only up to a point. Her 1901 story 'Superseded' includes a description of the 'commanding personality' of Miss Cursiter, headmistress of a girls' school, whose lectures to her girls are very similar to those given by Dorothea Beale. Miss Cursiter is a formidable and not entirely likeable woman, with 'an intelligence fervent with the fire of the enthusiast, cold with the renunciant's frost'. Beale's temperament too was marked by an introspective mysticism, and an awkward courage, and like Miss Cursiter she was intent on modernizing women's education. In 'Superseded' Miss Cursiter's advice to the girls and women at the school to spend their evenings studying great literature causes the earnest middle- aged arithmetic teacher, Juliana Quincy, to drive herself to physical and mental collapse in an attempt to be worthy of the school. Juliana's doctor, with whom she is in love, inveighs against the evils of educating women against the grain of their physiological systems: 'Your precious system... sets up the same absurd standard for every woman, the brilliant genius and the average imbecile'. The outcome of the story—Juliana's death— suggests that Sinclair was writing a cautionary tale about the ill effects of mental strain on women. She herself, while attracted to a life of study, was repeatedly laid up by exhaustion and overwork, and her enthusiasm for Beale's open and reflective approach to religious and philosophical issues was tempered by a recognition that Beale was not always sympathetic to the frailty of the bodies she had under her care. Sinclair found Beale stimulating but also very taxing, and when her father died only a few months after she arrived in Cheltenham, and her mother more than ever needed her company and help at home, she seems to have agreed fairly willingly to come back at the end of the academic year.

    Mary Sinclair was by now a pretty, slender young woman, barely five feet tall. She wore her thick, chestnut hair in a plaited coronet, her black eyes were intense and watchful, and her voice was crisp and quiet. In later life she filled out into a 'compact little woman', dressed in dark colours—black, brown, and mauve—sometimes richly embroidered and set off with elaborate neckchains. Virginia Woolf in 1909 remarked that she had 'little round eyes bright as steel', and James Walter Smith described her as 'a small and demure being' reminiscent of 'the prim mistress of some young ladies' finishing school': 'Her manner was as quiet as her dress. Her power— indefinable, all-observant, analytic—is to be found in her eyes; what those eyes miss isn't worth hiding or trying to hide.' Sinclair observed the world from behind an almost 'immobile face', projecting a 'Buddha-like calm and inscrutable charm': 'what she sees excites in her no apparent surprise, or, indeed, any visible emotion'. She seldom smiled, expressing amusement simply 'by slight muscular contractions at the corners of her eyes'. Only cats, it seemed, could arouse her passion, and throughout her life she lavished affection on a succession of black toms. Sinclair was always careful of people, as if each new acquaintance represented another potential source of danger. She could be generous, although she rarely gave way to impulse, and she once remarked to Catherine Dawson Scott that pity was her strongest emotion. But the overall impression she gave was of someone defending herself against the world, and observing its antics from behind a carefully arranged mask: her friend novelist Ida Wylie remembered her as a 'shy, remote creature'.

    It was to a sadly diminished and financially stretched household that this attractive, withdrawn young woman returned when she came home from Cheltenham in 1882. William was now in Hull, and Frank was in India. Harold, Reginald, and Joseph were apparently still living with Amelia. But Joseph was restless: there were few opportunities for him in England. In 1885 he emigrated to Canada, and Sinclair never saw him again. As it turned out, this was only the first of many bereavements.

    In the early 1880s, soon after Mary Sinclair returned home, what was left of the family moved back up north to be nearer their Liverpool cousins the Higgins, but in spite of the beauty of their surroundings (they were in the village of Gresford, near Wrexham), they were uncertain and apprehensive. Harold's health was not good: he was feverish, tired, and nauseous, and in September 1886, when he was 28, the family discovered that he had kidney disease, complicated by a congenital heart defect. Sinclair watched him weaken and was powerless to help him. On 28 August 1887, four days after her twenty- fourth birthday, he died. She scarcely had time to recover from this loss when she heard in a telegram from India that Frank had died suddenly, aged 32, on 18 April 1889. It was not even a heroic death: like Mark in Mary Olivier, Frank, reckless and extrovert to the end, was showing off at a party in the officers' mess, and suddenly collapsed with heart failure, caused by the same mitral valve irregularity which had killed his brother less than two years earlier. Sinclair, in spite of everything still her mother's closest companion, had to find some way to break it to her that her favourite son had died a farcical deaath.


Table of Contents

1. Learning Philosophy
2. A Crisis of Love and Faith
3. Fame and the Literary Marketplace
4. Celibacy and Psychoanalysis
5. War
6. Experiments in Poetry
7. Sublimation and Mary Olivier: A Life
8. The Twilight Years and Life and Death of Harriet Frean

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