The English writer May Sinclair (1863–1946) produced an unusually varied and progressive body of work: she issued novels, poetry, short stories, literary criticism, philosophy, psychoanalysis, feminist and pro-suffrage essays, and war journalism. In 1914 she joined the British war effort, working as a nurse on the Belgian front.
In her work as a writer, May Sinclair's output was varied: in her fictional work she produced psychologically realistic portraits of women, love stories, stories of war, experimental modernist works, gothic tales in the tradition of Victorian writers Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Bronté, and stories of ghosts and the supernatural. In her nonfiction writing, Sinclair swam in the major intellectual currents of her time, promoting literary modernism and helping to introduce Freudian psychoanalysis to Britain. She was the first person to use the phrase “stream of consciousness” in referencing literature.
By any reckoning, Sinclair was among the pioneers of feminism in the early 20th century, and her novels were popular in the United States, where she traveled on a triumphant book tour. “For such an accomplished author, to have just one novel circulating in the 21st century is appalling,” argued Charlotte Jones in appraising the author's work in the London Guardian in 2013. Although 1914's The Three Sisters was the only Sinclair novel in print at the time, the increasing availability of digitized books has made her work more accessible.
May Sinclair was the pen name of Mary Amelia St. Clair, born on August 24, 1863, in Rock Ferry, near Liverpool in what was then England's Cheshire County. Her father, William St. Clair, was a partner in a Liverpool shipping business that went bankrupt. In 1872 the family relocated outside London, to Ilford, suffering further financial problems due to William St. Clair's abuse of alcohol. Sinclair was raised mostly by her mother, Amelia, whom she later characterized as cold and inflexible.
Sinclair's education was furthered in the mid-1890s by Anthony Deane, a young clergyman with whom she fell in love and who encouraged her literary endeavors. The relationship eventually ended, however, and by the late 1890s, Sinclair was supporting herself by doing translations in London. Increasingly, she shouldered the burden of caring for her mother, who was in poor health and who had already suffered the death of several of her children. Despite these challenges, Sinclair continued to write and her first novel, Audrey Craven, was published in 1897. She now began to attract attention in literary circles, and after her mother died in 1901 she was able to devote substantial time to her writing.
In 1904 Sinclair published The Divine Fire, the first of several books she would write dealing with the lives of artists. The book sold well on both sides of the Atlantic, and she was introduced to North American literary celebrities such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain when she visited the United States on a book tour. With sales of her books doing well, she moved into a well-appointed London apartment and began to hobnob with England's literary elite. Sinclair and novelist Thomas Hardy both enjoyed bicycling and took an intercity bike trip together; she and H.G. Wells also were acquainted.
Sinclair's work after 1904 displayed her versatility and wide-ranging interests. Under the influence of the Brontë sisters, she began writing the supernatural tales collected in Uncanny Stories. One story from this book, “Where the Fire Is Not Quenched,” was regularly anthologized and focuses on a woman who has an affair with a married man and, after death, cannot escape from the room where they once engaged in lovemaking. In 1912, Sinclair published The Three Brontës, a critical study, and she followed that up with The Three Sisters, a popular gothic novel about three daughters of a minister who are locked inside a house located on England's moors. Her 1913 novel The Combined Maze, about a love triangle involving a male London clerk and two women, was praised by figures as diverse as George Orwell and Agatha Christie.
Sinclair's literary interests looked forward as well as backward. She met poet Ezra Pound in 1908 and supported him financially as well as in critical essays. Pound introduced her to other poets writing in the modern styles of Imagism and Vorticism, using oblique, fragmentary images to convey an experience. Among these were the fast-rising American-British writer T.S. Eliot, whom she championed in an essay published in The Little Review, and female poet Hilda Doolittle, who employed the non-gender-specific H.D. as a pen name. Sinclair herself had used the male pseudonym Julian Sinclair on a book of poems titled Naki-ketas and released in 1886.
In addition to writing, Sinclair became a primary spokesperson for Britain's women's suffrage movement, issuing the pamphlet Feminism in 1912 to argue in support of it. Although her support of women's right to vote inspired her 1917 novel The Tree of Heaven, her story's plot reflected the splits that were by now forming within the suffragist movement: Sinclair and some other suffragists supported Britain's entry into World War I, while others took a more pacificist attitude. Britain granted women the vote in 1918.
Many of Sinclair's novels have a strong psychological dimension, reflecting her interest in the new science of psychoanalysis since encountering it at London's MedicoPsychological Clinic in 1913. She lent the clinic financial support, earmarking her contributions for its Fund for NerveShocked Soldiers (referencing what is now labeled posttraumatic stress disorder) as Britain's involvement in World War I deepened. Through this work, Sinclair became acquainted with the clinic's director, Hector Munro, who was organizing female ambulance crews to support troops at the front.
Sinclair was part of a group of British artists, male and female, who wanted to enlist in the war effort during what was then known as the Great War. Many anticipated that war would provide them a new experience, and some paid for that expectation with their lives. Sinclair joined one of Munro's ambulance corps and was sent to the Belgian Front on September 25, 1914. After a few weeks on the battlefield, she returned home, the pretext being that her fundraising expertise was needed there although varied reasons for her departure were cited in different accounts. Sinclair's short stay at the front left a deep impression, however, and she shared her thoughts in the nonfiction work A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (1915), one of the first English war accounts written by a woman. Her thoughts on the war also would influence six of her future novels, including The Romantic (1920), which was set on the battlefront.
Sinclair continued to alternate between fiction and nonfiction genres. She issued a philosophical study, A Defence of Idealism: Some Questions and Conclusions, in 1917, and she also translated a work of ecclesiastical history by German writer Rudolph Gohm. She was also a widely read literary critic. In a 1918 review published in The Egoist, Sinclair was appraising a novel by Dorothy Richardson. Her commentary included the quote (as recorded on the May Sinclair Society website) that, “In identifying herself with this life, which is Miriam's stream of consciousness, Miss Richardson produces her effect of being the first, of getting closer to reality than any of our novelists who are trying so desperately to get close.” The term “stream of consciousness” was then known to psychologists, but this passage is thought to be the first in which it was applied to literature.
Boll, Theophilus E.M., Miss May Sinclair, Novelist, Associated University Presses, 1973.
Mitchell, David, Women on the Warpath: The Story of the Women of the First World War, Jonathan Cape, 1966.
Raitt, Suzanne, May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Guardian (London, England), August 1, 2013, Charlotte Jones, “May Sinclair: The Readable Modernist.”
May Sinclair Society, https://maysinclairsociety.com (November 14, 2017). □