May Sinclair (1863 – 1946)

From: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984) Chapter Thirteen – ‘Never Confess’:

“The first thing (for Charlotte to do) was to make herself useful to May. She offered to address circulars for the Medico-Psychological Clinic (May’s niece had come to help her, but had got sick of it after sticking on seven stamps). May refused, on the grounds that she couldn’t put such a burden on any of her friends. Soon there was another opportunity. Amateur musicians next door were making life intolerable in Edwardes Square. May loved music, but preferred to choose when and where she heard it. She must move at once, preferably to Hampstead or better still to Bloomsbury, where she had heard there were no musicians…”

From the website of the Poetry Foundation:

“May Sinclair may be considered England’s “leading woman novelist between the death of George Eliot and the rise of Virginia Woolf,” according to David Williams in Punch. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, noting that Sinclair had been “generally acknowledged in the 1920s as one of the most important writers of her day,” viewed the posthumous decline in the novelist’s reputation as “an enigma.” That reputation began to resurge, however, with the republication by Virago Modern Classics of three of her best novels in the 1980s.

Sinclair was born in 1863, the youngest of six children, and the only daughter in the family of a wealthy, alcoholic ship owner and his wife. Her parents separated when she was seven, and she lived with her mother until 1901, when her mother died. Largely self-educated, she apparently seized upon reading as a survival outlet, and read philosophy as well as literature. Later she was to become interested in the Idealistic philosophy of T.H. Green, about which she wrote two books: A Defense of Idealism in 1917 and The New Idealism in 1922. She was an early adherent of psychoanalysis and, from middle age, an increasingly socially conscious feminist active in the suffrage movement…

The World War I years, and those immediately preceding them, were evidently a time of great personal growth for Sinclair. She began working at a London psychiatric clinic in 1913, and helped found the famous Tavistock Square Clinic…

(From Wikipedia:

From 1912 to 1914 Jessie Murray worked as a consulting physician at the Quinton Polyclinic for treatment by isotonised seawater. In 1913, while Murray was still consulting at the Polyclinic, she and Julia Turner established the Medico-Psychological Clinic at 14 Endsleigh Street, where they both lived. Initially the clinic operated informally, opening only three afternoons a week, offering their services to those who could not afford an alternative; one of the clinic’s aims was to provide treatment that could be afforded by middle-class patients.

The clinic was pioneering, according to The Institute of Psychoanalysis. The practice soon grew and in July 1914 the clinic moved to its own premises at 30 Brunswick Square, London. From July 1915 the clinic began a training programme for psychotherapists…)

Sinclair was also one of the first novelists to incorporate Freud’s theories into her work. During the war, she worked in the cause of war relief in Belgium. She published a journal of those experiences, titled Journal of Impressions in Belgium, in 1915, and stated that the exposure to the harsh realities of war were revelatory for her as a politically committed woman artist. A wartime novel, 1917’s The Tree of Heaven, depicted the way the war affected families and women. In 1918, according to The Feminist Companion, Sinclair coined the now-standard literary term “stream of consciousness” in a positive review of fellow British modernist Dorothy Richardson’s novel, Pilgrimage. Sinclair herself has been called, by the authors of The Feminist Companion, “a major modernist writer who saw the connection between experimental writing and her own `difference’ as a woman.”…”

Rebecca Bowler writes on the website of the May Sinclair Society:

In April 1918, May Sinclair reviewed ‘The Novels of Dorothy Richardson’ in the literary magazine The Egoist. At that point, there were only three novels in the Pilgrimage series (there were to be thirteen in total), but those three had, Sinclair claimed, exhibited a ‘startling “newness”’: an originality of method, and a certain kind of psychological realism:

In this series there is no drama, no situation, no set scene.  Nothing happens.  It is just life going on and on.  It is Miriam Henderson’s stream of consciousness going on and on […] 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 phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ had never before been applied to a work of literature, and the metaphor was to catch on. May Sinclair had taken the idea from contemporary psychology. It is usually attributed to William James, who in his Principles of Psychology (1890) dismisses metaphors that compare thought to something jointed or ‘chopped up in bits’, and insists that consciousness instead is a flowing thing like a river or a stream: ‘let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life’. However, Sinclair may not have borrowed the idea directly from James. As Suzanne Raitt points out, the phrase was widely used in the early twentieth century, with many of the texts Sinclair references in both the semi-autobiographical Mary Olivier and A Defence of Idealism using the phrase ‘as a matter of course’. What Sinclair did do was link the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ with the emergent psychological novel, and the label has been a feature of discourse about modernism ever since…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s