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One From the Archive: ‘Uncanny Stories’ by May Sinclair *****

First published in September 2018.

I have been coveting a copy of Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair for such a long time.  She is an author whom I was originally focusing upon in my current postgraduate thesis, and whilst my scope has changed since I began my project, I am still very keen to read her entire oeuvre.  This particular book proved rather difficult to find, but I struck gold by keeping my eye on Abebooks, and finding a copy which was around £20 cheaper than those which I have previously seen.

The Wordsworth Edition which, whilst out of print, seemed to be the only edition which I could find, has been edited and introduced in a thorough manner by the well-informed 9781840224924Paul March-Russell.  The stories were first published with this title in 1923, and throughout, Sinclair ‘combines the traditional ghost story with the discoveries of Freud and Einstein.’  March-Russell, who calls her a ‘pivotal writer in the development of the ghost story’, recognises the myriad elements which influenced Sinclair’s work, calling her ‘one of the most intellectually driven of writers, pursuing the “new” and the “modern” in philosophy, psychoanalysis, mysticism and the paranormal.’  These eight tales promise to ‘shock, enthral, delight and unsettle’.  March-Russell writes that due to the very nature of these stories, they are ‘disturbing’ both in their content and the Modernist form in which they have been written.

A recurring motif in Sinclair’s stories is the ‘horror of family life’, and the ‘theme of self-denial’; she explores both in each of these stories, weaving them cleverly in with mysterious circumstances and paranormal occurrences.  Her writing is what really shines here.  A contemporary critic of hers named Julian Thompson said that her writing was ‘pin-sharp, often harrowingly economic.’  Everything here feels almost effortless; there is such a sense of flow and control in Sinclair’s writing, which often feels like a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and the Modernist tradition.

Uncanny Stories has a curiosity about it; it is as though Sinclair has chosen to explore our world through things which cannot be proven to exist, but which a lot of people in the Victorian era, for instance, as well at the time of writing, were highly interested in.  The descriptions which Sinclair has crafted are vivid and mysterious at once.  ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, for example, deals with differing dimensions and the emergence of Kant conversing with the narrator in this particular space, and is the most unusual story in the collection.  Here, she writes: ‘He found himself alone in an immense grey space, in which there was no distinguishable object but himself.  He was aware of his body as occupying a portion of this space.  For he had a body; a curious, tenuous, whitish body.  The odd thing was that this empty space had a sort of solidity under him.  He was lying on it, stretched out on it, adrift.  It supported him with the buoyancy of deep water.  And yet his body was part of it, melted in.’

Different narrative techniques and perspectives can be found from one story to another so, despite the often recurring themes, there is a freshness and variety to the collection.  Given its main theme, Uncanny Stories could so easily have been melodramatic, but not a single story can be categorised as such.  Sinclair has a way of making obscene and otherworldly things seem entirely reasonable; she provides ghosts and hauntings almost with a sense of normalcy.  The tension is built masterfully, and the theme of obsessive love has been explored in such depth in many differing situations.  Whilst there is a trope in these stories in which many young wives come back to haunt their husbands, the ways in which they do so vary, as does the reasoning.  The only thing here which I felt was a little overdone were the accents, some of which felt almost impenetrable.

The stories collected here were originally presented with illustrations; they have since been removed, which seems a shame.  Of this collection, I had only read one of the stories before, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’; this, I enjoyed even more the second time around. The influence of psychology particularly here is fascinating; there are so many layers to each story, and psychological elements can be picked out in every single tale.

Uncanny Stories is highly engaging, and whilst I read it during a heatwave in France, it would definitely better suit a dark evening with a crackling fire.  The stories here should be better known and more widely read, as, indeed, should the rest of Sinclair’s books.  She is a wonderful and unjustly neglected author, and this collection demonstrates just how versatile she was.

5

‘Uncanny Stories’ by May Sinclair *****

I have been coveting a copy of Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair for such a long time.  She is an author whom I was originally focusing upon in my current postgraduate thesis, and whilst my scope has changed since I began my project, I am still very keen to read her entire oeuvre.  This particular book proved rather difficult to find, but I struck gold by keeping my eye on Abebooks, and finding a copy which was around £20 cheaper than those which I have previously seen.

The Wordsworth Edition which, whilst out of print, seemed to be the only edition which I could find, has been edited and introduced in a thorough manner by the well-informed 9781840224924Paul March-Russell.  The stories were first published with this title in 1923, and throughout, Sinclair ‘combines the traditional ghost story with the discoveries of Freud and Einstein.’  March-Russell, who calls her a ‘pivotal writer in the development of the ghost story’, recognises the myriad elements which influenced Sinclair’s work, calling her ‘one of the most intellectually driven of writers, pursuing the “new” and the “modern” in philosophy, psychoanalysis, mysticism and the paranormal.’  These eight tales promise to ‘shock, enthral, delight and unsettle’.  March-Russell writes that due to the very nature of these stories, they are ‘disturbing’ both in their content and the Modernist form in which they have been written.

A recurring motif in Sinclair’s stories is the ‘horror of family life’, and the ‘theme of self-denial’; she explores both in each of these stories, weaving them cleverly in with mysterious circumstances and paranormal occurrences.  Her writing is what really shines here.  A contemporary critic of hers named Julian Thompson said that her writing was ‘pin-sharp, often harrowingly economic.’  Everything here feels almost effortless; there is such a sense of flow and control in Sinclair’s writing, which often feels like a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and the Modernist tradition.

Uncanny Stories has a curiosity about it; it is as though Sinclair has chosen to explore our world through things which cannot be proven to exist, but which a lot of people in the Victorian era, for instance, as well at the time of writing, were highly interested in.  The descriptions which Sinclair has crafted are vivid and mysterious at once.  ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, for example, deals with differing dimensions and the emergence of Kant conversing with the narrator in this particular space, and is the most unusual story in the collection.  Here, she writes: ‘He found himself alone in an immense grey space, in which there was no distinguishable object but himself.  He was aware of his body as occupying a portion of this space.  For he had a body; a curious, tenuous, whitish body.  The odd thing was that this empty space had a sort of solidity under him.  He was lying on it, stretched out on it, adrift.  It supported him with the buoyancy of deep water.  And yet his body was part of it, melted in.’

Different narrative techniques and perspectives can be found from one story to another so, despite the often recurring themes, there is a freshness and variety to the collection.  Given its main theme, Uncanny Stories could so easily have been melodramatic, but not a single story can be categorised as such.  Sinclair has a way of making obscene and otherworldly things seem entirely reasonable; she provides ghosts and hauntings almost with a sense of normalcy.  The tension is built masterfully, and the theme of obsessive love has been explored in such depth in many differing situations.  Whilst there is a trope in these stories in which many young wives come back to haunt their husbands, the ways in which they do so vary, as does the reasoning.  The only thing here which I felt was a little overdone were the accents, some of which felt almost impenetrable.

The stories collected here were originally presented with illustrations; they have since been removed, which seems a shame.  Of this collection, I had only read one of the stories before, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’; this, I enjoyed even more the second time around. The influence of psychology particularly here is fascinating; there are so many layers to each story, and psychological elements can be picked out in every single tale.

Uncanny Stories is highly engaging, and whilst I read it during a heatwave in France, it would definitely better suit a dark evening with a crackling fire.  The stories here should be better known and more widely read, as, indeed, should the rest of Sinclair’s books.  She is a wonderful and unjustly neglected author, and this collection demonstrates just how versatile she was.

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Mini Reviews: ‘The Combined Maze’, ‘Fair Exchange’, and ‘Selling Manhattan’

The Combined Maze by May Sinclair *****
9781144584120The scenes within The Combined Maze, which is incidentally one of Agatha Christie’s favourite books, are deftly set, and Sinclair’s prose is measured and clear.  A palpable tension is steadily and marvellously built within the novel, which presents a fascinating study of unconventional married life and parenthood.  Relevant to the modern world, The Combined Maze deals in part with postnatal depression, financial struggles, and adultery, amongst other topics of interest.  The character constructs are fascinating, and the denouement is incredibly realistic.  May Sinclair astounds me; she is unwaveringly aware of people, and all of the tiny yet significant details which shape and affect them.  The Combined Maze is novel which could certainly do with a resurgence!

 

Fair Exchange by Michele Roberts ***
I very much enjoyed Roberts’ Daughters of the House, and adored the short story collection 9781860497643entitled Playing Sardines, so when I spotted Fair Exchange on the shelves of an Oxfam Bookshop, I had no doubts about it coming home with me.  I had interest in its story from the first, and it proved the perfect tome to take on a train trip to Edinburgh.  Everything about Fair Exchange was so well-realised at first, and the story, with its inclusion of Mary Wollstonecraft as a character, was very interesting.  Then, a few little niggles began to creep in.  The scenery was nicely evoked, but it did not feel as realistic as it is in a lot of her work, not as prevalent.  I was willing to set aside a couple of character discrepancies and the sometimes jolting structure of the piece, but that final, awful twist ruined the book somewhat for me.

 

Selling Manhattan by Carol Ann Duffy ***
9781509824984Ordinarily I love Duffy’s work, but <i>Selling Manhattan</i> just didn’t grab me.  It is her second collection, and one can see that her voice, which later becomes so original and startling, is beginning to emerge.  There simply wasn’t the level of engagement here which I am so used to in Duffy’s work.  There is much playing around with the form, but it feels more of an experimental collection than one of her best.

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Neglected Books: ‘The Immortal Moment: The Story of Kitty Tailleur’, and ‘The Creators: A Comedy’ by May Sinclair

The Immortal Moment: The Story of Kitty Tailleur ****
As with the rest of Sinclair’s early work, I had not much of an idea as to what The Immortal Moment: The Story of Kitty Tailleur was about before I began.  The novel’s opening paragraph is stunning, and appeals to each of the senses.

As with two of her previous works, The Judgment of Eve and The Helpmate, there is a detailed female character study in this novel; in fact, more than one if one includes Miss Keating, who is our title character’s companion.  She decides that she wants to find a different position after listening to the malicious gossip banded around by the other guests in the hotel in which they are staying.  The Immortal Moment is strongly characterised, and the conversations which take place, particularly between Kitty and Miss Keating, are wonderfully believable.  They are never cliched or overdone, but well thought out, and translated masterfully to the page.  One cannot help but feel a rather overwhelming sense of sympathy for Kitty at points.  She has such agency; she is an incredibly complex female subject, through which such interesting ideas are presented about womanhood and motherhood.

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Photo credit: ‘bookpickers’ on Etsy

One can see that Sinclair’s foray into psychology, and the inclusion of consciousness within her literature, is beginning to come to the fore here; she discusses the male mind in part, and makes full use of her titular character to write about a woman’s position within society, and the effects this was like to have upon her.

 

 

The Creators: A Comedy ****
Sinclair provides full portraits of each of those she has focused upon within The Creators: A Comedy.  The males are sometimes a little shadowy, but the interactions between each of the characters more than make up for this.  In The Creators, Sinclair begins to overtly touch upon psychology in the case of Jane; another character named Henry is a psychiatrist, and seems to view her largely in terms of what he sees as her neuroses.  Meek Laura, too, is seen by the males around her as feeble and suffering with mental strain; this, perhaps, can be explained with the stress that her father’s illness brings.

The Creators begins in 1902 and follows several characters, the most interesting of whom is writer Jane Holland, who is known affectionately as Jinny – and who, through her published work, is able to exercise her independence within the male sphere.  George Tanqueray is another author, who marries rather a common but kindly girl named Rose Eldred.  Rose is the very epitome of the domestic woman, cooking, cleaning, and nursing.  She is, essentially, the antithesis to Jane; she is the Angel of the House.

I was intrigued by the title of this particular tome; Sinclair’s work is brilliant, but comedic is not an adjective which I would apply.  As I suspected, The Creators is not a comedy; for the most part, it is more of a tragic piece.  It has such depth to it, and has just as much to offer the modern reader as more popular novels written during the same period.  Sinclair has such empathy, and such understanding of and for the characters she creates here.  The multi-character focus is both effective and enjoyable, as are the way in which pairs converged at points.  The many themes in The Creators are clever and well-handled, and the novel is rather modern in terms of the progressive ideas and attitudes which it presents.

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Neglected Books: ‘The Judgment of Eve’ and ‘The Helpmate’ by May Sinclair

The Judgment of Eve ****
The Judgment of Eve is the shortest Sinclair book yet in my reading of her entire bibliography.  The author sets the scene wonderfully, and introduces the reader at once to protagonist, Aggie.  Aggie herself is well-educated, but in true Edwardian fashion, the first quarter of the plot deals with which of her two suitors she will choose to marry.  She is rather a progressive woman, willing to work if her fiance’s salary fails to rise as he has been promised.  Sinclair’s prose is shrewd, as ever: ‘Nature, safeguarding her own interests, had whispered to Aggie that young ladies who live in Queningford are better without intellects that show’.  

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May Sinclair


After a move to London, the intellect which Aggie prizes above all else disappears once one child after another is born.  Our protagonist rises to the challenge of motherhood, but Sinclair makes us aware that it – and the never-ending domesticity which comes with it – is far from a perfect life for Aggie: ‘It was as if Nature had conceived a grudge against Aggie, and strove, through maternity, to stamp out her features as an individual’.  Sinclair paints the role of the traditional Angel in the House in a very interesting light, essentially turning it on its head.

The Judgment of Eve is a short book, but it unquestionably has a lot of depth to it, and both asks and answers a plethora of question about womankind and their place within the world.  Had it not been so brief, I would have definitely given it a five-star rating; regardless, it deserves to be read by a far wider audience.

 

The Helpmate *****
May Sinclair’s wonderful, and sadly neglected, novel The Helpmate details a marriage from its very beginnings.  Her characters, in their entirety, feel touchably realistic, and their relationships with one another are complex.  Here, Sinclair demonstrates the many different – and sometimes opposing – facets of married love.  There is such emotional depth throughout, and one can never quite tell what is likely to happen next.

The Helpmate is so very compelling, and of course, it is wonderfully written.  There is such a clarity to the whole.  The novel was first published in 1907, but feels incredibly modern; many of the themes are just as relevant today as they were when it was written.  Sinclair writes of love, deception, and grief in such a timely way; the modern reader can learn so much from it.  It is sadly not a book which I can include in my PhD thesis, as it lacks the elements which I am looking at, but it is certainly a fascinating and well-paced read, which – along with all of Sinclair’s work – deserves to be widely read.

7

Modernism

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Dorothy Richardson and her husband Alan Odle

I am all about modernist fiction, particularly when it is written by and about women.  I find it fascinating, and adore the stream-of-consciousness style which was pioneered at the time.  I have found two incredibly interesting Guardian articles about the rising popularity of Dorothy Richardson, and May Sinclair, the so-called ‘readable modernist’, which I wanted to share.

It’s question time…
Are you a fan of modernist literature?  Which is your favourite modernist work?  Have you read any Richardson or Sinclair novels, and what did you think of them?  Which single work would you recommend to someone who is just starting out in the reading of modernism?

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Flash Reviews (2nd April 2014)

‘Four Children and It’ by Jacqueline Wilson (Puffin)

Four Children and It by Jacqueline Wilson *****
I believe that there are two settings in which to best enjoy children’s literature.  The first is whilst basking in the sunshine on a beautifully warm day, with a long cool drink to hand, and the second is whilst curled up in front of a roaring fire in the company of a cup of tea and a purring feline.  I plumped for the latter, and began this on rather a chilly February evening.

Wilson has based her tale upon E. Nesbit’s classic (and rather beautiful) Five Children and It, which was first published in 1902.  Rather than retell the tale, Wilson’s book is a continuation of sorts, which even features Nesbit’s original child characters.  I was interested to see how it would compare to the original.

Four Children and It tells the story of brother and sister Robbie and Rosalind, their stepsister Samantha, who is known by all as Smash, and their baby sister Maudie.  Rosalind is our narrator, and she reminded me so much of myself; she took more books on holiday than clothes, and longed for uninterrupted stretches of reading, for example.  She is just the kind of Wilson heroine whom I adored as a child.  Wilson weaves such a lovely idea into the novel, where the Psammead from the original book is found by the children in a sandpit on a day trip to a local forest, and subsequently grants their wishes.

Four Children and It is just the most darling book, filled with delights, which is sure to charm everyone – young or old – who loved Nesbit’s original.  It is both marvellous and inventive, and I enjoyed it as much in adulthood as I would have done as a child.  I am sure that Nesbit herself would be flattered by, and would also very much enjoy, Wilson’s continuation of her rather lovely book.

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‘The Three Sisters’ by May Sinclair (Virago)

Three Sisters by May Sinclair ***
I very much enjoyed the first Sinclair book which I read – The Life and Death of Harriett Frean – and was pleased to see several of the author’s other titles upon the Virago list.  I selected this at random on my Kindle whilst on a trip to Portsmouth, and found it rather enjoyable.

Sinclair has based this story – that of the three Cartaret sisters who live with their cold and rather tyrannical father within a lonely rectory – upon the lives of the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.  The Cartaret sisters’ father is the vicar of a parish, and he entirely disapproves of his daughters’ ‘godlessness’.  The sisters, Mary, Gwendolen and Alice, are varied in their characters and temperaments.  Alice is a rather ill and frail young woman, Gwendolen is reliable and is depended upon by almost everyone throughout, and Mary is really mysterious; we do not learn much about her until close to the end of the book.  The plot revolves almost entirely upon the relationships which the girls have with one another, and with others from the small village in which they live.

Throughout, Sinclair writes so eloquently.  The accents of the locals did seem a little overdone at times, but that is my only real criticism of her otherwise flawless writing.  The language which Sinclair uses is just as effective at charming the modern reader as I presume it ever was.  Despite the way in which I very much enjoyed most of the novel, I have only given it a three star rating due to the plot becoming rather unnecessarily silly towards the end, and its unsatisfactory ending.

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‘The Little Company’ by Eleanor Dark (Virago)

The Little Company by Eleanor Dark **
I hoped that this novel would be great company on rather a long trip to Liverpool back in February.  It was the only book which I packed in my satchel, and having never read any of Dark’s work before, I suppose I took a little bit of a gamble in not taking a back-up novel of sorts.  If I am honest, I found The Little Company rather dull.  Dark’s writing is not at all bad – in fact, some of her descriptions were quite dazzling – but the entire thing just felt a little lacklustre and inconsistent.  Some parts of the novel – mainly the characters – were quite underdeveloped, and others – the political situation during the Second World War, in which this novel is set, for example – were overdone to the point of becoming repetitive.  There were no characters whom I felt able to empathise with, and I was really quite disappointed on the whole.  I doubt I will read another Dark novel again based upon my indifference for The Little Company, and so I have crossed off the other one of her books which appears on the VMC list (Lantana Lane).

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‘Unsaid Things: Our Story’ by McFly

Unsaid Things: Our Story by McFly ****
There was a time when I could say that I had been to every single one of British band McFly’s tours, and saw one of their very first live concerts, when they supported Busted back in 2003.  Lately, I have missed many of their shows – for a number of reasons, including lack of someone to take with me, my dislike of their latest album (one which the band themselves are also not overly fond of), and the fact that the last time I went to see them, the place was almost entirely filled with pre-pubescent girls, who squealed horrendously throughout.  I do still have a definite softspot for them (much to the amusement of my sister), and was so pleased when I received their autobiography for Christmas.

I thought that this would be a great book to start our first readathon with, and I did manage to read it very quickly indeed.  I can categorically say that in no way was I expecting it to begin in the way it did, with the description of rather raunchy massages whilst the band were on tour in Indonesia.  Throughout, the boys are very honest indeed; it is as though they really want their fans to know all about them without holding anything back, and I really do respect this.  It is, unsurprisingly, very sad in places; I had not quite realised the extent of Tom and Dougie’s problems before beginning the book, for example.  I found it so interesting to see which of their personal experiences influenced their songs, and I loved the use of their joint perspectives throughout.  Unsaid Things: Our Story is sure to make a wonderful gift for any McFly fan, even for those who profess that they are now ‘too old’ or ‘too cool’ to listen to them.

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Three Virago Novels (4th September 2013)

I am currently making my way through the entirety of the Virago Modern Classics list. Along the way, I have encountered some absolutely marvellous books (Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson and The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim are particular favourites of mine), but as with all book lists, there are some rather mixed entries. Below are three recent VMCs which I’ve read, the reviews of which are rather mixed.

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair ****
I wasn’t expecting this novel to be so short. What I encountered with The Life and Death of Harriett Frean was a very enjoyable novella, although the overriding sense of melancholy a s the trials which the characters had to go through were a little unsettling at times. I enjoyed the writing style throughout and felt that the characters were constructed well, particularly for such a short piece.

The Rector by Mrs Oliphant **
This was not an awful story by any means, but it was rather nondescript. The descriptions throughout are nice enough, but I felt that all of the protagonists were rather lacklustre, and not one of them stood out from the general melee. In style, The Rector reads rather like a Jane Austen novel, but it is nowhere near as good.

The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim **
I can’t bring myself to give a von Arnim book less than 3 stars, but this is really more of a 2 star read. It wasn’t awful, but by the same token it was disappointing and not very good. The book was witty at times, but von Arnim’s use of a male narrative perspective just didn’t work very well. At times the narrator sounded incredibly effeminate, and at others very camp, for want of a better description. The storyline wasn’t quite developed enough for such a long novel, and neither were the characters. It is a sign of the times, I know, but The Caravaners is almost disgustingly sexist at times. I wouldn’t have thought that a woman, even one writing at the time of this novel’s publication, and from the perspective of a male, would advocate such views.