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May Sinclair, Novelist and Philosopher

By Praymont

May Sinclair, Novelist and Philosopher

May Sinclair

Late in April on the Pea Soup blog, there was a query about philosophy in novels. I discovered that one such book was by Mrs. Humphry Ward (aka Mary Augusta Ward). The book, which appeared in 1888, was called Robert Elsmere. It was a bestseller and was reviewed by Gladstone. The novel amounted to a popularization of T. H. Green's philosophy.
Around the same time that Ward was at work on this novel, another British, female novelist was developing her own interpretation of Green. May Sinclair (1863-1946) had begun reading philosophy before she entered Cheltenham Ladies' College, but it was during her time there under the tutelage of Dorothea Beale that she took up philosophy in earnest. Sinclair's first publication, on Descartes, appeared in the college's journal in 1882. She published her first book (of poetry) in 1886 under the pseudonym 'Julian Sinclair'. She was the first female member of the Aristotelian Society, joining in 1917. In 1923, Sinclair presented a paper to the Aristotelian Society. It was called 'Primary and Secondary Consciousness'. Among those who commented on her paper that evening were Alfred North Whitehead and our old friend C. E. M. Joad.
It was Dorothea Beale who encouraged Sinclair to read the works of T. H. Green, who was the subject of 'The Ethical and Religious Import of Idealism', which Sinclair published in New World in 1893. Green confirmed Sinclair's interest in the German idealists, including Schopenhauer, whom she read avidly.
Sinclair published her first novel (Audrey Craven) in 1896. She had a blockbuster hit with Divine Fire (1904) (reviewed here), the popularity of which led to her tour of the United States in 1905. While in the USA, she met William James and visited President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.
Sinclair's intensive study of Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann left her receptive to Freud's new science of the unconscious. She was among the first novelists to incorporate such themes in her fiction, and she helped to establish one of the first psychoanalytic institutions in the UK (the Medico-Psychological Clinic) in 1913. According to Sinclair's entry in the Oxford DNB, she wrote the prospectus for the Clinic and was elected as one of its twelve founder members. She also sat on its Board of Management.
Sinclair is also known for being the first person to use William James' phrase 'stream of consciousness' in characterizing a work of fiction.
Her most highly regarded novel seems to be Mary Olivier. Here's a quotation from this work:
There was Schopenhauer, though. He didn’t cheat you. There was ‘reine Anschauung,’ pure perception; it happened when you looked at beautiful things. Beautiful things were crystal; you looked through them and saw Reality. You saw God. While the crystal flash lasted ‘Wille und Vorstellung’ the Will and the Idea, were not divided as they are in life; they were one. That was why beautiful things made you happy. --Mary Olivier, pp. 292-3; quoted from James Thrall, 'May Sinclair: Mystic Modern' (pdf).
While philosophers haven't written much about Sinclair, literary scholars have. Some of them address the philosophical themes in her work. James Thrall, for example (in the above-linked work), focuses on Schopenhauer's influence. Christine Battersby, while acknowledging Schopenhauer's importance, argues that Spinoza is the philosopher whose thought is most evident in Sinclair's fiction (pdf). Two dissertations of interest in this connection are Leigh Wilson's 'It was as if she had said....': May Sinclair and reading narratives of cure and Justine McCarthy's Edges of the mind : psychic margins and the modernist aesthetic in Vernon Lee, Evelyn Underhill, May Sinclair, Dion Fortune and Jane Harrison.
Philosophers haven't written much about Sinclair, but some have written about her. Bertrand Russell reviewed both of her books on idealism. He reviewed Sinclair's A Defence of Idealism in The Nation (August 31, 1918) and her The New Idealism in Nation and the Athenaeum (August 5, 1922). Both reviews appear in The Philosophy of Logical Atomism and Other Essays: 1914-1919.
It's unsurprising that Russell would be critical of books by an exponent of idealism, mysticism, and Jungian psychoanalysis. Still, he wrote to his mistress of the day, Lady Constance Malleson, that Sinclair's book 'was not very bad'. Russell took a generally respectful tone in both his reviews. He also corresponded with Sinclair about her defence of idealism.
Finally, we should admire Sinclair's courage in taking on Sir Almroth Wright, who had published an odious tract in which he opposed women's suffrage on supposedly scientific grounds. This prompted Sinclair not only to write a brief reply in the Times (of London) but also to produce a pamphlet called 'Feminism'. The details of this conflict are recounted by Jim Gough in 'May Sinclair: Idealism-Feminism and the Suffragist Movement' (pdf). Sinclair was a member of both the Women Writers' Suffrage League and the Women's Freedom League.
Sinclair's obituary in the Times (Nov. 15, 1946) appeared, suitably, under the heading 'Philosophy and the Novel'.

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