May Sinclair’s Modernist Masterpiece: The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle bangs the drum for an undervalued modernist novel

1922 was the annus mirabilis and high point of modernist literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room were all published. On 18 May 1922, Joyce and Marcel Proust, two titans of the modernist novel in their respective languages, met at a disastrous dinner in Paris; the two writers spent the meal discussing their ailments, before eventually admitting that they hadn’t read each other’s work. Also present at this historic dinner party were Picasso and Stravinsky. 1922 was the point where a number of modernisms appeared to converge and collectively reach their zenith.

Yet this handful of modernist classics fails to tell the full story. 1922 also saw the publication of another modernist novel by a writer who is far less celebrated than Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, or Mansfield. Yet she was an important figure in the movement and even now she is overlooked in our rush to get to Ulysses and to Virginia Woolf’s mature novels. May Sinclair (1863-1946) was, in fact, the one who first applied the psychological term ‘stream of consciousness’ to the work of one of her modernist contemporaries – another novelist often absent from discussions of modernist fiction, Dorothy Richardson. Sinclair championed the work of the Imagist poets led by Ezra Pound, and even wrote a novel in verse using the Imagist method, The Dark Night. Like much of her work, it is seldom mentioned in surveys of modernist literature.

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May Sinclair’s The Dark Night: The Imagist Verse Novel

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reassesses an experimental work from the 1920s by an underrated author

When he reviewed the published facsimile and drafts of The Waste Land in 1971, the poet-critic William Empson remarked that ‘I would never have believed that the Symbolist programme could be made to work at all, if it had not scored a few resounding triumphs, such as this.’ The Imagist programme, too, seemed to have burned itself out by 1917, when Amy Lowell, who had taken lead of the movement after Ezra Pound’s defection to Vorticism (‘Every kind of geyser from jism bursting up white as ivory, to hate or a storm at sea’), ceased publication of the annual anthologies that had appeared since 1914. Imagism as a movement seemed to be a spent force, having declined, in Pound’s punning compound, into ‘Amy-gism’.

But not quite. That’s the official narrative, and where most accounts of Imagism tend to end. Yet May Sinclair (1863-1946) proved that the tenets of Imagism could be put to use for a longer project, much as T. S. Eliot has shown, in The Waste Land, that the shorter Symbolist poems of Laforgue and Mallarmé could help to inspire a modern epic, albeit a fragmentary one.

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