Blog Archives

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. Read the rest of this entry