May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven

May Sinclair (1863-1946), The Tree of Heaven. British Library Women Writers, 2020. First published 1917.

 When I checked my archive I was surprised to find it was four years ago that I first posted on a novel of May Sinclair’s : The Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922; link HERE). It’s not surprising, given the date of publication of The Tree of Heaven (1917), that its central theme is the calamitous loss of young lives in the carnage of WWI.

This is much more than a war novel, however. Much of the first half is given to a detailed, colourful portrayal of the growing lives of the Harrison children in a London suburb. There are three brothers, Michael (a maverick loner), Nicky (wayward, capricious) and young John. Their only sister, Dorothea, is clever and independent, painfully conscious of her mother’s doting preference for her sons. This might partly account for her joining the burgeoning suffragist movement (of which May Sinclair, a proto-feminist, was an active member).

Sinclair shows how these children’s lives develop according to their temperaments and inclinations. One becomes an avant-garde poet, one of an iconoclastic group that sounds very like the Vorticists. Another impulsively marries a bohemian artist, and lives to regret it.

But looming in the background is always the impending war. The image that dominates the first part of the novel is what the narrator calls ‘the vortex’: the whirlpool of social and cultural pressure and conformity against which Michael rebels (so the Vorticist label is strangely appropriate and inappropriate). He refers to it as the ‘herd soul’, and it’s this that impels so many young men to sign up to the military when war breaks out. This impulse of patriotic ardour is repellent to him.

What becomes of them all is predictably sad. There’s some strange mystical stuff involving one character who appears to have visions of her loved ones at the point of their death. The ash tree in the Harrison garden, which gives its name to the novel, also serves a symbolic, mystical purpose, though I’m not quite sure what that is. Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life in Asgard, perhaps.

Once again, as in Harriet Frean, Sinclair is at her best in examining and depicting the lives of spirited, non-conformist people, especially young women, in abrasive contact with a stifling world of convention and (usually male) privilege. But she avoids stereotypes; Dorothea’s feminism is tempered by a distaste for the methods and ideology of the more radical members of its movement. As with so many suffragists, the war caused her to reassess her commitment to the cause, and her own beliefs about fairness and equality.

Frances, the siblings’ mother, eventually wakes up from her trance of maternity and becomes aware of the terrible reality of mortality and mutability.

Some perfection that you missed: May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean VMC 2009; first published 1922

Sinclair Frean cover

May Sinclair was born in 1863, and as the introduction to this VMC edition points out (the title page attributes it to Jean Radford, but DJ Taylor’s name appears afterwards on p. xi), she published her first novel in the reign of Victoria, and her final collection of stories ‘a few years short of George V’s Silver Jubilee’. That would be The Intercessor, and other stories (1931; the Jubilee was 1935). The point is that she has an impressive range of subjects and themes across her writing career, reflecting her experience of the socio-cultural and historical shifts in that span of time, from the height of British imperialism (she was an active suffragist on the home front) through WWI and its aftermath.

May Sinclair is perhaps best known as an early modernist writer, the one who is said to have coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the narrative technique of Dorothy Richardson when reviewing the first volumes of her Pilgrimage sequence of novels in 1918. I see traces of that style in this novel, though for the most part it’s a fairly conventional narrative voice – just the odd moment signals her slightly more modernist tendencies. I’ll try to quote below to illustrate this.

In this impressive short novel, not much more than 100 pp of text, she manages to compress the significant aspects of the long life of the titular protagonist. Hatty Frean is born into a bourgeois household, but her father (like Sinclair’s own) lost everything as a result of his reckless monetary speculations; we’re alerted to this erratic element in his character early on, in a passage that also shows why Hatty develops such a passionate attachment to her much-loved, more dependable (in her eyes) mother:

Her mother had some secret: some happy sense of God that she gave to you and you took from her as you took food and clothing, but not quite knowing what it was, feeling that there was something more in it, some hidden gladness, some perfection that you missed.

Her father had his secret too. She felt that it was harder, somehow, darker and dangerous. He read dangerous books: Darwin, and Huxley, and Herbert Spencer. Sometimes he talked about them.

The voice here (like James Joyce’s in the early pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) takes on some of the naïve tones of the young Hatty, as she considers her parents with the partially formed, excessively admiring appraisal that cause her to over-invest in the Victorian moral certainties of both parents, while failing to discern the defects and underlying hypocrisy. It’s a subtle technique, for her narrating perception here is unreliable; yes, the father does ruin the family with his reckless gambling on the markets, but a few paragraphs later Hatty concludes that ‘His thinking was just a dangerous game he played.’ Events prove her sadly wrong. Although her blind faith in her father is shaken, she never stops thinking of him as a paragon, or to remind her friends that she is Hilton Frean’s daughter, as if this in some way endorses her arrogant air of superiority. She never stops to consider that other people’s lack of respect for such assertions has anything to do with the faults in her family – or in her own perception.

The tragedy of this sad figure, then, is that she accepts unquestioningly the values of selflessness and self-effacement that she was taught to esteem. As the years pass she becomes ever less able to understand why she’s so unfulfilled or fails to inspire the respect and devotion in others that she feels for her parents, and for their ‘idea of moral beauty’. By denying herself, as they have taught her, the happiness that comes her way, she condemns herself to a life of loneliness and increasing despair.

It’s not a depressing read, however. Sinclair’s mastery of that style I mentioned ensures that Hatty is shown feeling dim traces of the terrible fate those parents have consigned her to, but is too far gone to amend her behaviour, as this random example shows: ‘I was brought up not to think of myself before other people’, she proudly tells a person who’s just suggested her course of self-sacrifice has ‘made three people miserable just for that’, and that she insulted the woman she thought she was elevating above herself:

Harriet sat a long time, her hands folded on her lap, her eyes staring into the room, trying to see the truth…Was it true that this idea had been all wrong?…’I don’t care. If it was to be done again to-morrow I’d do it.’

But the beauty of that unique act no longer appeared to her as it once was, uplifting, consoling, incorruptible.

For that’s the point, isn’t it? Her belief that she’s ‘not thinking of herself before other people’ is in reality an act of pride and arrogance, a sin against the laws of nature.

There’s a May Sinclair Society whose site is worth a look.

I owe this literary find to Dr Oliver Tearle, who warmly recommended Harriett Frean at his always entertaining site Interesting Literature back in January.