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[Women In Horror Month] Modernism, feminism and fear: The Uncanny Stories of May Sinclair

2013 February 21

In honour of Women In Horror Recognition Month I thought I’d take the chance to put British Edwardian writer May Sinclair in the spotlight for once.


May Sinclair in about 1916

Born in 1863 and a celebrated author in her lifetime, Sinclair has, like so many women writers, been largely forgotten, despite her close friendships with some of modernism’s poster boys: Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Robert Frost, and others. She was an early champion of T.S. Eliot and the first critic to use the term “stream of consciousness” to describe a literary technique.

Rather brilliantly, Sinclair also campaigned for women to get the vote, and in 1912 wrote a pamphlet called ‘Feminism’ which argued for women’s equal potential for intellectual endeavour and political engagement. Her feminism seems to have been rather essentialist, but she was still a powerful voice for equality at a time when women were routinely denied the vote, an education, economic independence or sexual agency.

Sinclair had no formal education, although she read widely and developed an interest in psychoanalysis, philosophy and mysticism in particular. She attended Cheltenham Ladies College for a year before leaving to care for her four brothers who all had a hereditary heart defect. In spite of this, she wrote a dozen novels including bleak bildungsroman The Life and Death of Harriett Frean, essays, poems and short stories before the onset of Parkinson’s disease prevented her from writing.

She died in 1946, having already drifted into obscurity. However, her literary significance as a pioneer of feminism and modernism is starting to be recognised, as this great post points out: “Her work is good, even great, and it covers all the stops. It fits quite neatly in between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and she can serve well as a missing link.”

I stumbled upon Sinclair entirely by accident when I picked up her 1923 collection Uncanny Stories, which is where the horror connection comes in. There’s a near-complete copy available on Google Books if you want to check it out, although it’s missing one of my favourites.

Sinclair’s letters show that her idea for the title predates the publication of Freud’s essay The Uncanny by nearly a decade, but she seems to have welcomed the coincidence and it’s certainly fitting. Her stories are intensely psychological; there is no gore or ghouls, but instead a creeping horror and eerie imagery, and a sense of claustrophobia which lingers long after you’ve finished reading.

Some of the stories are intensely sad, such as ‘If The Dead Knew’, in which a son realises his dead mother has heard him tell others how he had secretly hated her:

Something compelled him to turn round and look towards his mother’s chair.

Then he saw her.

She stood between him and the chair, straight and thin, dressed in the clothes she had died in, the yellowish flannel nightgown and bed jacket.

The apparition maintained itself with difficulty. Already its hair had grown indistinct, a cap of white mist. Its face was an insubstantial framework for its mouth and eyes, and for the tears that fell in two shining tracks between. It was less a form than a visible emotion, an anguish.

Hollyer stood and stared at it. Through the glasses of its tears it gazed back at him with an intense, a terrible reproach and sorrow.

Then, slowly and stiffly, it began to recede from him, drawn back and back, without any movement of its feet, in an unearthly stillness, keeping up, to the last minute, its look of indestructible reproach.

And now it was a formless mass that drifted to the window and hung there a second, and passed, shrinking like a breath on the pane.

But other tales are comic. In ‘The Victim’, a ghostly visitation to a murderer isn’t full of reproach, but thanks – for freeing the victim from his debts.

Sinclair’s themes and imagery chime with many of the ideas popularised by Freud. Earlier in ‘If the Dead Knew’ the central character Hollyer is alarmed to discover he wishes his mother would die:

In the dark, secret places of the mind your thoughts ran loose beyond your knowing: they burrowed under the walls that shut off one self from another; they got through. It was as if his secret self had broken loose.

You are the unconscious mind and I claim my five pounds.

Founding a literary tradition which would later include Elizabeth Bowen and Margaret Atwood, Sinclair’s uncanny stories feature divided and dislocated selves, the dance of impulse and resistance and the hidden tracks and traces of memory and unspoken desire. And as Philippa Martindale explains, these stories are particularly concerned with feminine and feminist experience:

Sinclair’s uncanny fiction is a subtle tool for feminist expression, deconstructing patriarchal paradigms of power… Her uncanny stories serve as a forum for ‘deviant’ subjects, addressing cultural issues such as female desire, sexuality, and gender roles.

When I first read the collection, it reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s short storiesand especially ‘The Apple Tree‘ – in part because most of the stories concern relationships between men and women. Martindale highlights the “sense of struggle for mastery between Sinclair’s male and female protagonists, typically played out in the sexual arena.” One of the best examples is ‘Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched’, which deals at once with the fantastic and the horrifically mundane as a former couple are compelled to eternally repeat their loveless affair in a shabby hotel room in the afterlife.

On the subject of ghost stories, Sinclair herself said:

Ghosts have their own atmospheres and their own reality, they also have their setting in the everyday reality we know; the story-teller is handling two realities at the same time.

For me it is this touching of two worlds which makes ghost stories so thrilling. The idea of something surfacing or reaching through, reaching back is unsettling and deeply uncanny. Sinclair’s protagonists find themselves at points where the membrane between the natural and supernatural, life and afterlife, the conscious and unconscious has grown thin.


2 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    February 21, 2013

    Oh God, that quote about the mother-ghost is heartbreaking! And also unsettling.

    Totally going to read her.

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