In introducing The Gender of Modernism (1990), Bonnie Kime Scott urges readers to attend to "the forgotten and silenced makers of modernism," in particular, to a number of British and American women writing between approximately 1910 and 1940 ("Dedication," n.p.). To do so is to expand our understanding of the modernist movement, a project to which I would like to contribute by looking at a trio of novels by one of the anthology's featured modernists, May Sinclair. I propose to examine how these novels challenge what Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls the conventional script of the heterosexual couple (2), especially as that script was being rewritten within the modernist marriage novel.(1)
DuPlessis identifies the key motifs of the script: the separation of love and quest; the privileging of sexual asymmetry; the valorizing of heterosexual ties; and the muffling of the heroine
(5). If one assumes that any modernist writer engaged in composing a marriage novel would in one way or another challenge aspects of the nineteenth-century romance plot, then the question before us is, do Sinclair's challenges distinguish themselves from those of, say, Wells, Joyce, Forester, or Lawrence? Do Sinclair's novels add that different emphasis described by Nancy K. Miller as a marker of female-authored narrative? If we are to discover differences between the writing of men and women, suggests Miller, it will not be on the level of the sentence nor in some irruption of the non-symbolic in female-authored texts. Rather, differences will be found in "the insistence of a certain thematic structuration," in the adding of a new emphasis within the traditional "grammars" of motives found in the culture's dominant narratives (341). Specifically, she considers how women Writers structure distinctive narratives out of what Freud, in "The Relationship of the Poet to Daydreaming" (1908) saw as a basic human conflict between erotic and ambitious desires, a conflict he believed played itself out differently in the fantasies of men and women.(2)
In many of the marriage novels written by male modernists one can indeed see a resistance to the conventional separation of love and quest in both husbands and wives. One thinks of the intricate complementarity of erotic love and ambitious quest in Joyce's Leopold Bloom, Wells's Ellen Harman, Lawrence's Tom Brangwen and, later, his Anna Brangwen. Moreover, the male modernists often do attempt to unmuffle their wifely heroines. Consider Forster's articulate Margaret Schlegel Wilcox, Joyce's Molly Bloom, Lawrence's Ursula Brangwen Birkin, Wells' Marjorie Trafford and Ellen Harman. But these male modernists also tend to privilege sexual asymmetries, emphasizing the ways in which their husbands and wives are fundamentally different, and they valorize heterosexual ties. Respecting this latter point, when they do explore homoerotic desires--one thinks especially of Lawrence and Forster--they see those desires as existing mainly within the context of male relationships and standing in opposition to heterosexual desires. Ursula Brangwen offers a rare lesbian example, but she rapidly passes through her experience with Miss Ingram on her way to an affair with Anton Skrebensky and an eventual marriage with Rupert Birkin. By killing off Gerald Crich, Lawrence denies Birkin the possibility of enjoying both heterosexual marriage to Ursula and a continuing homosexual affair with Gerald. Mellors leaves behind his bonds to his army comrades as he moves first into marriage with Bertha Coutts and then with Connie Chatterley; Forster's Maurice could not possibly embrace both Alec and a woman.
In the marriage novels of May Sinclair, one sees her also resisting the separation of love and quest and similarly finding ways to unmuffle her heroines. But in addition, especially within the trio to be considered here, one sees an increasing willingness to represent sexual symmetries and to explore non-heterosexual erotic desires, particularly in her female characters. As I read this progress, Sinclair initially constructs a fairly tame set of sexual symmetries, mainly in the form of gender-role reversals. More interesting in these earlier marriage novels are the female fantasies she creates to suggest the fluid nature of her married, or soon-to-be-married, heroines' erotic energies. As the marriage novel sequence proceeds, however, representations of sexual symmetries proliferate, while the repressed erotic energies contained in the fantasies get played out through a marvelously disparate set of sexual and collegial relationships. A word of background on Sinclair's marriage novels may help here.(3)
After the success of her best-selling The Divine Fire in 1904, Sinclair wrote a spate of novels and novellas all wrestling with the hot modernist topic of marriage: The Helpmate (1907); The Judgment of Eve (1908); Kitty Tailleur (1908, published in America as The Immortal Moment: The Story of Kitty Tailleur); The Creators (1910); and The Combined Maze (1913). Reading through these novels, including the earlier Mr. and Mrs. Nevill Tyson (1898), one senses that in joining the social debate Sinclair set up a corresponding debate in her own thinking. Within and among these texts, she constructs a provocative range of motifs relating to love and quest, gender symmetries and asymmetries, the pleasures and confines of heterosexual bonds, and the gagging and unmuffling of the heroine. As each text becomes a pre-text for the next, Sinclair falls into a rhythm, challenging the marriage novel/romance plot in two basic ways. Mr. and Mrs. Nevill Tyson, The Judgment of Eve, and The Combined Maze trace out the grim consequences that result from following the conventional marriage script, in the first two novels to wives, in the third, to a husband. The Helpmate, Kitty Tailleur, and The Creators explore their own share of grim consequences but also challenge the marriage script in the ways indicated above.(4) It is to the challenges extended by these latter three novels that I now turn. I begin by looking at the way Sinclair explores sexual symmetries--at the way she resists, in DuPlessis's words, "extremes of sexual difference" and "the division of labor by gender" (5). I will then turn to her representations of unruly female desire.
In The Helpmate and Kitty Tailleur, Sinclair mounts a fairly simple challenge to conventional assumptions of male/female difference. In each text, she constructs heroes marked with stereotypically feminine, heroines marked with correspondingly masculine, traits.
The Helpmate casts Walter Majendie in the role of long-suffering spouse, foil to Anne Majendie's fierce ambitions to save her soul, his soul, the soul of fallen humanity. Although occasionally rebellious, for most of the narrative Walter is a patient Griselda. Admittedly, he is the bread-winner in this household, but Sinclair devotes minimal attention to his labors. Like the hero in the upcoming Kitty Tailleur, Walter often acts as the angel in the house, delaying marriage to care for his invalid sister, and, even after marrying the determined and difficult Anne, remaining his sister's gentle, devoted caretaker.
In Kitty Tailleur, Robert Lucy, continually referred to simply as "Lucy," is not only devoted to his sister, but, his wife having died, he is also mother/father to two small daughters. When he proposes to the magnetic, experienced Kitty (a high-class prostitute, though the naive Lucy does not realize this until the end), he imagines himself serving her, offering this worldly business-woman a peaceful refuge from the world. Ultimately, the marriage does not take place, but while it is in the offing Lucy plays the role of nest builder and hearth tender.
With The Creators, however, Sinclair mounts a more interesting challenge to received ideas about male/female differences. This novel--which traces the loves and careers of five London writers and their circle, asking throughout what nurtures their creativity in life and art--is remarkable for its variations on the themes of love, marriage, mothering, fathering, ambition, and friendship. Indeed, The Creators stands as a clear example of the kind of challenge to traditional "grammars of motives" analyzed by Miller. If the traditional grammars may be said to pit Force A against Force B, develop that conflict, and then solve it with some climax, one can say that in The Creators Sinclair seeks to give the reader a proliferation of forces, conflicts, climaxes, and anticlimaxes, from the beginning of the novel to the end. In a sense, the novel contains "too many notes" to make it easily outlined, but it also fully exploits what Bakhtin saw as the novel's great license, its sheer space to create a socially heteroglossic world.
Respecting the sexual symmetries being examined here, in The Creators Sinclair gives us the following: a female writer (Nina Lempriere) who protects herself from erotic commitments in the belief that only through sexual isolation can she continue to work; a male writer (George Tanqueray) who marries but holds the same belief and essentially accomplishes the same isolation; their foils, Laura Gunning and Owen Prothero, who fall in love, marry, and out of their joy and commitment produce one superb text after another; and the counter-figure to all of the above, Jane Holland, who battles over the years with her need for separation and her need for intercourse. She loves, writes, marries, writes, has children, writes, struggles. Some of her novels she is proud of, some not.
Each of these writers is different from the others and from his or her own former self over time, but the various symmetries and asymmetries baffle gender distinctions. If we think specifically about the relationship between gender and earnings, we see that Laura's earnings support her and Owen, as they had earlier supported her and her father. George's earnings support him and Rose. In the Holland/Broderick marriage, both Jane and Hugh are earners, Hugh as editor of a literary magazine, Jane as successful novelist. At one point, Jane buys out a major investor in Hugh's enterprise, allowing the worried Hugh to regain control. Unthinkable in a novel by Lawrence, Wells, Joyce, or even Forster, the heroine here is not only a moneymaker, but the Brodericks are a genuinely dual-career family, with two small children and all of the tensions inherent in such a balancing act. It is remarkable enough that Sinclair gives Jane the following speech: You see, sometimes I feel as if I was walking on a tightrope of time, held for me, by somebody else, over an abyss; and that, if somebody else were suddenly to let go, there I should be--precipitated. And sometimes it's as if I were doing it all with one little, little brain-cell that might break any minute; or with one little tight nerve that might snap. (345)
It is much more remarkable that Sinclair then constructs no major narrative response to Jane's cry. This is not a climactic moment when Force A (Lawrence might call it perverse female ambition) confronts Force B (the longing to surrender the purposive self in the embrace of matrimony and maternity) in a struggle for ultimate victory. Rather, this is one of several occasions when Jane, exhausted indeed but not at any ultimate breaking point, needs to retreat, read, and renegotiate her on-going loving and heron-going writing. Like her male and female colleagues, she finds ways to do this.
Other sexual symmetries abound as Sinclair plays variations on the theme of social and sexual circulation. In sundry gender combinations, lovers and friends move in and out of potential and actualized affairs with each other; they send each others' manuscripts flowing through the literary pipelines; they get or deny each other jobs. In one of the most interesting of the many subplots on circulation, Hugh Broderick and his brothers meet often to debate and decide various right courses of action for wife/sister-in-law Jane Holland Broderick. Should she be working during her pregnancies? Should she begin a new novel so soon after the birth of a child? Should she be allowed to get away for a month? In these instances, Jane would seem to be a pawn, her ambitious mind and child-bearing body being circulated through the masculine Broderick court and disposed of as those gentlemen deem best. But Jane sometimes goes along, sometimes not. Often, their concerns merely echo those she has initiated herself respecting her writing and mothering. Complicating this circulation further is Hugh's pride in resisting his brothers' views. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than when Hugh refuses to intrude on Jane's possible infidelity with George Tanqueray. Confronted with a document that indicates whether or not Jane is having an affair with George and urged by his family to discover the truth, Hugh refuses to act. As Jane does respecting her own self (284-286), Hugh sees himself as anything but a unitary being. Instead, he views himself as a man made up of several men, among whom are a jealous husband but also a husband who respects his wife's privacy and considers it a wonder that she ever loved and married him (490-493).
This review of the ways Sinclair explores sexual symmetries--of the ways men and women similarly negotiate loving and questing, earn bread and board, shift allegiances depending on the issue, circulate each other, and exist as shifting, multiple selves--is not exhaustive: again, if ever a novel took advantage of its room to set voice against voice and script against script, The Creators does. Nor, in its closing movement, does it shut down its multiple dialogues. Owen Prothero dies but the rest of the writers and friends, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers will continue, beyond the ending, to negotiate their erotic and ambitious desires, compassion and competition, writing, reading, and being read by each other.
If these three novels challenge the conventional script of the heterosexual couple by growing increasingly playful with cultural assumptions regarding sexual symmetries, a somewhat more complex progress occurs when Sinclair challenges the script through representations of non-heterosexual erotic desires. In the main, one can discern the following. In introducing the marriage contract into the plot, in prospect or actuality, Sinclair simultaneously provokes a resistance in her heroines.(5) The contract seeks to regulate all erotic energies: the heroines respond with non-regulation fears and desires. These fears and desires may be, and often are, homosexual, but they can also be expressions of autoeroticism, bisexuality, and an erotic interest in children. In other words, rather than substituting one unified set of desires and responses for another--homosexual for heterosexual--Sinclair keeps trying to open her narrative both to the fluidity and irrationality of the heroine's eroticism and to the tensions that exist between the heroine's erotic energies and ambitious quests. However, in The Helpmate and Kitty Tailleur, Sinclair is, by turns, bold in her constructions of erotic fantasies and then hesitant and contradictory in her narrative responses to those fantasies. In The Creators, her heroines' fantasies are largely implied through their writing, while they themselves live out a fairly full range of sexual experiences. In this novel, Sinclair's narrative resolution, rather than contradictory, seems purposefully open and indeterminate.
The Helpmate opens with an image that comes to serve as emblem for much of the novel. Newly-married Anne Majendie lies "irremediably awake" at dawn on the extreme edge of the bed she shares with her husband Walter (1). Not quite in or out--of the bed or the marriage--Anne's liminal state paralyzes her, making her unable to take any clear direction. This paralysis may be seen as a tension between love and quest, between erotic and ambitious desires.
Could Anne simply follow her ambitious wishes, she would be George Eliot's Dinah Morris. Through much of the novel, Sinclair adopts Eliot's tone, depicting her heroine's religious sincerity as admirable and appealing. For example, confused in the first unhappy years of her marriage, Anne finds herself longing for the season of Lent, "for the sweet, sharp, grey light of the young Spring at evening, a light that recalled, piercingly, the long Lent of her girlhood, and the passing of its pure and consecrated days" (198). Anne's religious longings carry within them ideals of self-sacrifice, kindness, and humility. Equally, they are associated with a sense of herself as a strong human being, a person with an energetic ardor to act, be powerful, create in her marriage a union of equals by bringing her husband into her vision of goodness. The church she attends most often is St. Savior's rather than All Soul's.
So what frustrates Anne's ambitions? On one level, Walter does. It is not simply that he sinned, once, with a certain "Lady Cayley" before his marriage, though that information is devastating to Anne. Equally significant, his character is lacking in spiritual fervor. Although he respects Anne's intense spirituality, he does not share it.
But on a more provocative level, the complex nature of Anne's own erotic energies counters her ambitious asceticism. When, on their honeymoon, Anne first hears about Walter's brief affair with Lady Cayley, she thinks about leaving him but then conscientiously decides to continue with the marriage. Over the next few years, she fulfills her vows but represses any sexual interest in Walter. What finally interrupts this repression is a bold move on Sinclair's part.
Two years into the marriage, owing to a social contretemps, Anne ends up at a gathering that includes Sarah Cayley. She soon flees back home to meditate and try to "realize" the experience. For Anne, now and in the past, that process of meditation takes the form of prayer. Always, through powerful concentration, Anne has been able to move to a place where she feels "something strong in her, something solitary and pure" (151). It is a place of unified selfhood; there she is bodiless and blank. Shutting the door to her bedroom, staring at the crucifix above the bed, kneeling on the floor this frightening afternoon, Anne is visited by a desire to pray that is "terrible" and "urgent" (150). But something goes wrong. Anne finds that she cannot transport herself to the site of ascetic bliss. The memory of Sarah Cayley--her body, her flesh--blocks the way: "now it loomed steadily in the dark, now it leapt quiveringly into the red, vaporous light" (150). Comprehensible to Anne in all of "its power, its secret, and its sin" (141), Sarah Cayley's body opens "some back room of [Anne's] brain, a hot room, now dark and now charged with a red light, vaporous and vivid, that ran in furious pulses, as it were the currents of her blood made visible" (150). Sarah's body is Anne's "own horror made flesh" (141); it is her own flesh made horribly, tantalizingly, hotly realizable. In this torrid back room, significantly, Anne cannot see Walter, but she has a sickening sense that somehow he is there too, dancing, looming, and leaping (150).
Anne, and the script Sinclair has produced up to this point, seem baffled at how to respond to this amazing irruption of unregulated erotic fear and desire. Anne realizes that this "back room" is indestructible (150). Yet for the moment she manages to force the door shut, regroup her spiritual energies, and cleave through "the beating currents of the blood" and "the red hot lights of the brain" to reach again the place of "peaceful blank," of "mortal emptiness" (151). Through much succeeding plot business, Sinclair elaborates on this tension: the back room of Anne's erotic wishes and fears is ever-present, but the door to it stays shut.
The way Sinclair eventually creates a break-through seems, at first, simply to ignore the tensions introduced through the back-room fantasy. The fragile, young daughter of Anne and Walter dies. Anne blames Walter, who tries to escape her censure by drinking himself into oblivion, going on a binge that lasts for days and eventually lands him back in the company of Sarah Cayley. Injured in a boating accident, he nearly dies, but is found and nursed back to health by Anne. Penitent, confused, and longing to understand this latest lapse of Walter's, Anne goes to visit a family friend, Lawson Hannay. There she is read a lesson on erotic desire. One, it is something men tend to have, while women do not. Two, it is really quite simple, "as simple as hunger and thirst" (423). Men get hungry and thirsty, and the wise wife makes sure that she provides. For "sometimes," warns Hannay, "when you can't get clean water, you drink water that's--not so clean" (424). Anne takes Hannay's counsel with "reverence and admiration"; her pride "goes down in the dust" (425). At this point, the tension between Anne's ambitions to be an agent of salvation and her erotic fantasies would seem to collapse. The ambitions were wrong-headed, the erotic desires nothing to fear. Sinclair piles cliche on cliche as she judges Anne's spiritual ambitions as nothing more than a cruel campaign against the hapless Walter. "She knew what she had done to him. She had ruined him as surely as if she had been a bad woman. He had loved her, and she had cast him from her, and sent him to his sin. ... She was a good woman, and her goodness had been her husband's ruin" (425). As for Eros, it does not much matter whether the door to the back room of Anne's mind is open or shut. Apparently all that Anne will find there, now that she is enlightened, is a clean, well-lighted place, the site of a proper wifely response to husbandly desire. By the novel's last pages, the chastened Anne is ready to move to the center of the marital bed, to offer Walter her own body's clean water.
But working against this view of Anne's progress as a movement into an uncomplicated heterosexual desire is a different way to interpret the novel's ending, one that emphasizes Sinclair's decision to bring Lady Cayley back for the narrative climax, but with an element of ambiguity. Importantly, when Anne and Walter eventually talk through the past week, she repeatedly asks him if he slept with Sarah Cayley. He says that he honestly does not know. The novel rests with that. If, through Sarah and Anne, Sinclair has been asking what is the nature of female desire, then at least one answer urges a sense of indeterminacy. Initially, Anne had wanted to pin down Lady Cayley, to know about her so as to contain her. Anne's first words in the novel are "Who is Lady Cayley? .... I know nothing about her. I want to know" (2). The novel's closure refuses to satisfy that demand. Instead, Sinclair's text offers a sequence of discrepant images of female sexual energies: the looming female body of the back room Sarah of Anne's fantasies; the mercenary, dirty-water Sarah at the novel's end; the blossoming, sweet, working-class Maggie, with whom Walter is involved for several years; the eventual warm and wifely Anne; but also, significantly, the Anne who finally finds her carnal self warming with genuine erotic desire to a Walter who may have just come from the bed of Sarah Cayley and who definitely, as Hannay relates, has recently been with Maggie.
In other words, if The Helpmate may be said to offer any response to Anne's request for erotic understanding, it would be the insight that Sinclair bravely scripted into Anne's back room fantasy and then repeats in the novel's climax: for Anne, the path to Eros, the help to mating, lies through back door entrances and the body of another woman. It is not through a conventional, heterosexual script starring herself and Walter that Anne awakens to Eros. Rather, it is by imagining Lady Cayley's flesh, hot and pulsing, and then associating that flesh with her own, Walter's own. In this text, Sinclair envisions homoeroticism, autoeroticism, and heterosexual desire as complexly reinforcing each other.
Who is Lady Cayley? In the subsequent Kitty Tailleur, the figure of unregulated female eroticism is moved to center stage, but again Sinclair responds to her text's boldness by constructing a plot that follows contradictory narrative lines.
As the more conventional line constructs Kitty Tailleur's ambitions and desires, it depicts her as the mistress of wealthy gentlemen, currently engaged in a campaign to land a legitimate husband. At twenty-seven, Kitty wants to get out of a career that cannot go on forever. Set in the Cliff Hotel at Southbourne, the novel makes much of Kitty walking a dangerous path, ever threatened with going over the edge into an abyss of shame or indigent old age. Sinclair follows a Jamesian strategy as she begins her narrative with a cluster of proper English vacationers trying to figure out who this mysterious, enticing, fellow guest maybe.(6) Withholding knowledge of Kitty's actual history, Sinclair concentrates on how she is interpreted by others. "Who is Lady Cayley?" is here replayed as "Who is Kitty Tailleur?"
As Sinclair develops this narrative line, she has Kitty make a quick conquest of Robert Lucy. Once plans proceed toward marriage, however, complications arise. The guests find out about Kitty's occupation and are unsure what to do about the ignorance of Lucy and his sister. Mr. Marston, Kitty's current gentleman friend, comes down from London on a surprise visit and, jealous, tries to persuade her to drop Lucy. But the key complication enters with the arrival of Lucy's children. As Sinclair explains it, once Kitty sees his children, all of her former insouciance about her history crumbles. Fearful of corrupting them, the only ethical response she can envision is to confess to Robert, whom she has come to love, and renounce the marriage. The only future she can face is suicide. Sinclair states the moral explicitly: this is the tale of a fallen woman who redeems her past mortal sins in one moment of immortal self-sacrifice. Kitty confesses, renounces, and nobly leaps over the cliff.
But complementing this line is one that focuses less on Kitty's past as a heterosexual prostitute and more on her present as a creature of complex erotic longings, fears, disciplines. Given that Sinclair had recently explored the extent to which Anne Majendie found qualities of herself in wild Sarah Cayley, perhaps not surprisingly, this narrative line suggests that wild Kitty contains aspects of Anne. Over the years, as Kitty has structured her own ambitious quest for a good life, she has found ways to make herself solitary, pure, and invulnerable to the insults of the flesh; like Anne, she has prided herself on holding Eros at bay. Though a prostitute, she has maintained herself "with the audacity of chartered innocence" (229). What interrupts that coolness, that innocence? As in The Helpmate, Sinclair introduces the restrictive regulations of the marriage contract, and once more explores her heroine's resistant, erotic energies.
Simultaneous with Robert Lucy's growing interest in marrying Kitty is Sinclair's drawing Miss Keating, Kitty's female companion, into the narrative. Presumably, Miss Keating has also developed an interest in Robert Lucy, jealously realizes Kitty's appeal for him, simultaneously learns of Kitty's occupation, and is now desperate to escape from the whole situation. As Sinclair structures the scene of Miss Keating's departure, however, it reads like a veiled enactment of the breaking up of a lesbian couple. Kitty keeps trying to caress Miss Keating (100) and is pained at the return of all of her gifts, even the little chain that she had thought her "Bunny" liked (104). She urges Miss Keating not to turn away from her, from other women. When Miss Keating says that she shall hate every man she will ever meet because of Kitty, Kitty replies, "Hate the men, dear, that can't do you any harm; but don't hate the women. At my worst, I never did that" (107).Just before Miss Keating walks out, Sinclair captures their two faces in a mirror: "The two women's faces were in the glass, the young and the middle-aged, each searching for the other. Kitty's face was tearful and piteous; it pleaded with the other face in the glass, a face furtive with hate, that hung between two lifted arms behind a veil" (110).
Miss Keating departs, Kitty is left weeping on the bed, and the homoerotic longings in this scene stay veiled. In Kitty's upcoming scene with young Barbara Lucy, the veil is lifted to a surprising degree.
Robert Lucy has arranged for Barbara and Janet to come to Southbourne for a visit so that they may be introduced to their potential new mother. At tea on their first afternoon, there are roses everywhere, bedecking table, plates, window sills. An atmosphere of carnival sets in, everyone becoming "ungovernably gay" (240). Cycles of laughter run "riot in ... blood and nerves" (240), pouring through Kitty, Robert, sister Jane, and the little girls. Eventually, all converge on the beach, each "a perfect baby," crawling around on the sand, building castles, earthworks, and trenches to the see (241). Late in the evening, Robert leaves his daughters sprawled in sleep in the room adjoining Kitty's. Kitty then slips in, turns back five-year-old Barbara's bedclothes, and lies down beside her. She feels a "perverse and passionate impulse" to awaken the child (248). Gently, tenderly, "holding back her passion," Kitty kisses Barbara; with a "troubling hand" she draws Barbara out of sleep into a drowsy twilight between waking and sleeping (248). Sinclair writes of Barbara lying on her back, drawing up her rosy knees, holding out her arms to Kitty, with her mouth curling under Kitty's mouth (248-249). Closing her eyes as she does when she is with Robert, Kitty becomes aware that she is bringing "some passionate, earthly quality of her love for Robert into her love for Robert's child" (249). She says to herself, "I'm terrible; there's something wrong with me. This isn't the way to love a child" (249). She lays Barbara back down again and goes into her own room, writhing and "torn by many pangs" (250). For Barbara, who cries out softly when Kitty leaves, all remains vague and sleepy.
The narrator tells us that Kitty is being perverse. Much is made of the secrecy and closed doors surrounding Kitty's act. Kitty herself names her passion as wrong. But set against the earlier mood of carnival and read within the context of Barbara's drowsy, smiling response, the scene ambitiously does more than the narrator and Kitty acknowledge. As in the back room fantasy of Anne Majendie, here too Sinclair has created a site of multiple erotic desires, fears, and pleasures: the child's sensual/sexual pleasure in the caresses she is receiving; Kitty's homoerotic longings and fears; her heterosexual wish to be with Robert through the body of his child; her delight in recalling her own childhood sexuality.(7)
It is a remarkable scene, but Sinclair's attempts to resolve it lead her in contradictory directions. One line maintains a view of Kitty as not easily "read." Up to the end of the novel, Sinclair mocks the middle-class voices that try to simplify Kitty into an essentially bad woman, that work to keep her in her place, safe, well-defined, and useful to the middle-class's sense of its own essential goodness. In fact, Kitty has a poignant history, one that includes a romantic betrayal in her youth; an expulsion from her rigid, censorious family; her misery as a lady's companion. At any current moment she is opaque, unpredictable. According to this conclusion, the "truth" about capricious, puzzling Kitty is as complex and indeterminable as her erotic desires.
But Sinclair also ends up reinforcing the very, view she is mocking. For Kitty, and often for the narrator, the scene with Barbara comes to stand as an emblem of Kitty's essential corruption, an infection she carries within her that is liable to rub off on any good creature she touches. Kitty looks in the mirror and wonders if Robert's daughters can see "it." She is concerned when Jane touches her, feeling that she carries an aura of corruption that might blight Jane. Finally told of Kitty's past, the loving Lucy can only imagine quarantining her forever in some country cottage. Her moment of renunciation, of confessing her past, giving up Robert, and committing suicide, is seen as the kind of noble act a leper might perform in announcing her disease and preventing approach.
If we take these two novels, with their bold, erotic fantasies and subsequent narrative hesitancies, as pre-texts for The Creators, we can ask what happens when Sinclair introduces marital contracts and erotic resistances in that latter sprawling novel? In brief, she offers her creative heroines such a range of erotic experiences that the previous powerful fantasies are defused; they either get lived out in milder, more socialized forms or get written into the heroines' poems or novels. As a Freudian explanation might put it, in The Creators Sinclair's earlier heroines, Anne and Kitty, manage to articulate their repressed longings and fears and now find themselves--in Nina, Laura, and Jane--able to understand and channel them.(8)
In the dominant marriage narrative, as Tony Tanner and Rend Girard have argued, monogamy is indeed challenged, but the preferred challenge is adultery. The figure of the couple, be it Molly and Leopold, Ursula and Birkin, or Wells' Ellen and Sir Isaac Harman, is made narratively provocative by the construction of the triangle. In The Creators, however, the provocation usually provided by the erotic triangle is, as suggested above, largely replaced by an episodic kind of sexual/sensual promiscuity. In particular, the heroines love and hate their own bodies, other women, men, and children. Let me close by offering three brief examples of The Creators' representations of fluid, unruly, female Eros.
Early in the novel, showing Jane in a state of excitement over the possibility that George Tanqueray is going to propose to her, Sinclair has Jane respond with a scene of joyful self-adoration. Jane gazes at herself in her long mirror, loving her body. Described as large, dominant, wild, wonderfully queer, animal-like, "incredibly feminine and so alive," this body of hers has "developed a perfectly preposterous capacity for enjoyment." It is "the body of a woman created in a day and a night by joy for its own wooing" (85-86). In particular, she loves her mouth. It is a winged thing (4), associated with her extraordinary abilities to speak, write, create; but she also sees it as resembling the muzzle of a deer, mute and silent in its rich physicality (85). At other times her body horrifies her, striking her as frighteningly ugly, as repulsively powerful and sombre (85), as being as hard and mechanical as a steam engine (110-111). If Jane finds pleasure and pain in herself as a physical phenomenon, she also finds pleasure and pain in her relations with Nina.
When George marries Rose, Jane seeks out Nina. Together they leave their other women friends, all talking of Tanqueray, and go to Nina's place, "approached by secret, tortuous ways that made you wonder" (102). In the first room, for "an unspeakable half-hour," they find themselves mute, unable to get rid of Tanqueray's presence. So they move even further into Nina's place, to "a room where there was no evidence of Tanqueray's ever having been" (102). A far cry from the tense, secret rooms in The Helpmate and Kitty Tailleur, this room is joyful in its disorder. "Incontestably and inalterably Nina's" the room is filled with hunting crops, fishing-rods, portraits, antlers, and animal skins, things treasured, worn out, overturned, crushed and flung from Nina, enshrined by Nina. There is a sense of excitement, energy, and abundance here. As she and Jane talk, they speak of Tanqueray, but also of themselves, of writing and what it demands. Nina sits on the floor, with her back against Jane's legs, her head lying back on Jane's knees. Jane sees her as "some inscrutable, incredible portion of herself, some dark and fierce and sensual thing [lying] there at her feet" (105). Like Jane's earlier autoeroticism, this thing is "splendidly unashamed" (105).
Unashamed, the homoeroticism that plays between Jane and Nina, and later between Laura and Nina, also complements their heterosexual energies. Though Sinclair is fairly reticent, often metaphoric, when depicting heterosexual relations, it is clear that each of the women finds erotic torture and pleasure in men as well as women. Thinking of the difficulties she had writing while preoccupied by Tanqueray, Jane offers this oddly sado-masochistic image: "She had been wonderful, standing there before Tanqueray, with her feet bound and her hands raised above the hands that tortured her, doing amazing things" (117). Her hands, raised above Tanqueray's torturing ones, are presumably writing her book and thus doing amazing things. But the syntax also allows us to read Tanqueray's hands as both torturing and amazing her. At one point in her unrequited love affair with Owen Prothero, Nina severely burns her arm. Half accident, half self-inflicted, the act bespeaks Nina's hatred of the body he is rejecting, her wish to draw him to her through compassion if not passion, and eventually, her ability to assume the pain of letting him go and to create poetry out of that release. On another tack, marrying Hugh and bearing her first child, Jane experiences "a delirium of the senses" (324), an animalistic bliss of the body that echoes the bliss she had discovered in her own self-wooing. Years into their marriage, she delights in teasing Hugh with assertive love-making. Seeing herself as many people and not a unified self, she claims for both of them "all the excitement of polygamy" (392).
In each of the three novels, Sinclair challenges the regulation of erotic desire enforced by the script of the heterosexual couple; in The Creators, however, she not only foregrounds the many forms erotic fears and desires can take, but dramatizes another important point as well. In this sprawling novel, erotic energies are fluid not only with respect to their objects of desire I but also with respect to time. As Sinclair's creators live out the middle years of their lives, their erotic fears and desires--in themselves and in their endless negotiations with ambitious quests--fluctuate. This is especially true for Jane. At thirty-nine, her child-bearing years past, she feels a magnificent sense of womanly well-being. Yet at the same time, out of that very physical, sexual vitality, her need to create--seen as her "mature genius" and usually associated with a denial of sensual/sexual experience--rises up, "terrible" in its claims and demands (448-449). As Jane sees things at this moment, Eros will lapse and an ascetic ambition to write will claim her through much of her forties. Acting on her need, she finds a way to begin a novel, temporarily leaving Hugh, children, and house. But then, in a turn-about, she flirts with the extraordinary possibility of a sexual rapprochement with her old lover, friend, and colleague, George Tanqueray. She is left, at the end of the novel, with nothing entirely settled, with her loving and questing still very much on-going.
We can see, finally, that the challenge Sinclair raises to the conventional script of the heterosexual couple indeed differs from that raised by her male modernist colleagues. Sinclair's achievement is to broaden the script in two distinct ways: introducing into it an increasingly complex set of sexual symmetries and representing female eroticism as extending beyond heterosexual desire without opposing it. Taken as a group, her heroines celebrate and suffer a complex--one might say humanly recognizable--spectrum of erotic longings, fears, fantasies, and experiences.
Perhaps Sinclair's "added emphases" seemed implausible within the conventions of modernism as they got canonized; Miller's argument would suggest that such implausibility could be one reason for Sinclair becoming a silenced and largely forgotten maker of modernism. But as Miller also observes, a new emphasis in a novel may appear implausible in relation to narrative expectations but hardly so in relation to actual human lives. For her contributions to modernism, but also for her capacity to speak to our own actual, continuing, and all-too-human struggles to understand marriage, creativity, sexual symmetries, and erotic desires, Sinclair is well worth attending to. The author wishes to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for supporting research on this article through its Fellowship Program. (1) Carolyn Heilbrun has argued that the British "marriage novel" is a distinctly modernist phenomenon. Although one can think of important exceptions, her general thesis remains persuasive: for the Victorians, marriage marked the end of narratable experience; tales of Him and Her focused on courtship. At the turn of the century, with growing debates on divorce and increasing work opportunities for single women, that focus shifted. In Heilbrun's words, "nothing so well marks that period [modernism] as its refusal to take marriage for granted.... For many modern novelists, indeed, it appears that marriage is necessary to the discovery of identity" (140-141). For analysis of English debates on divorce, see Lawrence Stone's Road to Divorce (1990).
(2) This particular essay of Freud's is especially interesting with respect to The Creators. Sinclair was an avid reader of Freud and could well have known his essay on poets and daydreams by the time she was writing and revising The Creators from late 1908 through 1910. She may thus have been explicitly challenging the gender distinctions he perceives in the way men and women fantasize and write out the conflict between their erotic and ambitious desires. (3) This would also seem the place to address a biographical question: was May Sinclair gay? Not surprisingly, it is hard to say. Biographers Boll and Zegger, and critics Gillespie and Neff, do not examine the issue. The single critic I have encountered who explores the possibility is Penelope Fitzgerald, who comes at the question by way of Sinclair's friendship with Charlotte Mew. Fitzgerald concludes that Sinclair is best understood as one who, after an early life of misery, practiced a kind of celibacy respecting all intimate relationships. My own reading of the archives and fiction confirms much of Fitzgerald's analysis; my key disagreement lies with her assertion that in her work Sinclair never deals with homosexuality (138). (4) Of these novels, Kitty Tailleur is least obviously a marriage novel. I include it in my analysis to emphasize the extent to which the novel explores the topic of legitimate and illegitimate, adequate and inadequate, marriage rather than pursuing the typical questions of a courtship narrative. In a sense, Robert and Kitty come into the novel already "married," Kitty to the gentleman who keeps her and Robert to his sister Jane (kind Jane stands in for Robert's dead wife). The key narrative issue is whether or not Robert and Kitty can take a risk, break out of their "false" marriages, and establish, with each other, a new, legitimate, more adequate one. (5) What it is the erotic resistance of her heroines rather than heroes urges a brief addendum to the sexual symmetry discussion rehearsed above. Sinclair's interest in female rather male eroticism presents little problem in thinking about The Helpmate and Kitty Tailleur, given that gender symmetry is not a major feature in these two novels. With The Creators we encounter a different situation. There, sexual symmetry is a key topic; and Sinclair does attempt to draw parallels between, for example, the erotic energies and disciplines of Nina Lempriere and George Tanqueray. But what becomes apparent is this: intentions aside, Sinclair's imagination is more capable of constructing images of sensuality/sexuality in and between females than in or between males or between males and females. The same pattern is discernible in Mary Olivier, published in 1919, not a part of this marriage sequence but probably the best known of Sinclair's novels. There too the female protagonist's most particular sensual and sexual memories are related to female bodies. (6) In both syntax and situation, Sinclair often plays with Jamesian models. As she writes to Mew, "He has influenced me considerably, and I'm not a bit ashamed of it. He is a good master if you're strong enough not to be totally swamped by him" (April 22, 1915). The Sinclair Archives, Henry W. and Alberta. Berg Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations . (7) For a provocative analysis of the erotic child in earlier texts, see James Kincaid's Child-Lovin The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. (8) It seems likely that Sinclair's construction of repression in these novels, of its potential to debilitate or motivate, laid groundwork for her later explicit analysis of repression in the essay Feminism (1912).
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