Challenging the Script of the Heterosexual Couple: Three Marriage Novels by May Sinclair

By Harris, Janice H. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Challenging the Script of the Heterosexual Couple: Three Marriage Novels by May Sinclair


Harris, Janice H., Papers on Language & Literature


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. …

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