Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Novelist at Salcombe Regis; revised with photos

On 31st January 1891 May Sinclair's brother Reginald died in a cottage on the coast at Salcombe Regis, near Sidmouth. He is buried in the churchyard there.

Salcombe Regis churchyard
 The year before, after the death of two other of May's brothers (of a congenital heart condition) the family had moved to "The Quest", a thatched cottage on Brook Hill. It was a "long low house high above the sea on the coast". 
View toward sea from near Salcombe Regis

The family's hope had been that Reginald would recover in the climate of the gentle South Devon sea air, but unfortunately that wasn't to be and after his death May was left in the sole company of her mother - with whom she apparently had always had a difficult relationship: "Tussles [between them] were relentless and intense". Sinclair's mother did not approve of her daughter's interest in philosophy and was ashamed of her "challenges to religious orthodoxy". May grew up "fighting for the right to think for herself". May did however manage to maintain her privacy sufficiently enough to find time to write and "worked doggedly on her next [second] collection of poetry". She also played the piano, Chopin being a particular favourite.

Sinclair was always reticent and meticulous in her protection of her private life - so much so that the archival documentation about her is fairly sparse. Consequently, there is little available material about her during this period, other than the descriptions of her, after visits to Salcombe Regis, by a few friends and relations and assumptions that can be made from reading some of the novels she wrote later on, which seem to allude to incidents in her personal life. The apparently autobiographical novels include Mary Olivier and The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, both novels written and published much later in the author's life. The novelist seems to have had few like-minded companions around her during her time in Devon and presumably lived a more or less reclusive life with her mother. One friend who visited her said she found her "walking the Devonshire moors, vaulting lightly over stiles, reading voraciously and turning scenes from Goethe's life into verse". The moor was probably Mutter's moor, to the northwest of Sidmouth.

Scenes in the vicinity of Mutter's Moor
Sinclair's Essays in Verse seems to have been written whilst the novelist was in Devon and was published in January 1892. It was the first of her publications to use the signature "May" Sinclair; (she was christened Mary and had previously used the pseudonym Julian Sinclair). This collection begins with a long opening poem, "Guyon: A Philosophical Dialogue", in which Sinclair develops a debate between internal voices and in another poem, "Two Studies from the Life of Goethe", she "tried to work through the story of Goethe's romance with Frederica Brion."

There are indications that May did have at least one serious relationship when she lived in Devon. As already said, she did all she could to hide anything that was what she considered private - probably because during the time in which she lived the repercussions on a woman's reputation could be dire and lead to a writer such as her to be judged more for the trappings of her erotic liaisons than for the quality of her work. Unfortunately, for artists like her, the intention to remove from posterity the autobiographical trappings of life sometimes backfired; after all readers are curious and fiction is life and who doesn't want to know an other's business - especially if that person is or was a gifted novelist, whose creations are the stuff of life? And also, as Raitt says in her biography of Sinclair - in which she "allows herself to speculate about her [Sinclair's] romantic life ... a biography which simply drew a veil over feelings ...which to a contemporary sensibility no longer seem shameful ... would not do justice to its subject". May Sinclair seems to have drawn upon herself an almost doubled silence in that on top of the external life (which critics have compared to Charlotte Bronte's for its "oppressive[ly] simplicity and silence"), she chose to more or less obliterate its paraphernalia of archival evidence. I don't think that is quite what Sinclair wanted and certainly her biographers consider that she intended to be remembered as a serious writer and did not envisage being wiped from the literary canon - which admittedly hasn't happened, but on the other hand there is little material about her compared with say Virginia Woolf, H.D., or Katherine Mansfield - all of them her contemporaries. The whiff of gossip in her own time drifted towards the theory that May had a baby at some point - and that could have been the reason (partly) why the family moved to Devon. Another rumour was that she had some kind of affair at the time of her mother's death in February 1901, some years after they had left Devon and that such impropriety was the reason the poet Charlotte Mew (who also had tenuous links with Devon) many years later finally ended her friendship with Sinclair. Probably the truth of Sinclair's private life will never be revealed, just as the writer intended, but certainly she was in Devon when she met Anthony Charles Deane at Salcombe Regis church - or rather, after one of the Sunday morning services held there. The two seem to have indulged in some sort of romantic dalliance, for Deane wrote with nostalgia years later of that time:

 "Don't the Sidmouth days seem far away? ... There's no place I love more-the old Sidmouth, with the friendly, frumpy, gossipy residents ... the quaint shops, the Sunday climb to Salcombe church,- the walks on Mutter's Moor and best of all the misty evenings on the Esplanade, with the last of the light tinging the red cliffs and the gentle wash of the full tide on the stones."

 Suzanne Raitt documents how Sinclair unwittingly left evidence of her love for Deane - who was seven years younger - in a private letter that was not destroyed. Deane encouraged the writer with her work and their relationship seems to have encompassed intense talks regarding philosophy, metaphysics and frank discussions about religion. For her his companionship if nothing else provided a form of release for the pent up emotions which she must have kept reigned in to her sanity with her mother's company;  in one letter she remarked that she had been "grappling, at Sidmouth, on a steep hillside, with the problem of the Universe". By 1894 Deane was a curate of the Church of England, so perhaps Sinclair's mother would have approved of him and encouraged his "climbing [of] the steep path to [their] house to engage her [May] in intense and deeply felt debate". However, by 1896 Deane was engaged to someone else.

Salcombe Regis church and view out to sea
 May Sinclair must have been haunted by their relationship because years later she wrote The Rector of Wyke, in which elements of their story seem to play out. Sinclair and her mother left the area some time in 1895 and moved to London, but after her death on February 22nd 1901 her mother was also buried at Salcombe Regis. According to Sinclair's biographer "mother and son are buried in a straight line, head to head, under a simple cross one head high, without any inscription". Unfortunately on a recent visit to the church at Salcombe Regis I was not able to locate either of their graves, though the views of and from the church make a trip there well worth a day out.

Note: Most of the information and details of Sinclair's life in this post comes from the following books: Miss Sinclair: Novelist by Theophilius Boll and Miss May Sinclair: Novelist by Suzanne Raitt.

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