May Sinclair and Psychology

By Leslie De Bont

May Sinclair was not just a novelist; she was also a scholar of psychology. As Rebecca Bowler notes, even her literary criticism is influenced by her reading of psychological texts.1   But Sinclair also wrote psychology articles and essays of her own and was a founding member of the Medico-Psychological Clinic in London.2   In her fiction, psychology also plays a role in the smallest details, as well as in the general construction of her novels. But Sinclair’s psychology is very specific: it articulates many trends of contemporary psychological studies, but it changes them to conform to her own idiosyncratic definitions.


In 1913, Sinclair joined the Medico-Psychological Clinic, the first clinic in Britain to offer psychoanalytic treatment.3   As Martindale and Raitt remark, little work has been done on the Medico-Psychological Clinic.4   1913 was an important year for the development of psychoanalysis in Britain as it witnessed the first translation, by A. A. Brill, of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdeutung).5   It was also the year Ernest Jones created the British Psychoanalytical Society (then called the London Psycho-Analytical Society). More generally, the decade saw the development of psychoanalysis in Britain and the gradual change of the status of psychology as a science (which got its first scientific review as well as a distinct entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica).

The Medico-Psychological Clinic opened in the autumn of 1913 before moving, in July 1914, to its most famous location, 30 Brunswick Square, London. It had a complex and pioneering structure and was run by medical practitioners, as well as by members who had no medical training. Besides therapy, the Clinic aimed at ‘offer[ing] a place of study for medical practitioners’.6

May Sinclair and the Medico-Psychological Clinic

Sinclair joined the Medico-Psychological Clinic in its very first days. According to her biographers, she was convinced to join by its founder, Dr. Jessie Murray, whom she met through her involvement with the Suffragette movement. Sinclair’s role within the Clinic was very diverse. She donated money, wrote appeals and pamphlets and was a member of the Board of Management.7

In September 1914, she also joined the Clinic’s ambulance unit, led by Dr Hector Munro, and was sent to work on the Belgian front. In the ambulance corps, Sinclair acted as secretary, stretcher-bearer, nurse, correspondent and fund-collector.8   At the Clinic, the year 1915 marked the creation of the Society for the Study of Orthopsychics laboratory, whose name Sinclair is said to have coined. The society supervised staff training and was also in charge of public education.9

May Sinclair’s psychological theories

The three types of consciousness

May Sinclair might have turned to psychology while researching the mechanisms of consciousness. In a speech delivered for the Aristotelian society on February 1923, she explained her theories of cognition that revolved around ‘primary, secondary and ultimate consciousness’.10   Primary consciousness means perception, i.e. being aware of the physical world around you. Secondary consciousness is the expression she uses to refer to self-awareness, distance, intellectual or conceptual perspective. ‘Ultimate consciousness’ she described as follows:

Lovers and poets and painters and musicians and mystics and heroes know them: […] moments when things that we have seen all our lives without truly seeing them […]change to us in an instant of time, and show the secret and imperishable life they harbour […]; moments of danger that are sure and perfect happiness, because then the adorable Reality gives itself to our very sight and touch.11

These intense sensual and spiritual moments are non-verbal epiphanies during which lovers, artists, heroes and mystics see the world anew. Sinclair’s essays give us the background explanation for her scenes: their intensity and enlightening revelations, moments of ‘Ultimate consciousness’, are caused by what she calls the sublimation of the libido.

Of Libido and Sublimation

Sinclair’s understanding of the term libido is, again, idiosyncratic. By ‘Libido’, she means life energy or life force, in which sex drives are included, but not central. Her concept thus draws on Jung’s, rather than Freud’s, definition of the term.12

For Sinclair, the libido can have two forms: it is either unsublimated or sublimated. Unsublimated libido simply refers to the necessary energy to fulfil one’s immediate, physical needs (among which are food and sexuality), while sublimated libido implies that the individual has been able to redirect his life energy towards a higher, more productive goal. In Way of Sublimation, she explains that sublimation is possible because of ‘a surplus of Libido beyond the immediate needs of the organism, without which […] sublimation would be impossible’.13   She also identifies four ways of sublimation: religion, scientific research, artistic creation and ‘concrete activities’,14  and defines sublimation, in most cases, as a conscious effort – a perspective on which she disagreed with Jung.15

In Sinclair’s fiction, ‘surpluses’ of unsublimated libido are often repressed. This is for instance what is at stake in “When their Fire is not Quenched”, a short story in which Harriott is haunted by paranoid delirium caused by her repressed sexual libido. In Sinclair’s texts, failed or incomplete sublimation creates pathologies that resemble psychotic disorders, such as dissociation, a concept she borrows from Pierre Janet.16 This seems to be the case for the many spiritual failures she portrays in her novels, from Anne Majendie in The Helpmate (1907) to Agnes Lambert in The Cure of Soul (1924).

Psychological fiction

The influence of Freud and the ‘new psychology’

Sinclair’s fiction greatly relies on psychology. She seemed to have considered the self as a phenomenon that developed according to both general principles (such as the Libido) and individual patterns that cannot be generalized. She thus shaped her characters’ identity according to this duality. Her emphasis on the specific might come from her careful reading of Freud’s case-studies. These cases were part and parcel of the epistemology of early psychoanalytical scientific enquiries and the questions raised by unsolved or challenging cases helped Sinclair give a voice to feminine issues that were left unstudied at her time (for instance through the depiction of the ambiguity around and ambivalence towards breastfeeding in The Tysons (1897) and Mary Olivier: A Life (1919) or of the possible Elektra complex in Mary Olivier). Similarly, her fiction often goes further than even her essays, presenting problematic cases of sublimation, in Mary Olivier or “The Flaw in the Crystal” (1912), and raising issues and showing situations that challenge Sinclair’s own theories.

Freud’s influence is also perceptible in the symbolic representations of sexuality that are scattered in her novels (e.g. Mary Olivier’s tower,17  and Harriett Frean’s attraction for the ‘red campions’ and then for her mother’s ‘blue-egg box’).18

She also uses and discusses Freudian concepts, such as the death drive in Tasker Jevons (1916) and The Tree of Heaven (1917),19 as well as reaction formation in the way John Rodway, in The Romantic (1920), transforms his possible impotence into more acceptable behaviour (fear and aggressiveness).20 Last, the title of her 1923 short story collection, Uncanny Stories, might be read as an idiosyncratic reference to Freud’s concept.

Even more significantly, Mary Olivier seems structured around the ‘talking cure’, as Mary prompts her mother to voice her issues about her (‘it was the boys I wanted to do things. Not you’).21 Similarly, the structure of the novel also makes use of Freud’s Nachträglichkeit (Afterwardsness).

Along the same lines, her representation of Anne and Elliot’s treatment of Colin’s shell-shock, in Anne Severn and the Fieldings (1922) seems particularly enlightened and owes a great deal to the work of Dr. Charles Myers, one of her eminent colleagues at the Medico-Psychological Clinic, who was one of the first to identify shell-shock and to use psychoanalytical treatment on soldiers.22


Sinclair’s novels even anticipate later research in psychology, starting with the story ‘Superseded’ (1901), in which a young physician recommends bibliotherapy to a depressed school-mistress.23 Even more significant is Sinclair’s intuition as to the importance of the notion of attachment. Attachment was first studied by John Bowlby in the 1950s.24 Earlier texts, including those of Freud, saw attachment as mere manifestation of the pleasure principle and did not see it as a phenomenon in itself with possible consequences on adult life, which is what texts such as Mary Olivier or Harriet Frean suggest. In Way of Sublimation, Sinclair explains that the mother-child attachment is an evolving relationship; that it first works as a protection against death and that it must end, through what she calls a ‘new birth’.25 Sinclair was thus aware of the psychological complexity and life-long issues around attachment for both mothers and children. Her earlier works, such as The Tysons and The Creators (1910), already contained problematic cases of mother-child attachment that precede all modern discourses on the subject.26

In 1958, Bowlby explained that any adult caregiver can be an object of attachment for children.27 This is precisely what Gertrude, the housekeeper in The Creators, and Hugh Brodrick are discussing when she evokes the recurring absence of Jane, Hugh’s wife:

‘It isn’t right that I should be taking their mother’s place, that they should look to me for everything.’

‘But,’ he broke in irritably, ‘they don’t. Why should they?’

‘They do. They must. You see, it’s because I’m on the spot.’

‘I see.’ He hid his frowning forehead with one hand.

‘I know,’ she continued, ‘it can’t be helped. It isn’t anybody’s fault. It’s—it’s inevitable.’

‘Yes. For the present it’s—inevitable. […] Of course, it does make your position a little difficult. Still, we don’t want them to fret for her—we don’t want them not to be fond of you. Besides, if you went, what on earth would they do without you?’

‘They must learn to do without me. They would have someone else.’28

The text stages the crucial influence of the attachment figure as well as the easy transferability of one caregiver to the next. It also anticipates Bowlby’s later questions on the primacy of maternal attachment and on the validity of substitution figures. Putting an end to the conversation, Hugh defends his wife in the next paragraph and describes her in reassuring terms, which evoke Winnicott’s good-enough mother.29 Through Gertrude’s words, and like many of Sinclair’s other novels, the text denounces the social pressure borne on mothers while stressing the complexity of the psychological phenomena that are inherent to motherhood.

Many articles by scholars from the Medico-Psychological Clinic have similarities with May Sinclair’s texts. Ella Sharpe’s work on art and rhythm might echo Mary Olivier’s mystical visions and poetry; her general essay on art, science and sublimation is also reminiscent of Sinclair’s own reflections – and so is Joan Riviere’s work on ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’.30 A pioneer of the psychological novel, Sinclair made great use of the research of her peers to investigate her own questions. But most importantly, psychology seemed to have provided Sinclair with material for the creation of her most complex, dense and innovative pages.



Published December 2013.


Rebecca Bowler, ‘Stream of Consciousness’, Drama, and Reality: What is really going on in May Sinclair’s review of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage?’,

Theophilius Boll, ‘May Sinclair and the Medico-Psychological Clinic of London’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 106 (4) (1962), 312

Suzanne Raitt, ‘Early British Psychoanalysis and the Medico-Psychological Clinic’, History Workshop Journal 58, (2004): 63-85.

4  Ibid., 63 and Philippa Martindale, ‘ “Against all hushing up and stamping down”: the Medico-Psychological Clinic of London and the novelist May Sinclair’, Psychoanalysis and History 6(2) (2004), 177.

Dean Rapp, ‘The Early Discovery of Freud by the British General Educated Public, 1912-1919,’ Social History of Medicine 3 (1990): 217-43.

Raitt 2004, 65.

7   Boll 1962, 313.

Ibid., 314.

Ibid., 316.

10  May Sinclair, ‘Primary and Secondary Consciousness’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 23 (1922-1923): 111-120.

11  May Sinclair, A Defence of Idealism, London: Macmillan (1917), 379. Italics are mine.

12 Even if Freud’s influence is central to Sinclair’s fiction, many of Jung’s concepts have drawn Sinclair’s attention. See for instance her review of Jung’s Psychological Types: ‘Psychological Types’, The English Review 36 (1923): 436-439.

13 May Sinclair, Way of Sublimation, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania, Box 23, Folder 433, 24.

14 An example of what Sinclair means by ‘concrete activities’ can also be found in Way of Sublimation: ‘The hat I bought in Bond Street is a phallic symbol. It is also a sublimation, a product of creative libido applied to the concrete’. Ibid., 143.

15 Ibid., 85.

16 A Defence of Idealism, 290.

17 May Sinclair (1919), Mary Olivier: A Life, London: Virago Modern Classics (1980), 9.

18  May Sinclair (1922), The Life and Death of Harriet Frean, London: Virago Modern Classics (2000), 23 and 176.

19 ‘a deadly attraction’ in May Sinclair (1916), Tasker Jevons: the Real Story, (Charleston : Bibliobazaar, 2010), 321.

20 Theophilius Boll shows how The Romantic may have been inspired by a case from the Medico-Psychological Clinic. Boll 1962, 315.

21 Mary Olivier, 67 and 335.

22 Dr Charles Myers, ‘A Contribution to the Study of Shell-Shock’, The Lancet (February 1915): 461-8.

23 William K. Beatty. ‘A Historical Review of Bibliotherapy’, Library Trends 11, Chicago: University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (1962).

24 John Bowlby. ‘The Nature of the Child’s Tie to His Mother’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis 39 (1958): 350-371. See also Mary Ainsworth, ‘Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation’, Child Development 41 (1970): 49-67.

25 Way of Sublimation, 41.

26 And so do later pieces, such as Far End (1926), London: Hutchinson, 95: ‘the awful thing, Kit, is that I don’t really want him. I wish he wasn’t coming’.

27 John Bowlby (1969), Attachment and Loss Vol. 1: Attachment, New York: Basic Books (1982), 480.

28 May Sinclair (1910), The Creators, Leipzig : Forgotten Books (2009), 465. Italics are mine.

29 Donald Woods Winnicott (1957), The Child, the Family and the Outside World, Reading: Addison Wesley Publishing (1964), 24.

30 Ella Freeman Sharpe, (1935). ‘Similar and Divergent Unconscious Determinants Underlying the Sublimation of Pure Art and Pure Science’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 16: 186-202. More on Sharpe and Sinclair in Philippa Martindale (2003), ‘ “The Ceasing from the Sorrow of Divided Life”: May Sinclair’s women, texts and context (1910-1923)’ Durham Theses, Durham University, . Joan Riviere (1929), ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’, Journal of Psycho-Analysis 10: 303-13.


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