May Sinclair’s Impressions of War

By Charlotte Jones

In August 1914 May Sinclair was firmly established as one of the leading psychological novelists of the Edwardian era, and was putting the finishing touches to The Three Sisters, a Brontë-inspired exploration of female interiority. At the outbreak of war, however, she quickly signed the ‘Author’s Declaration’ in the Times supporting the Allied cause,1 and by 25th September, although she was a middle-aged woman with no medical training or journalistic experience, was en route to the Belgian Front as secretary and reporter to an ambulance corps set up by the Medico-Psychological Clinic of London. The experience, despite lasting only two weeks, would shape her fiction for the next ten years.

Her first piece of writing on returning to England was A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, a fictionalised record of her experiences and, according to Suzanne Raitt, one of the first wartime women’s diaries published in Britain in 1915.The journal describes in minute detail the few days she spent with the corps, ferrying wounded men between Ghent and Ostend before the Fall of Antwerp. The tone is overwhelmingly one of inadequacy and regret – Sinclair is acutely aware of her unlikely and, ultimately, unhelpful presence at the front line – yet this tension is what lends the text its significance. Unlike later memoirs such as Edward Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928) or Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929), where writing is clearly a cathartic exercise, excerpts of Sinclair’s Journal were published in the literary journal the English Review between May and June 1915, when her horror and guilt was still raw.She is writing about the very first months of the war, publishing her impressions before many volunteers had even joined up, and she is therefore one of the first writers to contend with the questions about narrative and representation raised by the war. How can literature accurately convey an experience that is beyond words? How can it both record experience, and seek to define how that experience is to be imagined?

Reading the Journal, it quickly becomes apparent that this memoir is not an unmediated or directly representative account of her personal experiences; instead, it is clearly a fundamentally unreliable version of events. Take the scene in which Sinclair’s narrator imagines what the war will be like before leaving England:

Every night before I went to sleep I saw an interminable spectacle of horrors: trunks without heads, heads without trunks, limbs tangled in intestines, corpses by every roadside, murders, mutilations, my friends shot dead before my eyes. Nothing I shall ever see will be more ghastly than the things I have seen.4

The ‘horrors’ are fixed firmly ‘before [her] eyes’, but this visual dimension quickly becomes a complex layering of trauma and narrative response. Two different types of seeing co-exist within what Sinclair calls her ‘strange visualizing process’ (8): ‘Nothing I shall ever see will be more ghastly than the things I have seen’. Firstly, it is important to note that neither ‘sight’ has in fact been seen by the narrator: the ‘possibly-to-be-bombarded Ostend’ (8) she is anticipating is yet to be encountered, while the nocturnal ‘spectacle of horrors’ she apparently ‘saw’ is a product of her imagination. The ‘already seen’ is, therefore, simultaneously not seen. And yet there is a crucial temporal displacement also operating within the passage. However true Sinclair’s assertion that she imagined these horrors before leaving – and civilians did suffer battlefield nightmares, as Sinclair’s friends Rebecca West and the poet H.D. have written about – this passage was written after she had been to Belgium. Regardless of the fictional framework then, Sinclair’s visions are all, at some level, real. The sights she is projecting into the future in the passage as unseen are actually, for Sinclair, memories: ‘already seen’.

There is a fundamental instability of narrative authority here, a dislocation of experience and representation that both reflects Sinclair’s ambivalence about how to ‘write’ the war and gestures at her solution. A clue is perhaps indicated in the title, A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, and the opening of the introduction:

This is a ‘Journal of Impressions,’ and it is nothing more […] For many of these impressions I can claim only a psychological accuracy; some were insubstantial to the last degree, and very few were actually set down there and then, on the spot. (i)

There is a degree of uncertainty about what ‘impressionism’ means with regard to written, rather than visual, art, but it is generally taken to refer to the literary technique of Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane and Sinclair’s friend Ford Madox Ford. In its broadest sense, impressionism’s focus is on representing individual perceptions and consciousness rather than the external world.Ford set out his version of impressionism a year before the Journal was published, in 1914, when he described it as:

not a sort of rounded, annotated record of a set of circumstances – it is the record of the recollection in your mind of a set of circumstances that happened ten years ago – or ten minutes. It might even be the impression of the moment – but it is the impression, not the corrected chronicle.6

Literary impressionism is the distillation of momentary thoughts and sensations which replicates as closely as possible the actual processes of the perceiving mind. The subjective ‘moment’ would of course become one of the structuring principles of modernism, but it is also a clear model for the Journal in which Sinclair attempts to recreate her experiences ‘across a temperament’ (1).

Sinclair’s introduction echoes even more closely Ford’s preface to his 1911 impressionistic, semi-autobiographical reminiscence, Ancient Lights:

This book, in short, is full of inaccuracies as to facts, but its accuracy as to impressions is absolute […] I don’t really deal in facts, I have for facts a most profound contempt.7

Both Sinclair and Ford admit a preoccupation with ‘accuracy’ and its ambivalent relation to facts. Yet whereas in Ford’s preface there is a clear conflict between impressionist accuracy and factual accuracy, perceptive and objective reality, Sinclair offers no such simple dichotomy. Ford admits ‘inaccuracies as to facts’ but is at pains to assert the accuracy of his ‘impressions’; Sinclair goes further, renouncing ‘Solid Facts and the Great Events’ (i) before undermining even her impressions, announcing that they have ‘nothing more’ than ‘psychological accuracy’ and emphasising their ‘insubstantial’ nature and the delay in transcription (i-ii). (In another instance of the Journal’s unreliability, she claims she was too busy to keep up with her Day Book, even though the re-telling reverberates with her inactivity and boredom).

Sinclair is clearly adopting – and adapting – Ford’s impressionist style, but in many ways the most pressing question is, why now? Ford had been experimenting with different versions of the technique since the turn of the century; what role does Sinclair’s time at the Front play in her decision to begin using it at this particular moment?

The Journal is a profoundly traumatised book; regardless of how peripheral Sinclair’s role in the corps seems to have been, the intense pain of witnessing such suffering coupled with an awareness of her own superfluity resonates through the narrative. Using Impressionist techniques to render her narrator unreliable, Sinclair detaches and alienates herself from her experiences. The instability of Impressionism, the slippage its emphasis on pure sensory perception allows between real and imagined experience, offers her a space in which to re-live and refract her memories. The ‘spectacle of horrors’ depicted in the Journal – and there are several viscerally descriptive passages of hospitals and wounded men interspersed with complaints about the incessant waiting – can be articulated, but only at a distance and deflected through multiple overlapping paradigms of perception: sight, imagination, memory, fictional reconstruction.

There would be a further four novels by Sinclair, all written between 1915 and 1922, which prominently feature the war. Tasker Jevons (1916), The Romantic (1920) and Anne Severn and the Fieldings (1922) are all variants of the same basic plot: non-combatants with an artistic temperament or occupation going to the Belgian Front with an ambulance corps. The final section of The Tree of Heaven (1917), which stays on the Home Front to follow Dorothea Harrison as a volunteer in London while her brothers report by letter from the front line, is the exception. None of those stories are wholly autobiographical, yet none are wholly fictional either, and all are written in a more recognisably realist style which supports Jay Winter’s claim that the characteristic response in the immediate aftermath was the ‘attempt to interpret the Great War within traditional frames of reference’.8

In its bold move to impressionism, then, the Journal is early testimony to the radically destabilising impact of the war, both for literary form and the human psyche, and this is what gives it such value, as Sinclair had hoped, as ‘a “human document”’ (ii).

                                                                                                                                   

Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: Bodley Head, 1990), p.27.

Raitt, May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian (Oxford: OUP, 2000), p.163.

Sinclair, ‘The War of Liberation: From a Journal’ English Review (May – July 1915): 168-83, 303-14, 468-76.

4  Sinclair, A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (New York: Macmillan, 1915), p.7.

For more information on impressionism see Jesse Matz, Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Max Saunders, ‘Literary Impressionism’ in A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture ed. David Bradshaw and Kevin Dettmar (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp.204-211; and Max Saunders, ‘Literary impressionists (act. c.1895–c.1925)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/96337&gt;

Ford, ‘On Impressionism’ in The Good Soldier (Oxford: OUP, 2012), pp. 197-213 (p.203).

Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections, Being the Memories of a Young Man (London: Chapman & Hall, 1911), xv-xvi.

Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (1995; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.1.

 

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