Sinclair’s Books on Philosophy

In search of May Sinclair at the London LibraryIMG_6081

by Charlotte Jones

May Sinclair died on 14 November 1946, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for two decades. Her will, which is now kept at the Kislak Center, University of Pennsylvania, was made on 11 November 1918 when, as Suzanne Raitt writes, ‘Sinclair had a sudden premonition of death’ (265) in fear of the influenza epidemic then sweeping through Europe. It remained unchanged at her death, with the unfortunate effect that many of those she named as legatees had themselves already died. She left the bulk of her (not insubstantial) earnings to her family, while provision was made for old friends and family (restricted to two books each) to partake of her personal library – a gesture Ezra Pound was not shy to capitalise on, claiming according to one source over 300 books! While some beneficiaries were designated particular books and others were left to choose from the remaining stock (see Raitt 265-6), the one thing Sinclair insisted upon was that her philosophical books be presented, intact and en masse, to the London Library.

The London Library, housed in an unassuming neo-classical stone building nestled in a corner of St James’s Square, Mayfair, was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle. It is a subscription public lending library, whose previous members include literary luminaries such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot and William Makepeace Thackeray; Henry James, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. T.S. Eliot was its president from 1952 until 1965. It is not known exactly when Sinclair took out her membership, though it was most likely after early 1897, when Blackwood’s decision to publish Audrey Craven endowed the Sinclairs with a modicum of financial stability and they moved to Primrose Hill, north London. Even when her success from 1905 onwards made buying her own books easier, the London Library’s Victorian wood-panelled reading rooms and endless miles of shelving must have remained an enticing prospect, almost literally on Sinclair’s doorstep during the period she lived in Edwardes Square, Kensington (1907-14).[1]

It is not known who fulfilled Sinclair’s bequest to the Library after her death – whether it was family members or her executors – but the gift is referenced in the Minutes of the Committee of the Library on 14 April 1947 in the following way:

The Secretary reported the bequest by Miss May Sinclair of some philosophical works and the gift of £20 by Mr S. Roscoe on the completion of 25 years membership. The Committee’s thanks were voted.

The Annual Report for 1947 also acknowledges the bequest in a similar way:

The Committee are pleased to report the bequests to the Library by the late Miss E.M. Hackblock of a bookcase and books by the late Miss May Sinclair of Classical works.

As was common practice, the exact items are not detailed any further – this is in no way a comment on Sinclair’s diminished public stature after decades of reclusion (both the BBC and The Times published obituaries and notices of her passing). However, because the books were not itemised upon receipt it has been extraordinarily difficult to trace them in a collection of over one million books.

My starting point was the list of 25 books affixed to Sinclair’s will and headed “Books bequeathed to London Library”, composed in 1919 on the paper of the Albemarle Club. By using this list and comparing it to the London Library’s online catalogue it was possible to prepare a “shortlist” of possible editions on the library’s shelves, based on likely publication dates and other information Sinclair occasionally provides: translator, publisher, and number of volumes. Many pre-1950 books are not registered online, so this was only possible for approximately half of those listed, but by recording the shelfmarks and “Shelved under” information it was then possible to manually sift through the hard copies looking for evidence of Sinclair’s ownership. With success! To date, 5 volumes have been identified and more potentially located (see below for the full list).

The books traced have donation labels on the inside cover stating that they were bequeathed by “Miss M. Sinclair” in 1946, and all have acquisition stamps for April 1947. Most are re-bound, though some retain their original bindings, and most also appear to have formed part of the open stack lending service for their 50+ year residency – precisely the afterlife that Sinclair would have hoped for them, one presumes.

What’s even more exciting for Sinclair scholars are the marginal notes to be found in multiple volumes, some scant, others very detailed. It is of course impossible to date this marginalia, and the books have, as I say, been on general release to London Library members for more than half a century, so it is important not to assume that all the markings are Sinclair’s. However, her handwriting is distinctive and there are noticeable consistencies across the volumes which bode well:

Aside from Sinclair’s distinctive “asterisk” – + with dots in each of the four spaces – which she uses to denote the place in a text where a comment written in the margins above or below should be referred back to, she uses a form of “slashing” that appears to mark a particularly important paragraph or section of text: // on the left hand side of the page, \\ on the right hand side. Single slashes are also used occasionally – perhaps the difference indicates degrees of importance? For the most part these markings are made in pencil, although coloured crayons make rare and distinguished appearances, and comments are sometimes inked in more permanently.

Sinclair makes far too many notes and comments, even in just the 5 volumes I’ve read through so far, to discuss here at any length, but again and again we find examples of her going head-to-head with the philosophical authorities of her day. Turning to p. 159 of F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality, for example, we find his statement that ‘in the Absolute our whole nature must find satisfaction’ underlined, and in the margin alongside it Sinclair writes ‘? the individual might not count in the A.’ Here is etched the concern that dogged her response to both Hegel and the British idealists concerning individual autonomy and the all-encompassing Absolute.

In general, then, these annotations not only provide a fascinating insight into Sinclair’s supreme erudition, but they also trace her nascent understanding of philosophy. One of the most heavily underlined and glossed volumes is W.L. Courtney’s Studies in Philosophy, a survey of philosophical thought from an idealist perspective; Sinclair’s comments evidence a familiarity with the basic tenets of Kantian idealism but she is clearly still developing her own position, enabling us to track more accurately her trajectory from the intellectual shadows of her mentors to the consummate and confident author of A Defence of Idealism (1917) and The New Idealism (1922).

To end on a practical note, the hope is that the online catalogue can shortly be amended to mark the particular copies of these books bequeathed by Sinclair, enabling researchers to use that as a search term. In the meantime, anyone interested can contact me for individual shelfmarks, whether definitely located or likely but as yet unconfirmed. There is unfortunately not much beyond intuition to act as a guide to books Sinclair might have acquired after 1919, or indeed any guarantee that this UPenn list is a comprehensive record of her library pre-1919; tracing these might involve more error than trial. But I hope that subsequent researchers find the discoveries to be made here as fascinating and thrilling as I have!

My thanks go to the London Library’s Archive, Heritage and Development Librarian Helen O’Neill for her invaluable assistance. For London Library access options, see here.

Books located

  • F.H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality. 2nd ed. London: Swan Sonnenschien & Co, 1897.​
  • Bradley, Principles of Logic. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1883.
  • W.L. Courtney, Studies in Philosophy. London: Rivingtons, 1882.
  • T.H. Green, Works [vols 1 & 2; 3 absent]. Ed. R.L. Nettleship. 2nd ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1890.

Books shortlisted

  • T.H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics
  • David Hume, Essays
  • Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft
  • Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft
  • Kant, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft
  • Hermann Lotze, Metaphysic
  • J.S. Mill, Logic
  • F.C.S. Schiller, Riddles of the Sphinx
  • Albert Schwegler, Handbook of the History of Philosophy
  • Spinoza, Works

Books not currently identifiable via the online catalogue

  • George Berkeley, Works (Fraser’s abridged edition)
  • John Locke, On the Understanding
  • Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Wissenschaftslehre. 1 vol.
  • Fichte, Popular Wendletuon (sp?), 2 vols.
  • Hegel, Logik
  • Hegel, Encyclopedia
  • Hegel, Phänomenologie de geistes
  • Hegel, Philosophy of History (translated by Bohn)
  • Schopenhauer, Works. 2 vols.
  • Von Hartmann, Phenomenologie
  • Von Hartmann, Philosophy de Unbedwussten
  • Von Hartmann, Other works (unbound)



Published February 2016.

[1] She certainly appreciated what it offered struggling writers: she gifted lifetime membership to poet Richard Aldington in 1919 after all his books had been sold while he was fighting in the First World War, at the cost of 38 guineas (Boll 120).