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  • Catherine Sinclair, Domestic Community, and the Catholic Imagination
  • Timothy C. Baker

Visitors to Edinburgh who have gone slightly astray might find themselves walking past a surprisingly large monument to the writer and philanthropist Catherine Sinclair at the corner of Queen Street and North Charlotte Street, originally erected in the late 1860s. Should they stop to read it, they will discover:

She was the friend of all children and through her book “Holiday House” speaks to them still. Beside success through her books many and popular, she endeared herself first in her philanthropic work.

Her Volunteer Brigade for the boys of the Leith was the first of its kind. She initiated cooking depots for working men and erected the first drinking fountain in Edinburgh. Her hall for lectures and her work amongst the cabmen endeared her name to different sections of her fellow citizens.

Curiously, this was not the only monument to Sinclair in the city center. The Sinclair Fountain stood at the intersection of Lothian Road and Princes Street from 1859–1926, when it was pulled down at the behest of the Tramway subcommittee. The fountain was reinstalled, half-buried, at Steadfastgate in Leith in 1983 to mark the centenary of the Boys’ Brigade. For the monument-makers, Sinclair’s fame rests on a combination of civic and literary achievement; curiously, however, her widely successful novels for adults are nowhere mentioned.

Sinclair’s literary fame has lasted about as well as her monuments. She is mentioned briefly in several surveys of Scottish literature: in J. H. Millar’s Literary History of Scotland (1903), for instance, she is accorded five sentences. [End Page 143] Millar praises the ability of her early novels Modern Accomplishments (1836) and Modern Flirtations (1841) to “rally the fashions of their hour with a great deal of vivacity,” and terms Holiday House (1839) “one of the very best children’s books ever written,” although he laments her “tendency to moralise and preach” (619). Douglas Gifford’s volume of the Aberdeen History of Scottish Literature (1988) limits discussion of her work as “improver-satirist” to five words (237). While Holiday House continues to be an object of critical attention, Sinclair’s other work, comprising fiction for children and adults as well as works of history, travel writing, and theology, is considered almost nowhere else.1 Moira Burgess’s contribution to A History of Scottish Women’s Writing (1997), discussing two of the adult novels as well as Holiday House, is at three pages the only modern critical evaluation available.

Sinclair’s work deserves further reconsideration on several fronts, however. Sinclair is notable firstly for writing in a period between the death of Walter Scott and the first publications of Margaret Oliphant when the novel is assumed to have almost no practitioners in Scotland, and secondly for her novels’ emphasis on the conversation of educated women. Sinclair stands in sharp contrast to what Ian Duncan, among others, notes as the “relative weakness of the feminine tradition of domestic fiction in Scotland” (43), wherein the net rise in novel production in the decade up to 1825 is accompanied by a corresponding decline in female authorship. Sinclair makes full use of a Scottish domestic literary tradition; her novels are often heavily indebted to Susan Ferrier, Mary Brunton, Grace Kennedy, Charlotte Bury, and others. Like many of these authors, and often to a greater extent, Sinclair emphasises the civic and religious responsibility of the novelist. Sinclair’s early novels combine a relatively rigorous approach to realism with moral didacticism; the balance she attempts to achieve between these is uncommon among her contemporaries.

In both the prefaces to her adult novels and the fiction itself, Sinclair charts a complicated set of arguments concerning the moral and religious value of education generally and fiction more specifically. In this respect, she is indebted to her predecessors Elizabeth Hamilton and Hannah More, but she also deviates from them in her occasional praise for novels as entertainment. Hamilton argues in her Popular Essays that education is the cultivation of moral and intellectual faculties in order “to render the individual capable of fulfilling his religious and relative or social duties;” as such, it is as much the province...


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