- An Edwardian Turn of Mind: Psychological Realism and Modernist Metaphysics in May Sinclair’s The Divine Fire
Philosophical idealism rarely figures in histories of literary modernism. Aside from Michael Bell’s essay on “The Metaphysics of Modernism,” which observes a coincidence between the arrival of modernism and the “collapse of idealism,” surprisingly little has been written about any potential relationship between late-Victorian transcendental metaphysics and early-twentieth-century literature.1 Stefan Collini has remarked upon how philosophical idealism, by ascribing priority to the mentally constructed nature of all phenomena, was crucial in this period for enacting the shift from a moralized nineteenth-century conception of rational, evolving “character” to a self-realizing mode of twentieth-century subjectivity, “for it was capable of offering a more coherent conceptualization of these aspirations than was readily available in the prevailing philosophical vocabulary.”2 Yet the ways in which philosophical idealism may have aided the conceptualization of literary modernism more broadly are often overlooked in favor of the “underlying legacy of hermeneutic suspicion” bequeathed by Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and others, whose epistemological relativism speaks most enduringly to our current critical prioritization of fragmentation and flux over teleology and transcendence (Bell, “Metaphysics of Modernism,” 10).
Some of the interconnections would, however, be illuminated by the reappraisal of one author whose work, despite the cliché, constitutes a hitherto neglected phase in the early genesis of [End Page 93] modernism. May Sinclair believed art and metaphysics to be inseparable. Sinclair made significant interventions in contemporary philosophical debates with A Defence of Idealism (1917) and The New Idealism (1922), and idealism was a vital intellectual background underpinning both her coinage of the phrase “stream of consciousness” in relation to literary method and the composition of her modernist masterpiece, Mary Olivier (1919).3 This late novel has often been interpreted through the lens of her philosophy as a text imbued with the theories of T. H. Green or, as proposed most recently, Spinoza—but its intrusive philosophical dimension is perhaps one reason for Sinclair’s ongoing marginality in modernist studies.4 Mary Olivier marks the culmination of the decades Sinclair spent working to mediate the interface between the reality of the mind and the possibility of representing it. Her writing career spanned more than thirty years, from 1897 to 1931; to more completely understand her wider influence over that period of time, in particular her importance as a nexus of philosophy and literature, we need to resituate Sinclair in a modernist genealogy which examines her innovation developmentally, from early Edwardian experiments to high modernist success.
Sinclair sought in her Edwardian fiction to integrate a revelatory encounter with idealist Absolute Forms with the incontrovertible material evidence of alternative forms of consciousness being presented by the “new psychology.” For Sinclair, idealism’s impetus for thinking about immaterial and unseen realities led to the intangible and unseen realms of the mind, and a metaphysical Absolute becomes the conduit for her psychologically realist novels to begin to imagine and represent the unconscious. In its triangulation of paradigms—philosophy, psychology, and realism—Sinclair’s fiction evidences how literature both contributed and responded to a wider shift in the construction of early-twentieth-century selfhoods. Her novels are among the first to engage with ideas about both subjectivity and its representation, before Freud was translated into English and exerting a consistent influence on writers. The argument of this article thus runs in parallel with that of George Johnson who, in Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction, has demonstrated the “distortions in histories of psychology” and literary modernism attendant upon the exaggeration of Freud’s impact and concomitant disregard for alternative contemporary conceptualizations of psychology such as psychical research and other second-wave psychological discourses.5 While Johnson focuses on retrieving these “dynamic psychologies,” this article will attempt to supplement our understanding of early modernist theories of consciousness by outlining the simultaneous influence of an idealist philosophical tradition. May Sinclair alighted on “stream of consciousness” in 1918 but before that her language of the mind was fundamentally philosophical; her Edwardian fiction attempts to explore how a philosophy of the mind might become a psychology of the unconscious.
In what follows, I...