5 July 2023


May Sinclair. The Flaw in the Crystal and Other Uncanny Tales. Edited by Mike Ashley. British Library 2023.

May Sinclair (1863 – 1946) was the pseudonym of Mary Amelia St. Clair. She wrote two dozen novels, short stories, philosophy and poetry. Her supernatural fiction is a small but impressive body of work. Sinclair was influenced by the writings of Freud and psycho-analysis in general. She was a supporter of the Medico Psychological Clinic in London. 
A well known writer in the 1920’s, on social terms with Ezra Pound, Thomas Hardy and other literary personalities, Sinclair was the first person to use the phrase 'stream of consciousness' for early 20th century British modernism. Virago Press reprinted some of her novels like The Three Sisters (1914) and most notably her acclaimed novella Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922). Now the British Library have published The Flaw in the Crystal a collection of all her weird tales,

I immediately tackled the title story 'The Flaw in the Crystal.' Unfortunately it almost deterred me from reading the rest of the book. At fifty eight pages it’s overlong and dramatically drawn out - a pity for May has considerable descriptive powers. Psychic phenomena; the role of the unconscious and the power of the mind to heal disturbance are explored in a brooding narrative. Sinclair is capable of writing in an ecstatic and intense visionary manner: “It was the same world, flat field for flat field and hill for hill; but radiant, vibrant, and, as it were infinitely transparent.” However such brilliant peaks are arrived at by having had to plough through a ponderous, late Henry James mode of writing: The story’s destructive psychic power becomes a menacing 'it'. Like the puzzle of 'it' in James’s story 'The Figure in the Carpet' this flaw in the crystal cannot finally be grasped. Fine. But the story would have worked better if had been much shorter.

I retreated to the collection’s opening story 'Where Their Fire is Not Quenched.' Its economy, dark humour, sadness and anxiety was completely engaging. Harriet Leigh doesn’t get to marry naval lieutenant George Waring (her first and greatest love who dies at sea). She has to settle for a second or third best – Oscar Wade. She marries him but is not sure if “the heavenly rapture” really arrives. Oscar dies. Harriet is haunted by his ghost. Then she dies. Harriet is reluctantly reunited with her husband. Death proves to be a Sartrian 'No Exit' of hell where you are permanently stuck with other people: the endlessly repeated action of Harriet having lunch with the repellent Oscar at the Hotel San Pierre. This is a terrific and grimly funny story.

May Sinclair [right] displays great skill in exploring the presence of the uncanny in the intimate relations between men and women. This is most apparent in the possessive mother and son relationship, full of guilt and anxiety, to be found in 'If The Dead Knew'; the endlessly quarrelling couple of 'Portrait of My Uncle' and most brilliantly in 'The Intercessor' – the finest story in the collection and one of the greatest ghost stories I’ve ever read.

Obviously influenced by the Bronte sisters and Henry James 'The Intercessor' has the ghost of a nine year old girl desiring help from someone, outside of the family, and unafraid of her presence, to reconcile the child with her mother who, on learning of her husband’s infidelity, severely neglected her daughter Effy. This spectre, crying pathetically in the night, compels Garvin, the writer/boarder of the house, to learn of her accidental death and confront the parents with memories that have emotionally crushed them.

“What really possessed him and remained with him was Effy’s passion. Effy’s passion (for the mother who had not loved her) was the supernatural thing, the possessing, pursuing, unappeasably crying thing that haunted the Falshaws’ house. Effy’s passion was indestructible. It was set free of time and of mortality. He could not detach Effy from her passion and think of her as in a place apart. Where it was there she was also.”

Although concerned with an evil force, that will not rest, Effy’s ‘malice’ is banished; peace and redemption are achieved but at the cost of Mrs Falshaw’s newly dead born second child becoming a necessary sacrifice so as to release the Effy ghost from its acute pain. To outline any more plot detail would spoil too much in a story I found chilling, very moving and beautifully written.

You may find the title story 'The Flaw in the Crystal' not as negatively overwrought as I did. If so read on, for this collection of uncanny tales is special from a special and unfairly neglected writer. I’m eager to discover more of the work of May Sinclair.
  • Alan Price

A TV dramatization of 'The Intercessor', by Alan Plater, broadcast by Granada Television in 1983 in their 'Shades of Darkness' series, can be seen on YouTube. It features Beverley Callard, Maggie Ford and John Duttine, and was directed by Peter Smith.


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