The Tree of Heaven

I spent yesterday reading May Sinclair’s The Tree of Heaven. It’s quite an absorbing novel, with an interesting section on the suffragettes. Dorothea, rather obviously speaking for her author, is very keen on the cause, but finds the “vortex of emotion” surrounding the movement distasteful. There are some strong remarks about a Mrs Pankhurst-type autocratic leader; Mrs P’s style made it hard for independently-minded women like Sinclair (or Cicely Hamilton, for that matter) to remain obedient members of the movement. There’s also a fascinating (but too short) section on a group of Vorticist artists and poets at the start of the war, originally striking an anti-war attitude, and then, for various reasons, drifting into the army. It’s much like the milieu of Rose Allatini’s Despised and Rejected, though described from a different political perspective.

For the purposes of my thesis, though, the book was fairly useless, except in a negative way. I’m researching the representation of soldiers in novels of the time. Well, plenty of Sinclair’s characters become soldiers – but then they stop being characters. Beforehand, they were believable complex human beings; when they put on a uniform they just become stereotyped brave chaps who fight and mostly get killed.Sinclair is a novelist who’s good at showing (with a light touch) moral complexity in a range of characters; but like quite a few other novelists of the time, she doesn’t want to think of her soldiers as being morally conflicted. They are just brave and do their duty, so from a novelistic point of view become uninteresting.

This is another of those books that shows the moral uncertainties of peacetime being solved by war, the great reality that swallows up lesser realities. There’s nothing in this novel as silly as the end of Tasker Jevons, but I find it hard to take May Sinclair as seriously as some critics do.

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