“The dead face”: A process of haunted recognition in May Sinclair

I lift the white sheet

And uncover the dead face,

White among the white roses, the white lilies,

Her face is more living than when it was alive,

No longer the blank, soft mask of wool,

But firm and clear,

With a stern, sad beauty,

Beauty of one who knows

Who has looked on at the passing

Of all things that she loved;

That is the face she must have had long ago.

The Dark Night (1924), p. 40

 

“[May] Sinclair is the portrait painter,” writes New York Times columnist, Percy A. Hutchison in a 1924 review of her collection of poetry, The Dark Night (1924). Later he expands the metaphor, describing Sinclair’s poetry as “a story on the screen”: “Miss Sinclair’s” portraiture is closer to cinematic “close-ups”’ that represent “the mind and the soul, not [the] face,” he writes.[1] Sinclair is the cinematographer, then. And her practice is formed around a contradiction. For how can one create a portrait that does not represent the face? How too can a close-up negate the face at its centre?

What we see in Hutchison’s divided metaphor is an attempt to name the play of objectivity and subjectivity that does not negate the face in Sinclair’s writing but rather centres its obstruction. Hutchison appears sensitive to the ways in which “the face” functions in Sinclair’s work to problematise subjectivity. The analysis essay that follows here locates this effect in representations of dead faces in Sinclair’s writing. In death, the process of facial recognition is defamiliarized in ways that prove complementary to the Gothic character of Sinclair’s aesthetic preoccupations. Representations of the face in death in Sinclair’s Imagist verse novel, The Dark Night (1924) and her short stories “The Intercessor” (1911) and “Where their Fire is not Quenched” (1923) are a haunting evocation of an absent subjectivity that Sinclair uses to connect her aesthetic interests with an affective experience indebted to the Gothic genre. 

Sinclair’s work has often been considered indebted to the Gothic genre. In her representations of ghosts and ghostliness, Luke Thurston sees a prime example of the “haunting interval” between Victorian Gothic convention and “the modernist moment.”[2] Her Gothicism, according to Claire Drewery, is “insufficiently explained by the categories of ‘ghost story’ or ‘horror fiction’”, and even the category of the Gothic itself. “‘[U]ncanny story,”’ Drewery proposes, is a more “appropriate” moniker.[3] Indeed, as this label suggests, Sinclair’s version of the Gothic is psychological in nature. Much like many modernist writers of the period, Sinclair’s writing draws on the genre to interrogate and destabilise the idea of a coherent subject in a manner that provokes what can be described as an “uncanny” affect: a “disturbance…of Being itself.”[4] The face, or more specifically encounters with facelessness, are key to the way Sinclair achieves this effect and so revises Gothic convention. 

In Affective Disfigurations: Faceless Encounters between Literary Modernism and the Great War (2019), Tomáš Jirsa considers the affective, and aesthetic potential of moments “when the face is no longer a guarantee of identity.”[5]What happens when a human face begins to lose its familiar form, falls apart, becomes an uncanny, formless object?” is an important question to understanding the affective function of representations of facelessness in literary modernism.[6] The face, recalling the work of Silvan Tomkins, is considered the “primary site of affects.”[7] When this site is compromised, or defamiliarized, the effect is itself affecting in character. This affective dimension is contingent on a presumption that the face is representation of self, or as Jirsa notes, “an alleged sign of interiority.”[8] Philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas famously described the encounter with another’s face as the origin of identity with his conception of “rapport de face à face.”[9] May Sinclair was an avid reader of Freud, Jung and Herbart, among others. As such, she boasts a psychoanalysts’ interest in interiority and a particular sensitivity to these ontological stakes.[10]

When Elizabeth uncovers “the dead face” of her grandmother beneath a white sheet in Sinclair’s The Dark Night (1924), she is initially struck by its expressionless beauty. It is “firm and clear”, she describes, “white among the white roses, the white lilies”. The face shares the object-status of these surrounding elements. The uniformity of these images continues the anonymity already stressed by Elizabeth’s refusal to name the face as her grandmother’s. It begins as “the dead face”, indistinguishable in character from the objects around it; themselves symbols of death.

Previously, Elizabeth had lamented her grandmother’s inscrutability. “What goes on behind the mask of white wool, /Behind the filmed eyes?” she laments. Her “mask of white wool” offers an interpretative challenge that energises Sinclair’s verse. Elizabeth responds to her grandmother’s inscrutable countenance with speculation: “I wonder whether she was really thinking about / God or whether she has been asleep all the time.” An inscrutable face represents the unknowability of her grandmother’s consciousness and so bears the mark, or is furnished by, the language of a familiar aesthetic challenge; the un-representable nature of subjective thought. If it is an aesthetic pursuit to read a facial expression as a representation of personhood, then failing to do so names an aesthetic limitation. Elizabeth’s inability to align her grandmother’s facial expressions with her subjectivity with any surety finds a metafictive complement in the aesthetic limitations of representing her subjecthood in the first place.

The speaker of The Dark Night is initially omnipresent. As such, it begins by giving us access into the Grandmother’s psyche in a way that is withheld from Elizabeth. “[S]he is thinking about what there / will be for dinner”, we read while Elizabeth wonders if she is thinking of God. There is a humorous irony to the quotidian focus of these thoughts, emphasised by sudden line break. Such a jovial tone endears the reader to the Grandmother. When she dies, we are sensitive to the absence of her voice within the text. Her death has formal implications that we are privy to.

In death, Elizabeth is able to construct her grandmother’s subjectivity without limitation. The white of her dead face is akin to a canvas Elizabeth paints with a version of her grandmother she can name without the aesthetic self-consciousness that previously marred her efforts. Her hesitation to read her grandmother’s emotional state in her face is quickly resolved by a confident declaration that it is “stern, sad”, and beautiful. The face is an object to be read. Or rather, as a passive object, it offers the opportunity for meaning to be assigned, rather than interpreted. Her face is a “firm and clear” symbol placed, indiscriminately, beside “white roses, white lilies.” Therein, the face adopts a meaning according to Elizabeth’s interpretation. In fact, Elizabeth can assign the face its symbol-status in the same way she stamps on it an expression that resolves her grandmother’s “blank” inscrutability. These expressions suddenly exist cleaved from the subjectivity that we had been given access to earlier.

The comprehension afforded to Elizabeth posthumously resolves the apparent erasure of the grandmother’s selfhood as a result of her dementia. When in a state of confusion before her death, she sees ghostly “faces that look at her.” Her response is to hide her face in Elizabeth’s arms in fear. There is fear in seeing as well as being seen that centres processes of facial recognition here. In effect, the process of recognition adopts high affective stakes, as if having one’s expression interpreted poses a threat to one’s selfhood, or at least presumes a certain vulnerability in the perceived subject.

If there is a Gothic dimension to Elizabeth’s ghostly post-mortem evaluation it is one that is not, as one might expect, to be found in the cadaver but rather in the process by which Elizabeth reads its lifeless face. In effect, Elizabeth is writing her Grandmother’s haunting. The spectral existence of “the face she must have had long ago” depends on a performance of subjectivity that Elizabeth curates. In death, the face becomes a haunting reminder of an absent subjectivity. Elizabeth does not resolve this absence, but rather stages its resolution in ways that are characterised by their failure. Subjectivity is falsified like the painting of a portrait, or the snapshot of a camera that denies the reality of personhood even as it appears to capture it. There is an inner-life behind the facial expression that haunts the image, and moreover, how we presume (or attempt) to interpret it. “[T]he dead face” remains unnamed, and the Grandmother’s “blank” and “white” countenance is symbolically compromised by a “black funeral” that ultimately confirms Elizabeth’s failure to evoke a subjectivity in death that she never knew in life.[11]

Soon after, Cicely, a friend of Elizabeth’s, dies and a haunting image is once again constructed out of a process of facial recognition. Elizabeth imagines Cicely’s face frozen in its final expression: “The arched eyebrows /Above the shut lids, /The eyebrows and the half-open mouth show / an innocent surprise”. Vivisected into its constitutive parts, the reading is clinical, detached. The atomized expression of “innocent surprise” is morbidly quotidian.[12] Cicely is subject to a process of recognition that seems disinterested in identifying her self but rather prioritizes representing emotional expression as if it were a sign cleaved from the subject expressing it.

In her writing, Sinclair destabilises presumptions of ontological stability. As Victoria Margree argues in “Haunted Modernity in the Uncanny Stories of May Sinclair, Eleanor Scott and Violet Hunt’” (2019), “ghostliness is a trope for identity” for Sinclair.[13] The face, then, functions in her representations of ghostly encounters to centre identity and simultaneously problematize it. Like Elizabeth’s dead Grandmother, selfhood can only be read in the cadaver’s face at the expense of true subjectivity. “The mind and soul”, to return to Hutchison’s review, one finds in an encounter with a corpse’s face, or the face of a haunting ghost, is familiar enough to enable recognition. Yet, once this process begins, it is immediately furnished by a process of defamiliarization – of uncanniness – that Sinclair furnishes with the affective stakes of Gothic horror. If, as Claire Drewery argues, Sinclair’s writing interrogates “liminal states”, then one such state is that between recognizing something familiar in the face of the dead, and the terrifying de-familiarity that inevitability results from such a form of recognition.[14]

In the spring of 1911, Sinclair wrote “The Intercessor.” At the same time, she is writing a biography of the Brontë sisters entitled The Three Brontë’s (1912) that opens not “eighteen months” after their “mother sickened and died horribly of cancer.”[15] The room where she died became the sisters’ study and Sinclair writes with a figurative flourish that masks a macabre curiosity of “a dreadful vision” of “the six pale little faces, pressed together, looking out of the window on to the graves below” where their mother is buried in Haworth Parsonage. Set in Yorkshire, “The Intercessor”, writes S.T. Joshi, is clearly “influenced by Sinclair’s work on the Brontë’s.”[16] 

Freed of the brevity required of A Dark Night’s Imagist poetics, Sinclair luxuriates in these atmospheric asides and figurative flourishes. It is a short story that “conflates Henry James with a retelling of Wuthering Heights,” writes David Seed; a Gothic novel that feels as if it has been condensed to fit within a short form piece. It follows Garvin as he visits the home of a rural couple who have recently suffered the death of a young child.[17] Garvin is soon haunted by the deceased child in ways that centre facial recognition. In a moment that resembles Elizabeth’s frightened grandmother – and, moreover, the “little faces” of the Bronte sisters pressed against a window in Haworth Parsonage the apparition buries “its face…against his side”. Thus “hidden,” it is only recognisable as a child via its “sobbing above his heart.” When the ghostly child returns, its face is once again obscured. Though its face appears “small…shrunken and so bleached” as to make “its features…indistinct to him,” Garvin is still able to name “the look it had”. It is a “look…thinkable only as a cry, an agony, made visible.” Recognition pivots from the child’s subjecthood to its emotional state. Its face is not treated as testament to an identity that Garvin must name or interpret his features remain “indistinct to him” after all. Instead, recognition is drawn along affective lines, with a “look” referring to an expression of feeling. Sinclair’s descriptions prioritise a visualisation that is not determined by, nor contingent on, the subject who is feeling it. As the story continues, the child’s face continues to be obscured “Garvin could not see its face now”, “its face [was] hidden against its side” but its ability to betray, and elicit, feeling remains “distinct,” identifiable.[18] Sinclair consequently prioritises a mode of recognition characterised by intersubjective affect and not comprehension. The “look” haunts these indistinct features with an emotion it can no longer express conventionally. Garvin’s recognition, then, is an acknowledgement of a form of expression that has a spectral relationship to the face.

Almost ten years after “The Intercessor” appeared in the July 1911 issue of English Review and Sinclair’s most well-known short story, ‘Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched’ continued her interest in moribund faces.[19] Appearing in her first short story collection, Uncanny Stories (1923) it follows Harriot Leigh as she struggles to end an adulterous relationship. When her ex-lover returns from the dead part way through the story, Harriott is understandably frightened. Yet, despite noticing the chest of a supposedly dead man “rise and fall”, it is the “dead face” that she fixates on. “The mouth opened”, she observes, “the eyes opened” and “the whole face stared back…in a look of agony and horror.”[20] What is fearful about the returned ex-lover is not only his ghostliness, but the ways in which his subjectivity appears to exist uncannily separate from his face. It is a “dead face” made up of constitutive parts — an “open mouth”, open “eyes” — and not one serving the ontological purpose of expression, or one connected to selfhood. The “agony and fear” expressed is, terrifyingly, without clear cause and, relatedly, without the subjective anchor around which such an expression is usually interpreted. Instead, the face serves a purely physiological, mechanical and affective function and the “whole face” is able to “stare back,”  to transmit “warmth,” to evoke “fear” rather than express a self. In this way, individual — and individualised — “features” become “indistinct” and Sinclair’s interest in deploying instances of facial recognition to interweave Gothic affect and modernist formalism is evidenced once again.

Meanwhile, illustrations by Jean De Bosschere pepper Sinclair’s story with subjects shrouded in shadowy silhouette. Bosschere, a Belgian writer and painter, was described by Sinclair in her introduction to his 1917 collection of essays, The closed door, as “hold[ing] up his glass at an unexpected angle and show[ing] you a surprising image of the world, a disconcerting image of your own face.”[21] The poses he favours in the artworks he creates for Sinclair’s Uncanny Stories – an over the shoulder backward gaze, an expression obstructed by a window, or cheekbones shaded in dark lines of shadow – complements Sinclair’s writing for which the face is described in various states of obstruction or partiality.

One such artwork (figure 1) appears in ‘If the dead knew’, a story that follows Hollyer, a man “long under the financial and emotional influence of his mother”. Upon her death, Hollyer is haunted by the possibility that “he had caused his mother’s death by wishing it”.[22] When an apparition does appear, its proximity to resembling his mother exacerbates his fear: “Its face was an insubstantial framework for its mouth and eyes, and for the tears that fell in two shining tracks between. It was less a form than a visible emotion, an anguish.” Once again Sinclair cleaves an affective state from the expressions through which one normally recognises it. Subjectivity must be intuited. The usual process of signification is replaced by an occult-like communing. Here, the face serves as a comparison point, representing a conventional process of signification upheaved by the formless countenance. “[A] visible emotion, an anguish” is separated from the face altogether, while the face itself proves insubstantial, unreadable, impressionistic. Bosschere’s artwork makes Hollyer’s face a pale eyesore amid a contrastingly dark background. His body is obscured in shadow, making his face appear disembodied. In effect his face is more spectral than the figure which he watches in horror. Simultaneously, the viewer’s eye line is destabilised. The salient image – the subject of Hollyer’s horror-struck gaze – is an impressionistic rendering of the uncanny apparition that ultimately denies the viewer the logical end point to the sightline which Hollyer’s posture encourages.

If we consider the “close-ups” that centre the defamiliarized face of a dead Grandmother in May Sinclair’s A Dark Night, the portraits by Jean De Bosschere that populate the pages of her Uncanny Stories with faces shrouded in shadow, or the morbid curiosities that make up The Three Brontës, we see the relationship between encounters with the face and Sinclair’s revisionist treatment of Gothic form. If Sinclair is a “portrait painter” according to Hutchison then her portraits centre a face that is terrifying in its ontological instability. Her characters fear the inscrutability of faces haunted by the subjectivity they are assumed to represent. An extreme close-up on an eye, a tooth or an eyebrow is only ever proximal to the human, offering an uncanny reminder of an inhuman face one fears recognizing.

 


Guy Webster is an academic and critic living on unceded Wurundjeri land. They are currently finishing their doctorate at the University of Melbourne on conceptions of fear in early 20th century modernism. Their work has been published by Textual Practice, Cambridge Quarterly, Australian Book Review and The Conversation.


 

References

  1. Percy A. Hutchison.  “May Sinclair Experiments With Souls and Poetry.” The New York Times, June 1, 1924, sec. Archives.

  2. Luke Thurston. Literary Ghosts from the Victorians to Modernism: The Haunting Interval. Routledge, 2012. p.6

  3. Claire Drewery. Modernist Short Fiction by Women: The Liminal in Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair and Virginia Woolf. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013., p. 36.

  4. Thurston, Literary Ghosts from the Victorians to Modernism: The Haunting Interval.

  5. Tomáš Jirsa. Affective Disfigurations: Faceless Encounters between Literary Modernism and the Great War. Brill, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004397712_008. p. 122.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., in Tomkin’s final public lecture, “Inverse Archaeology,” which he delivered at Rutgers, July 15 1990, he describes the skin, and relatedly the face as “the site of exquisitely sensitive receptors on the surface of the skin, whether we’re talking about drives or pain or affects or whatever.”

  8. Ibid., 123.

  9. Emmanuel Lévinas. Existence and Existents. Duquesne University Press, 2001.

  10. In “Haunted Modernity in the Uncanny Stories of May Sinclair, Eleanor Scott and Violet Hunt,” Margree Victoria rightly characterises Sinclair with a “fascination with the fields of psychical research and psychoanalytic theory.” In British Women’s Short Supernatural Fiction, 1860–1930: Our Own Ghostliness, edited by Victoria Margree, 147–92. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-27142-8_5 Likewise, in G. Johnson’s Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction (2005), Sinclair is singled out as being most ‘notably’ influenced by the work of philosopher-psychologist, J.F. Herbart (p. 18). 

  11. May Sinclair. The Dark Night. Macmillan, 1924. p. 40.

  12. Ibid., 75.

  13. Victoria Margree. “Haunted Modernity in the Uncanny Stories of May Sinclair, Eleanor Scott and Violet Hunt.” In British Women’s Short Supernatural Fiction, 1860–1930: Our Own Ghostliness, edited by Victoria Margree, 147–92. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-27142-8_5.

  14. Drewery. 

  15. May Sinclair. The Three Brontës. Read Books Ltd, 2018.

  16. May Sinclair and S. T. Joshi. If the Dead Knew: The Weird Fiction of May Sinclair. Hippocampus Press, 2020.

  17. David Seed. “‘“Psychical” Cases: Transformations of the Supernatural in Virginia Woolf and May Sinclair.’” In Gothic Modernisms. Springer, 2001. p. 46

  18. May Sinclair. “The Intercessor.” In If the Dead Knew: The Weird Fiction of May Sinclair, 17–61. Hippocampus Press, n.d. p. 44, 45.

  19. Sinclair and Joshi, 9.

  20. Ibid., 175. 

  21. Bosschere, Jean de, F. S. (Frank Stewart) Flint, and May Sinclair. The Closed Door. London : John Lane, 1917. http://archive.org/details/closeddoor00bossiala. p. 3.

  22. Sinclair and Joshi, 211.