Sunday 25 May 2014

A FORGOTTEN STAR by Eleanor Updale

Sometimes you only find out about your home town when someone comes to visit. So it was that on Monday I came across this grand, but somewhat neglected,Victorian memorial poking up from behind a tree in Edinburgh.

Unusually for this city (and for most others, I expect) it commemorates a woman. Even more unusually, it honours someone who wrote for children.  

Clearly, Catherine Sinclair (1800-1864) was well known in her day, and yet I had never heard of her.   
What a shame.  It turns out that she was quite something.  
There isn’t much about her on the internet (though I am indebted to the National Library of Scotland’s site on forgotten authors). This may be a picture of her - but the site on which is appears gives no source for it.

All the academic children’s literature sites say Catherine Sinclair was the first author to depict naughtiness in children’s fiction.  Never having read any children’s books from before her time, I am in no position to argue with that, though it's tempting to think that they got the idea from her own preface to her most successful children’s book, Holiday House (first published in 1839). The introduction reads like a critique of 21st century education policy and pushy parents:

The minds of young people are now manufactured like webs of linen, all alike, and nothing left to nature… The most formidable person to meet in society at present is the mother of a promising boy, about nine of ten years old… but, if the axiom be true that “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” it has also been proved by frequent, sometimes by very melancholy experience, that, for minds not yet expanded to maturity, a great deal of learning is more dangerous still, and that in those school-rooms where there has been a society for the suppression of amusement, the mental energies have suffered, as well as the health.

Needless to say, Sinclair’s stories are very much of their time, with lashings of religious moralising, but nevertheless they romp along. Beneath the antique language comes an almost shocking (to today’s sensibility) freedom for her young protagonists, with their easy access to scissors, matches and open windows. The adults are far less monochrome than in some of today’s books. There’s a fearsome childminder, of course, but also benign grown-ups willing to recognise genuine contrition in the young.  

The main purpose of the books is to amuse, but they give young readers a chance to try out transgression in the safe playground of print, and to imagine the consequences for themselves and others. For today’s adult reader they are are a gentle reminder that our immersion in the lives of our children, and our cultivation of prolonged psychological terrors to replace the quick discipline of the Victorian nursery might not necessarily be an unmitigated good.

Among Sinclair's thirty or so books are works for adults, including
Modern Accomplishments, or The March of Intellect, a novel gently satirising the expectations Victorian society had for young ladies of good birth.  

It was an international best seller.  The book’s frequent (and heartfelt) assertions of the importance of religious principles help make way for very entertaining exposures of cant and posturing. As a contemporary critic put it in the Inverness Journal:
...we admire the high tone of moral courage which she has displayed in attacking glaring absurdities, which are deeply injurious in their effects, and are often more easily checked by being thus held up to general observation and to ridicule, than by bitter personalities or by a graver style of rebuke.

The saving grace is Sinclair’s generous understanding of those whose behaviour she criticises.  That’s what makes the books worth reading today. And her writing style is sometimes downright beautiful.   
Here’s a little bit, chosen more or less at random. All you need to know is that after a torrent of misfortunes, Colonel Neville, his wife (Lady Olivia) and their only surviving child are in improving spirits as they travel through the Scottish countryside.  Then their coach overturns.  Neville’s wife is unconscious, and he finds the corpse of his daughter:

...nothing awoke him from a stupor of overwhelming grief, till the sudden remembrance of Lady Olivia’s precarious situation roused up the manly energy of his character.  By a powerful effort he stifled his agony, and reflected how much must be done to screen the worst from her knowledge, till she was prepared for the blow; and in silent but bitter anguish Colonel Neville withdrew from the scene of his misfortune and placed himself beside the couch of his suffering wife, resolved that no tongue but his own should reveal to her the last and greatest of all her bereavements.  Night and day he watched with fervent anxiety beside her pillow fearful lest some imprudent attendant, or some accidental circumstance might prematurely disclose it all, and dreading, yet almost longing for the moment when their tears should be mingled together, and might give vent to the the deep tide of sorrow that had so nearly overpowered him.

As someone who has been reduced to a stupor of overwhelming boredom by the fake nineteenth century prose of the Booker winning The Luminaries, I can only say that it is an absolute joy to read the real thing.

But perhaps the most impressive fact about Catherine Sinclair is what she did with the proceeds of her work. In a city starkly divided between the very rich and the abject poor, she took practical action to improve the lives of the least fortunate around her.  She established a mission school, kitchens where the poor could buy a sustaining meal, and a water fountain for people and animals which stood at the junction of Princes Street and Lothian Road until 1926.
Alas, I can’t show you a picture of that, because the only image on the Internet appears to be in copyright, but you can see it here.

In the face of public protest, the fountain was moved to make way for Trams. Funnily enough, there might be room for it again now. The latest tram works have created a pedestrian refuge on the site.  But the dismantled stones are almost entirely lost. Only the top section survives. It sits rather oddly (and unexplained)  by a cycle path near the Water of Leith. It's not far from a Boys' Brigade centre whose predecessor Catherine Sinclair funded, but there is no indication that those who placed the stone there in the 1980s were aware of the link.

This is how the remains of the fountain top looked on Wednesday.

Back in central Edinburgh, the worn-out inscription on the grand memorial lists Catherine’s good works, but the lettering has eroded almost to the point of illegibility. 

The memorial stands only a few yards from Charlotte Square, where the Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place every year.  It’s at the junction of North Charlotte Street and St Colme Street.  If you’re up for the festival, do take a look - particularly if you are there on August 6th, which will be the 150th anniversary of Catherine Sinclair’s death.  I might pop along with a flower.

Here’s  a possible epitaph for her - in her own words - from the preface to Holiday House:

Those who wish to be remembered for ever in the world -- and it is a very common object of ambition -- will find no monument more permanent than the affectionate remembrance of any children they have treated with kindness...But above all, we never forget those who good-humouredly complied with the constantly recurring petition of all young people in every generation, and in every house -- “Will you tell me a story?”


Ann Turnbull said...

What a lovely post! Thank you, Eleanor. We had a copy of Holiday House at home when I was a child and I loved it and often re-read it. I remember when I first picked it up thinking it looked old-fashioned and might be a bit boring, but it wasn't at all. That excerpt from an adult novel shows her skill and understanding.

Anonymous said...


Clare Mulley said...

What a lovely commemoration of a good woman. I hope you do lay your flower, and it would be wonderful if the Lit Fest took note.

Elspeth Scott said...

I have known (and enjoyed) Catherine Sinclair's children's books since I was a student and did a course in the history of chldren's literature, but I had no idea of her philanthropy. Thank you, and I will go and visit the memorial the next time I am in Edinburgh.