May Sinclair (1863-1946) spent her early years in Liverpool, but after her father's shipping business failed, the family moved south, living in genteel poverty in the London suburb of Ilford. Her father died in 1881, and each of her five elder brothers, one by one, died of congenital heart disease, until by 1896 she was her mother's sole support. Desperate to earn money, Sinclair started publishing philosophical poetry in 1886, and her first novel, Audrey Craven, appeared in 1897. It was not until the publication of the bestselling novel The Divine Fire, in 1904, however, that Sinclair actually began to earn an adequate living from writing. Her best-known novels are The Three Sisters (1914), based on the lives of the Brontës, the semiautobiographical Mary Olivier: A Life (1919), and the intense, macabre Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922). Sinclair's mother died in 1901, and Sinclair lived alone, with her maid, for the rest of her life.
Sinclair's life is emblematic of many of the crises and contradictions of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture. Her early loss of religious faith, her turning to German idealist philosophy in search of a secular form of transcendence, her outspoken views on the oppression of women's creativity within marriage, and her enthusiasm for the radical new therapy, psychoanalysis, all demonstrate her intellectual independence and her stubborn refusal to conform. The price she paid for her insistence on the right to think for herself was an emotional isolation that was remarkable even in her own day. When in 1914 war broke out in Europe, Sinclair was eager to participate, hoping that war might provide her with the heightened sensations and sudden intimacies that she had missed in civilian life. This article tells the story of her experiences with an ambulance unit on the Belgian front. An earlier version appeared in Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate, eds., Women's Fiction and the Great War. Professor Raitt acknowledges Sinclair's literary executors, Frank, Peter, and the late Naomi Assinder; Nancy Shawcross, curator of the May Sinclair Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the John Rylands University Library of Manchester; the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; the University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign; and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, for permission to quote from May Sinclair's unpublished letters and manuscripts.|
he outbreak of war in August 1914 radically changed May Sinclair's sense of priorities. Although she continued with her customary activities-writing, sitting on the Board of Management of the newly established Medico-Psychological Clinic, going back and forth between London and her little house in Yorkshire-she felt that the war had irreparably altered both her own consciousness and the world in which she lived. She told Gilbert Murray, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, that she would never write a book like The Three Sisters again: "The War will leave none of us as it found us." It quickly came to represent to her-as to so many others-the possibility of a new and more vivid life, one in which the usual conventions were suspended and one that gave opportunity for close contact with men in vulnerable states. On September 25, 1914, she went out to the front in Belgium with an ambulance unit. Two and a half weeks later, she was ordered to go back to England, ostensibly to collect more funds, and then was told that the unit had no further use for her. Her disappointment and humiliation at being pushed aside-just as she had been during childhood football games with her five elder brothers-was sharp and deeply felt. In the years that followed, she dealt with it by writing repeatedly about the war, publishing an account of her weeks in Belgium in A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (1915) as well as no fewer than six novels that are either set at the front or prominently feature the war in their narratives. Her brief time in action gave her access, for the first time in her life, to a world of violence in which lives were at stake and in which men and women mingled with a new sense of freedom. "Personally," she wrote to editor Arthur Adcock on February 28, 1915, "I feel as if I had never lived, with any intensity, before I went out to [the war] in the autumn."
An eagerness to go out to the war as a way of escaping the boredom and monotony of bourgeois life was common among educated young men in 1914. Rupert Brooke's feeling that it offered him and his peers a chance to turn "as swimmers into cleanness leaping, glad from a world grown old and cold and weary" was echoed by many of his contemporaries. But Sinclair's expression of the same enthusiasm was unusual not only because she was at least twice Brooke's age but also because she was a woman. Ironically, her experiences in Belgium served only to reinforce her sense of herself as superfluous and anachronistic-a holdover from the Victorian age. Sinclair told Katharine Tynan Hinkson that she was delighted with the Irish writer's description in her autobiography of her as a swift runner: "It was because they thought I cd.n't run that the two bravest women in our Field Ambulance Corps refused to let me go with them on an expedition to a battle-field that I'd set my heart on-The hardest luck I'd ever had! If only I were thirty or even twenty years younger I sd. be in Belgium now." In her fiction and nonfiction alike, the war figures both as a climactic and mystical experience of personal autonomy and as a crucial development of the modern world from which she was prematurely and unjustly excluded.
British women, always a multiple and contradictory constituency, as Sinclair knew, disagreed over the war from the start. The suffrage movement, whose militancy in the years immediately preceding the war had, some said, paved the way for public acceptance of a far more destructive project of national violence, definitively split over the issue of whether to support the war efforts of a government that had failed to support its demand for a women's vote. Women could not enlist as soldiers, but they could train as nurses and get out to the war that way. Those who stayed at home often found themselves doing the jobs of the men who had left for the continent. Still others attempted to continue their prewar lives with as little change as possible. Sandra Gilbert has suggested that women were liberated by the widespread absence of men from their domestic and working lives, although she does point out that, as well as their "sexual glee," women felt intense anxiety and guilt at having got what they wanted at the expense of so many men. In spite of the government's efforts to recast the roles of mother, wife, and indeed "woman" in the mold of war, women remained confused and fiercely divided. Almost all of Sinclair's war novels focus on either women's experience or men's observation of women's behavior during the war. For Sinclair, as for her country, the definition of the object "war" entailed the redefinition of the category "woman." This in turn demanded a renewed labor of self-definition, as her sense of her own sexual and spiritual identity was newly inflected by the changes she perceived around her and within herself.
From the first days, Sinclair was outspoken in her support for the war. On September 18, l914, twenty-five writers signed an "Authors' Declaration" in the Times, stating that "Great Britain could not without dishonour have refused to take part in the present war." Among the twenty-five were four women—Sinclair, Jane Ellen Harrison, Flora Annie Steel, and Mary (Mrs. Humphry) Ward. At this stage Sinclair, like many others, saw the war as a form of moral and emotional cleansing, in terms of not just Britain's foreign policy but also social and cultural life within the nation's boundaries. In an unpublished paper titled "Influence of the War on 'Life and Literature,'" she wrote:
For there is no doubt that these [emotional] values were precisely what we were beginning to lose in 'life and literature,' along with Religion, that is to say with our hold on Reality, before the War. Most of us—with the exception of one or two poets—were ceasing to live with any intensity, to believe with any conviction incompatible with comfort, and to feel with any strength and sincerity. Yet we were all quite sincerely 'out for' reality without recognising it when we saw it and without any suspicion of its spiritual nature.
And Reality—naked, shining, intense Reality—more and not less of it, is, I believe, what we are going to get after the War.
This feeling of explosive and cathartic change was summed up in an article Sinclair contributed to the magazine Woman at Home in February 1915. The war, she wrote, "came to us when we needed it most, as an opportune postponement if not the end of our internal dissensions—the struggle between Unionists and Nationalists, between Capital and Labour, between the Suffragettes and the Government, between Man and Woman." In casting the coming of the war this way, she summarily dismisses all the radical confrontations of the prewar period: the struggle for Home Rule in Ireland, the birth of the Labor Party, and the fight for women's suffrage. Framing national and international politics in these terms divorced the war from any wider contexts. Even after reading all of Sinclair's war fiction, the reader barely knows who was fighting whom and certainly is never given any analysis of why or to what end. In order to think of war as she did, as an opportunity for intense, authentic personal experience, it was necessary that she should refuse to consider its significance as a political event. Sinclair, usually so skeptical and resistant, was oddly uncritical of the politics that led up to and framed the conflict. She simply wanted to be part of it.
In spite of her public support for the war, Sinclair was at first unsure about going out to it herself. Within days of England's declaration of war on Germany on August 4, Hector Munro, one of the directors of the Medico-Psychological Clinic, decided to equip an ambulance unit for service at the front, and while he was in Belgium scouting things out, Sinclair was put in charge of organizing financial support for the venture. She wrote to novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes, asking her to use her influence in getting Munro's appeal for funds printed in the national press:
We've got together an Ambulance Motor Corps, equipped, with five men & five women, to go over where they're wanted most, & do whatever is most wanted. We've done it all by our private subscriptions & efforts, but we shall have to make some appeal for more money to take over.
The Times has printed letters from people about whether you sd. wear mourning for heroes or not, it has allowed every noodle in the country to air his or her views, but it found no room for a sane & practical suggestion of mine as to the care of our recruits. . . . Can you help us?
Sinclair did not, at this stage, know that she was to be one of the party. According to her Journal of Impressions in Belgium, Munro challenged her to accompany him not long before the unit was due to leave:
I remember . . . the Sunday evening when the Commandant [Munro] dropped in, after he had come back from Belgium. We were stirring soup over the gas stove in the scullery—you couldn't imagine a more peaceful scene—when he said, "They are bringing up the heavy siege guns from Namur, and there is going to be a terrific bombardment of Antwerp, and I think it will be very interesting for you to see it." I remember replying with passionate sincerity that I would rather die than see it; that if I could nurse the wounded I would face any bombardment you please to name; but to go and look on and make copy out of the sufferings I cannot help—I couldn't and I wouldn't, and that was flat. And I wasn't a journalist any more than I was a trained nurse.
I can still see the form of the Commandant rising up on the other side of the scullery stove, and in his pained, uncomprehending gaze and in the words he utters I imagine a challenge. It is as if he said, "Of course, if you're afraid"—(haven't I told him that I am afraid?).
The gage is thrown down on the scullery floor. I pick it up. And that is why I am here on this singular adventure.
After her initial resistance, Sinclair appears to have given in without much of a struggle. She was already preoccupied with the war, giving half of all her wartime earnings to the war effort and dreaming nightly of "an interminable spectacle of horrors: trunks without heads, heads without trunks, limbs tangled in intestines." She wrote to poet Charlotte Mew in August 1916, "I can't imagine anything more awful than . . . the state of mind that doesn't believe [in the war], & that can imagine that anything that's been thought & written (within the last twenty years, anyhow) more important than the winning of the War!" She was poised to subordinate even her writing to the war effort. In spite of her fear of violence and her worry that she could make no useful contribution, a part of her clearly also saw the war as her last chance for adventure. Already fifty-one, she was too old to train as a member of one of the Voluntary Aid Detachments, or with the Red Cross, and joining Munro's corps was Sinclair's only hope of seeing any action. She had no experience of war and little experience of nursing, other than with her brothers, whose gradual weakening from heart failure hardly prepared her for the kind of mutilations she might see on the Belgian front. Yet, on September 25, 1914, she found herself on the boat to Belgium.
The Munro Ambulance Corps was remarkable for many things, apart from numbering among its members an apparently useless middle-aged woman. Its Commandant, Hector Munro, like many others who wished to put together ambulance and other units, had to jump through many hoops to get the corps to Belgium in the first place. Women in particular were viewed with suspicion: Mrs. St Clair Stobart, who had founded the Women's Convoy Corps in 1907, was not sent out to the Balkan war in 1912 because the British Red Cross refused to accept any women, even those who were already trained, as St Clair Stobart's were, along Royal Army Medical Corps lines. At the beginning of the 1914-18 war, the British War Office was still very resistant to the idea of women in the battle zone. It refused to authorize either the Scottish Women's Hospital Units, founded by Elsie Inglis in 1914, or Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson's Women's Hospital Corps, which went to Paris in September 1914 under the auspices of the French Red Cross. Munro's corps included an unusually large number of women. As the Baroness de T'Serclaes, one of his original recruits, commented, "The founder and leader of the corps, Dr. Hector Munro, was an eccentric Scottish specialist, one of whose primary objects seemed to be leadership of a feminist crusade, for he was far keener on women's rights than most of the women he recruited." When war correspondent Philip Gibbs encountered the Munro Corps shortly after Sinclair had left it, he noticed with surprise the number of women in it: "They did not seem to me at first sight the type of woman to be useful on a battlefield or in a field-hospital. I should have expected them to faint at the sight of blood, and to swoon at the bursting of a shell. Some of them at least were too pretty, I thought, to play about in fields of war among men and horses smashed to pulp. It was only later that I saw their usefulness and marvelled at the spiritual courage of these young women, who seemed not only careless of shell-fire but almost unconscious of its menace, and who, with more nervous strength than that of many men, gave first-aid to the wounded without shuddering at sights of agony which might turn a strong man sick."
It was this sort of attitude that men like Munro and women like the Baroness de T'Serclaes, who later became famous as one of the Heroines of Pervyse, had to face. She describes the astonishment of the other women in the party (including Sinclair) when she and fellow recruit Main Chisholm arrived at Victoria Station in knickerbocker khaki suits: "The others were slightly scandalized—one could see it in their furtive glances . . . it was difficult for these gentle ladies, who wore correct costumes and picture hats, to think there could really be any need for stepping right outside the conventional lines, at all events until they got to the war zone." When, after she left the Munro Corps, she applied for permission to set up an Advanced Dressing Station just behind the front lines, the Baroness was told by the admiral that as a woman she would not "stand the strain." She told him that "because I was a woman I could stand strain and hardship (I nearly asked him if he had ever heard of childbirth)." But all the same, there may have been something in Philip Gibb's comments. Munro, mistrustful of officialdom, did not want trained nurses. He was anxious to attract young women who were adaptable and adventurous. In he end he took only four of his two hundred applicants, and of those four, only one, Mrs. Knocker (who later became the Baroness), was a trained nurse.
Munro was a charismatic leader. Several of the women with whom he worked commented on his comic appearance, his disorganization, and his charm. Baroness de T'Serclaes describes him as "a likeable man and a brilliant impresario, but wonderfully vague in matters of detail, and in appearance the very essence of the absent-minded professor." Impatient with his carelessness, de T'Serclaes left the Munro Corps to set up her own operation in Pervyse soon after Sinclair's departure. Sinclair seems to have been more susceptible to Munro's charms. In an entry in the manuscript version of the journal, which was not included in the printed book, she notes that Munro is "not only a psychologist & psychotherapist, but a 'psychic,' & he has the 'psychic's' uncanny power over certain people (they are generally women)." His invitation to her to come to Belgium with him, over an intimate dinner at her house, clearly flattered her and made her feel that he really wanted her company. But his motives were most likely primarily economic. Since the corps was unable to secure official backing until the last minute (Sinclair notes that they were rejected by the War Office, the Admiralty, and the British, American and French Red Cross), they were in serious need of money, and all the women recruits paid their own way (Baroness de T'Serclaes records that Mairi Chisholm, a fanatical motorcyclist, sold her motorbike to raise funds). There was a further financial emergency even after the corps had finally secured the support of the Belgian legation and was reorganizing itself as a commission of inquiry into the condition of Belgian refugees. In a passage omitted from the published journal, Sinclair notes that "our Treasurer, three days before the Corps had arranged to start for Belgium, had started for America, leaving all our funds safely locked up in his private account at his bank." Munro knew that in January 1914 Sinclair had invested the considerable sum of £500 in the Medico-Psychological Clinic. He knew that she had money; he knew also that she was sympathetic to the idea of women's rights and had written articles and a pamphlet in support of the suffrage movement. He must have imagined that she would be keen to support a feminist venture, not to mention the added incentives of her own excitement about the war and her prior connection with Munro through the clinic. If he could convince her to come to Belgium with him, she would be even more likely to give the unit substantial financial support.
Given this kind of pressure, it is almost certain that May Sinclair made some kind of financial contribution. Habitually self-effacing but eager to help others with loans and gifts, it is not surprising that her published journals do not mention the fact or the degree of her support. But Marie Belloc Lowndes, who was in close touch with Sinclair at the time, suggests in her autobiography that the ambulance corps was originally Sinclair's idea: "There must have been an extraordinarily noble streak in this remarkable writer. . . . She went on writing books, all more or less successful, until the outbreak of the war in 1914. She then, with her savings, started an ambulance, putting in charge of it a brilliant medical man, who, she felt, had not had his chance in life. She must have left this man completely free to select his staff, and herself occupied, in the little party which accompanied him, a post which she called that of "the scribe."
Whether it was Sinclair who first had the idea of putting together an ambulance corps, the fact that it was she who provided the initial funds for its equipment and transport helps to explain her unlikely presence in Belgium during the first weeks of the war. It was unclear even to Sinclair exactly what her role in the corps would be. "They've called me the Secretary and Reporter, which sounds very fine, and I am to keep the accounts (Heaven help them!) and write the Commandant's reports, and toss off articles for the daily papers, to make a little money for the Corps." But, as Sinclair herself notes, she knew nothing of accounting and was not a trained journalist or reporter. In the end, she sent no news reports back to Britain during her brief time in Belgium and spent much of her time unpacking and packing Munro's bags. The Baroness de T'Serclaes did not understand what she was doing there: "She was a very intellectual, highly strung woman who managed to survive only for a few weeks before the horrors of war overcame her and she was sent home. Her functions were not entirely clear: I think she was to act as secretary to Dr. Munro, though she could only have had the effect of making his own confusion slightly worse, and there was an idea that she might help to swell the corps' tiny finances by writing articles for the Press about its work." Sinclair was superfluous not only to the war effort but to the unit to which she
belonged as well. Only money could buy her the proximity to war that she craved, but money could not buy her youth or expertise.
Ezra Pound, 1913.
Portrait by A. L. Coburn.
(Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.)
Because her role was so ill defined, Sinclair spent a lot of time in Belgium doing nothing. She wrote to Ezra Pound a couple of days after she arrived in Ghent: "What I'm suffering from principally at this moment is boredom. . . . it is very boring for the Secretary who sees nothing—nothing at all, & does nothing but sit snug in the Flandria Palace . . . & write reports of actions in wh. secretaries are not called upon to take a part." As the others went out to Alost, Quatrecht, and Zele to retrieve the wounded, periodically coming under fire themselves, Sinclair served dinner to the thousands of Belgian refugees gathered at the Palais des Fêtes and fretted about her hours of inactivity.
Keeping the corps' accounts only takes two hours and a half, even with Belgian and English money mixed, and when I've added the same column of figures ten times up and ten times down, to make certain it's all right (I am no good at accounts, but I know my weakness and guard against it, giving the Corps the benefit of every doubt and making good every deficit out of my private purse). Writing the Day-Book [daily record of events]—perhaps half an hour. The Commandant's correspondence, when he has any, and reporting to the British Red Cross Society, when there is anything to report, another half-hour at the outside; and there you have only three and a half hours employed out of the twenty-four, even if I balanced my accounts every day, and I don't.
On October 1, Sinclair was told she could no longer even work at the Palais des Fêtes in case she introduced infection into the Military Hospital there. Instead, she was put in charge of replacing the soiled linens in the ambulances. In exasperation, she finally told Munro she "might as well be taken prisoner by the Germans . . . since that would, at least, give [her] something to write about." Munro grudgingly agreed to let her go out with one of the ambulances. In spite of his promise, though, he continued to drag his feet. It was not Munro, but one of the official war correspondents, who finally took her out, on October 7, to see the devastation at Baerlaere. Munro did not include her in an ambulance trip until October 8, a week after he had first consented to having her with him.
It was on that day that Sinclair, as she puts it, encountered her "first wounded man." In a small village near Lokeren, she went with two Belgian stretcher-bearers to bring back an injured man from one of the outlying houses. When the stretcher-bearers put down their load to rest, Sinclair impatiently grabbed the poles of their burden stretcher herself. Knowing that she could never carry it, the bearers wearily took up the man once more, and Sinclair followed them back to the ambulance, where she watched Munro dress the soldier's wound. The following day, Sinclair seized her chance again when in the afternoon a new ambulance, sent by the British Red Cross to the Munro Corps, was called out to Melle while all the other corps members were away. In Melle, she watched while five wounded men were treated and loaded into the ambulance. To her disappointment, the village was not shelled while she was in it. On October 10, Munro took her back to Melle, now right on the edge of the German lines, where there were still two German wounded lying in a field within range of the German guns. When Sinclair tried to board the ambulance to go with the others to get the men, she was physically pushed out of the car by the Baroness de T'Serclaes: "Mrs. Torrence [the name Sinclair gives to Mrs. Knocker, later the Baroness], having the advantage of me in weight, height, muscle and position, got up and tried to push me off the step. As she did this she said: 'You can't come. You'll take up the place of a wounded man.'" Sinclair found herself standing in the street as the ambulance roared away. So far, although she had been out with the ambulance twice, she had never been in any danger or taken any central role in the rescue or the care of dying men. The following night she felt even more inept as she struggled to take care of a wounded British soldier in the hospital in Ghent. She was unable to lift him; she disturbed him with her continual coughing; she annoyed the doctors and nurses by summoning them continually. The next morning, she was removed from the case. Her brief career as a nurse was over.
But Sinclair barely had a chance to regret it. Antwerp had fallen to the Germans on October 10, while she sat with the dying man, and German troops were expected to enter Ghent within hours. The corps was ordered to pack its bags and retreat, and in the middle of the night of October 11 they left for Ecloo, halfway between Ghent and Bruges. Sinclair, obsessed with the wounded man she had nursed so unsuccessfully, announced when they arrived at Ecloo that she was returning to Ghent to be with him. When she tried to board a train to Ghent, she had once again to be physically restrained: "The Chaplain, who is abominably strong, put his arms round my waist and pulled me off." Although Sinclair was furious, there was nothing she could do. When the corps arrived in Ostend, they discovered that they had funds for only another few days. "So it was more or less settled amongst us that somebody would have to go over to England the next day and return with funds, and that the supernumerary Secretary was, on the whole, the fittest person for the job." When another woman was temporarily appointed Secretary, Sinclair "saw nothing sinister about this arrangement. . . . It seemed incredible to me that I should not return." But as she saw the cliffs of Dover looming in the distance, she suddenly hated them because they were not the coast of Flanders, "which would be absurd if I were really going back again. / Yes, I must have had a premonition." All too soon she realized that her trip to England was an elaborate trick to get rid of her. She never saw military action again and had to resign herself to "'fluffing' wool for surgical swabs" and writing stories instead of heroically pulling men from the field of battle.
Sinclair's time in Belgium was dominated by her desperate desire to be under fire rescuing the wounded and the equally strong determination of her fellow workers to keep her away from situations in which she would simply be in the way. Sinclair wanted to experience danger because of the extraordinary sensations it provoked in her. She described the feeling in a letter to H. G. Wells: "Danger's different, there's always a fascination about it. But out there there's something more, I've tried to describe it, but I can't, it's an awfully intimate thing, only, at the bad moments, such as they were, it was as near ecstasy as it cd. be. And yet that isn't it, either; really, it's like nothing on earth so much as the approach of the beloved person; there's gladness & desire in it. I've only had it once before & that was when a doctor broke it to me that he was afraid I had cancer—wh. is I suppose the thing one dreads above all possible diseases. I hadn't got it, but for twenty-four hours he (& I) thought that it was so. It's as if life were hiding something, keeping something from you all the time, & at every prospect, no matter what prospect, of breaking through you rejoice."
Descriptions of excitement like this were commonplace in men's writings about the war, but for a woman to express such greed for adventure and for sensation was unusual. The war offered Sinclair a form of sexual, almost mystic, fulfillment that she would have found difficult to experience in any other setting. In the Journal, she describes as an almost orgasmic form of pleasure the feeling of mounting tension as the corps approached Ghent for the first time:
A curious excitement comes to you. I suppose it is excitement, though it doesn't feel like it. You have been drunk, very slightly drunk with the speed of the car. But now you are sober. Your heart beats quietly, steadily, but with a little creeping, mounting thrill in the beat. The sensation is distinctly pleasurable. You say to yourself, "It is coming. Now—or the next minute—perhaps at the end of the road." You have one moment of regret. "After all, it would be a pity if it came too soon, before we'd even begun our job." But the thrill, mounting steadily, overtakes the regret. It is only a little thrill, so far (for you don't really believe that there is any danger), but you can imagine the thing growing, growing steadily, till it becomes ecstasy. Not that you imagine anything at the moment. At the moment you are no longer an observing, reflecting being; you have ceased to be aware of yourself; you exist only in that quiet, steady thrill that is so unlike any excitement that you have ever known.
Sinclair's anxiety to go with the others into battle zones grows out of her appetite for this sensation, a sensation that engages both mortality and sexuality. Her description here suggests that the battlefield is a place where bodies become known not only in their vulnerability but also in their strength and their capacity for stimulation. Presumably she hoped that in Belgium everything would fall into place around her new sense of "superior reality." Certainly this happens for a number of her characters. "Khaki", for example, in the story of that name, redeems his absurd life by enlisting in the Boer War and proving that, as his friend puts it, he was "in love with danger." In "Red Tape," a story Sinclair wrote shortly after she returned to England in 1914, the central character believes (wrongly, it turns out) that the man she is in love with has enlisted and fantasizes about the war as "one immense, encompassing sheet of shells and bullets that converged on Mr. Starkey in the middle of it. It was there, in the middle of it, that she desired to be." In imagining her own body at the center of the war's violence, Sinclair hoped that it would also be at the center of a field of sexual energy.
But the female body has a complex relation to this fantasy and to this sexualized war aesthetic. The broken, decomposed bodies of the trenches are all male. It was hard for women to put their own bodies at the symbolic center of the conflict, as Sinclair appears to have wanted. In many of her novels, and in the Journal, a sexualized relation to a soldier or doctor at the front mediates the vexed relationship of women's bodies to the conflict. Heteroerotic relations—whether they are between a nurse and a patient or between lovers—become entangled, in Sinclair's work, with women's desire to take part in the war. For example, in Tasker Jevons: The Real Story, the first novel Sinclair published after returning from the war, Jevons's wife Viola insists on training as a nurse and following him out to the front, much to his annoyance. "They're [women] all trying. You should just see the bitches—tumbling, and wriggling and scrabbling with their claws and crawling on their stomachs to get to the front—tearing each other's eyes out to get there first." It is unclear whether the novel's sympathies lie with Viola's desire to be with her husband or with her husband's irritation at her presence. Jevons's biography is modeled very closely on Sinclair's: the dates of his time at the front are almost identical to hers, like her he is too old to enlist, like her he finds that although no one will support his scheme to command his own ambulance unit, people are keen to use his money, and his fame as a writer to support their own schemes. There is some sympathy, too, in the novel's account of the narrator's sexual confusion: "I was a man and I should have been thinking of those men; and here I was, compelled against my conscience and my will to think of this woman."
Yet Viola, the wife who so annoys him, also recalls Sinclair. Excised passages from Sinclair's journal imply that she was sexually attracted to Munro and followed him out to the war just as Viola followed Jevons. Sinclair felt that she had come to Belgium at Munro's invitation and was then jealous and humiliated when it became clear that he preferred to work with the younger women in the unit. When Sinclair saw Munro going out in an ambulance with one of the young women recruits, she was, in her words, "absurd enough to feel the tight, agonising grip of pain, such as a creature might feel if it found itself betrayed." Munro's indifference to her once they actually arrived in Belgium undermined her fantasy that, through him, she would experience the war at firsthand, both materially, as a nurse, and symbolically, as the lover of someone whose body was continually under fire. In fact he—with the support of the Baroness de T'Serclaes—did his best to keep her away from the battlefields. His apparent lack of concern about her plight only intensified her frustration. In an unpublished passage she wrote, "It has turned out exactly as I thought it would when I told the Commandant that I sd. be no earthly use to him or his ambulance." Even in the published Journal, she wrote that she felt like a "large and useless parcel which the Commandant had brought with him in sheer absence of mind, and was now anxious to lose or otherwise get rid of." In a passage partly omitted from the published Journal, she describes accusing him of encouraging flirtatious behavior among the recruits (passages that were excluded from the published version are in italics):
And as no young woman of modern times is going to let herself be outdone by young Haynes [an ambulance driver], you must expect to find Ursula Dearmer [Mairi Chisholm] in the middle of the road [exposed to shell-fire] too. You cannot suppress this competitive heroism of young people. The roots strike too deep down in human nature. They are bound up with the primordial instinct of flirtation. (The Commandant intimates, with every appearance of outraged dignity, that this is an instinct wh. so far as he is concerned has no existence. I go on relentlessly.) All the same it exists, & no psychologist or psychotherapist can afford to ignore it. But (I have led up gently to my point) for our present purposes we may. In the modern young man and woman competitive heroism has completely forgotten its origin and is now an end in itself. Heaven bless you, they mean nothing by it. (The Commandant is slightly pacified.) But if you don't happen to like it you must not take any more mixed pic-nic parties to Termonde, that is all.
Unable to accuse him directly of seducing her into following him out to Belgium and then abandoning her, she displaces her indignation into a picture of desire run rampant in the group he is charged with leading. As Marie Belloc Lowndes writes of Munro's refusal to allow Sinclair to return to Belgium: "Though I do not think she was in love with him, this treacherous conduct on his part in a sense broke her heart."
The Journal and passages from Sinclair's 1922 novel Anne Severn and the Fieldings suggest that her jealousy fastened on the Baroness de T'Serclaes as the woman who had displaced her in Munro's affections. The baroness was clearly impatient with Sinclair, and, as we have seen, it was the baroness, not Munro, who pushed her off the ambulance in Melle as it left to pick up wounded men. In Anne Severn, the baroness is reconstructed as a jealous and manipulative woman who has the commandant at her beck and call. Anne is edged out of the ambulance corps in which she has distinguished herself by her heroism by her adoptive sister-in-law, Queenie, who is afraid of being shown up by her. A letter from one of the drivers tells Anne: "We're all furious here at the way you've been treated. I've resigned as a protest. . . . Queenie doesn't want you about when the War medals are handed round. Everybody sees that but old Cutler [the commandant]. He's too much gone on her to see anything. She can twist him round and round and tie him up in knots." It may be that Sinclair was jealous of Munro's reliance on—and possible attraction to—the baroness, who was after all the only properly trained member of the unit, and that it was easier for her to criticize the Baroness than Munro, who had after all been a close friend. In Anne Severn, Sinclair reworked the story of her own abrupt expulsion from the corps into a tale of sordid jealousies and betrayals. She even allowed the "secretary" to make a cameo appearance: "We picked up two more stretcher-bearers in Ostend and a queer little middle-aged lady out for a job at the front. Cutler took her on as a sort of secretary. At first Queenie was so frantic that she wouldn't speak to her, and swore she'd make the Corps too hot to hold her. But when she found that the little lady wasn't for the danger zone and only proposed to cook and keep our accounts for us, she calmed down and was quite decent. Then the other day Miss Mullins came and told us that a bit of shell had chipped off the corner of her kitchen. The poor old thing was ever so proud and pleased about it, and Queenie snubbed her frightfully, and said she wasn't in any danger at all, and asked her how she'd enjoy it if she was out all day under fire, like us." Giving some elements of her own story to Miss Mullins, and others to Anne, Sinclair revised her own experiences and rewrote her own role as both harmlessly altruistic and recklessly brave. Even she knew that, however unjust her dismissal had been, her activities in Belgium had fallen far short of heroic. But it must have comforted her to write an alternative version of her tale of embarrassment and humiliation.