The Tree of Heaven, by May Sinclair, tells the story of a middle-class family caught up in the tumult of the early Twentieth Century. Frances Harrison is wife to Anthony and mother to three children, the latter role being an all-consuming concern as she watches them grow. We first find her sitting ‘under the tree that her husband called an ash-tree, and that the people down in her part of the country called a tree of Heaven.’ There is no doubt that Frances’ life is very comfortable – we learn that her childhood had not been particularly happy and that her marriage to Anthony has allowed her to escape the lives her unfortunate sisters endure with their mother – and she is undeniably smug about her good fortune. She pays token interest to the world outside her home, reading The Times in a cursory manner, and ‘her firm, tight little character defended itself against every form or intellectual disturbance.’ Sinclair captures the private obsessive love a mother can feel for her children (although Dorothy doesn’t get quite the same level of adoration as her three brothers) – listening to her husband play tennis one evening with young men from his office whilst she nurses Nicky, Sinclair tells us,
‘She loved every movement of Anthony’s handsome, energetic body; she loved the quick supple bodies of the young men, the tense poise and earnest activity of their adolescence. But it was not Vereker or Parsons or Norris that she loved or that she saw. It was Michael, Nicholas and John whose adolescence was foreshadowed in those athletic forms wearing white flannels; Michael, Nicky and John, in white flannels, playing fiercely.’
However, as her children grow up, Frances is forced to engage with the world beyond her house and garden. Her daughter takes up the call for suffrage, spending time in prison and struggling with the fact that the man she loves wishes her to reject politics. Michael, who strongly fears any situation where he finds his sense of individuality being consumed by ‘the herd’, becomes a poet. Nicky is more gung-ho, happy to forge ahead in whatever circumstance he finds himself. We see less of John, and he remains the ‘baby’ of the family. Later, he and his brothers will reflect three very different attitudes to the inevitability of war, and the second half of the novel begins to focus on the realities of the conflict on families.
In some ways, Sinclair’s novel, written in 1917, feels like a specimen caught in resin, in that it is a voice which does not have the knowledge of eventual universal suffrage, or a full understanding of how the war will eventually be perceived, indeed, that victory is even possible. But she also draws on the idea of the ‘vortex’, the intellectual and political disturbance in the zeitgeist, that will shape and challenge the way the central relationships in the novel work. We feel as though we are on the edge of everything being changed forever, and in that sense it has an energy which makes it feel as though it was written yesterday.
This novel throws up so many ideas – as you can probably tell from the length of this review – but it also the story of a family, and therefore is so familiar and moving in so many ways. It is a brilliant way to start the British Library Women Writers new series of publications. I am very much looking forward to reading the rest.
My thanks to Maria Vassilopoulos at The British Library for my review copy.