Charlotte Mendelson’s 'The Exhibitionist' and the struggle of the Woman Artist
Last month, I read the new bestseller The Exhibitionist by Women’s Prize for Fiction nominee Charlotte Mendelson.
The book features a fading male artist Ray Hanrahan and his first exhibition in a decade, in which he hopes to relaunch his flagging career, together with his family who are gathering for a weekend celebration. Much of the narrative is focalised through Ray’s wife Lucia – a sculptor – and his two daughters, Leah and Jess.
Mendelson’s book cleverly weaves the stories of Ray Hanrahan’s family members, in particular wife Lucia, around the egotistical bully who is ‘the exhibitionist’. The writing is superb and compelling, particularly at the sentence-level, and Mendelson’s structure unique and beguiling.
I did not enjoy reading this book.
Not because of the quality of the writing or the ingenuity of the story, but because it made me enraged from the first page to the last.
Lucia, we are told, is a gifted artist who is finding success in her early fifties, just when her husband’s talent and fame has faded. A former student of Ray’s, he takes any shred of confidence she has and uses it against her, telling her how her current success is sought deliberately to undermine and hurt him.
Daughter Leah, meanwhile, adores her father and runs his life for him, also piling on the blame to her mother for everything that is wrong in the family’s life. Lucia’s son, and step-son to Ray, Patrick, is bullied by his step-father, and is clearly suffering with mental health issues. Only Jess, the couple’s younger daughter, has ‘escaped’, moving to Edinburgh to teach, something which enrages Ray as teaching is amongst one of his other unfathomable irritations, along with (absurdly) recycling and people who attend university. But Jess we understand is not happy with her teacher boyfriend Martyn, who begins to emulate Ray’s behaviour in an attempt to re-create the Hanrahan’s lifestyle, and Jess, afraid to become her mother, is looking for escape.
Lucia, recovering from breast cancer (which we are told was harder on Ray), constantly bows to Ray’s unreasonable demands, turning down artistic opportunities in deference to his rage. Lucia has consistently given up opportunities for the sake of her children and husband (mostly her husband), and is now being criticised for putting her art first and for ‘ruining’ her children and making them all unhappy.
She is, however, discovering a latent passion towards a female MP, with whom she steals stolen moments.
The book reminded me of the often-cited difficulties for women artists who choose to marry and have children.
In Doris Lessing’s seminal 1962 text The Golden Notebook, for example, a complex and interwoven story of McCarthy-era communism, politics, and mental breakdown, the central character is a frustrated single mother artist. Lessing’s novel was praised for its feminist expression of the breakdown ad complexities faced by the woman artist, though Lessing herself denied this as the central theme of the book.
An earlier novel, The Creators written in 1910 by May Sinclair, has been described as part kunstlerroman (a novel depicting the formation of an artist) and part New Woman novel, a form of late nineteenth-century fiction written by women. Typically such novels focused on the complexities of turn-of-the century gender politics, particularly the life of a female protagonist who aspires to emotional, sexual, intellectual, and economic independence. May Sinclair, novelist, poet, philosopher and critic, was credited as being the first person to use the term ‘stream of consciousness’ when reviewing the work of fellow-writer, Dorothy Richardson in her novel Pointed Roofs.
Sinclair’s writing bridged the end of the Victorian and beginning of the Edwardian periods. She lived and wrote through an era of great change in the lives of women.
Both popular and prolific, Sinclair wrote a total of twenty-three novels, thirty-nine short stories, and produced several poetry collections, as well as her critical essays, her work being published in both the nineteenth and early twentieth century. She supported the work of both the Imagist poets and Ezra Pound through her critical writings, as well as the aforementioned Dorothy Richardson, and her philosophical writing involved her in creating pamphlets for the suffrage movement, as well as investigating the newly developing modernist movement, Vorticism and imagism.
Visiting Belgium during WW1 as part of an ambulance unit, she later wrote and published Journal of Impressions in Belgium, one of the first journals of the war written from a female perspective to be published in the UK.
Sinclair had something of a repressive upbringing, living with her alcoholic father and religious, overbearing mother. She attended Cheltenham Ladies’ College for one year only, at the age of 18, studying a staggering amount of varied academic subjects, including philosophy. She had a gift for study, and was encouraged to become a philosopher by head teacher, Dorothea Beale. She was to publish her first philosophical poems and essays in the Cheltenham Ladies’ College Magazine, and Beale was to have an ongoing formative impression on Sinclair, encouraging her in her intellectual aspirations and acting as the younger woman’s mentor.
Following her father’s death, Sinclair moved to North Wales with the family. Despite this, she continued her intellectual study and wrote both poetry and philosophical writings, publishing her first book in 1886, Nakiketas and Other Poems, under the pseudonym of Julian Sinclair.
This time in Sinclair’s life was littered with tragedy: her three brothers died in the space of four years, and she relocated with her mother to South Devon. But she continued to study philosophy and to write. In 1892, she published Essays in Verse and her first prose work in 1893, ‘The Ethical and Religious Import of Idealism’.
Around this time, Sinclair met Anthony Deane and Professor Henry Melvill Gwatkin, both of whom tried to restore her faith in Christianity. It was thought that Sinclair was also in love with Deane, who became her mentor and friend. Deane eventually became romantically involved with someone else, however, and Sinclair moved to London to find work as a teacher and translator, assisting with the family’s increasing financial struggles.
In 1897, Sinclair’s first novel Audrey Craven was published, signifying the start of her rise to a more successful career. Financial hardship was still rife at this time, with Sinclair caring for her mother’s recovery from a heart attack, until her death in 1901. Upon her mother’s death, Sinclair was quoted as saying she found herself suddenly: ‘alone and free’.1
It was in 1904, with the publication of Sinclair’s second novel The Divine Fire, that she was to finally become a famous author. Particularly welcomed in the US, Sinclair embarked on an East Coast tour, meeting many influential writers and thinkers of the day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain. Her success meant that she was finally making money as a writer, allowing her to move into her own apartment in Kensington and live as an independent woman at last. Her financial independence allowed her to engage fully with the women’s suffrage movement, writing letters and pieces for their periodical, as well as bringing her into contact with many important people both within the UK and across the Atlantic.
Sinclair took a cycling trip with author Thomas Hardy, who was said to admire her work, and she became financial patron to writer Ezra Pound, advocating for his work, as well as becoming friends with poets H.D. and T.S. Eliot. She also developed a scholarly interest in the work of the Brontë sisters, writing introductions to work about them as well as producing her own literary works, The Three Brontes and The Three Sisters. This was believed to have led to her interest in the uncanny and the macabre, and the development of her short story collection Uncanny Stories.
Her book The Creators appeared in 1910 and was subtitled ‘A Comedy’ causing confusion in the literary establishment. This was assumed to refer to Sinclair’s characters’ insistence on considering themselves as ‘geniuses’. Sinclair’s writing ensures that she did not take her characters as seriously as they take themselves within the novel, which features a group of writers and would-be writers as they negotiate the literary marketplace. It covers areas of literary celebrity and lack of recognition, as well as self-doubt and the battle with the life of a writer within conventional gender roles.
The book was first serialised in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine between November 1909 and October 1910, being later published in book form in 1910. The book version restored the cuts that had been made to the original manuscript in order to serialise it.
Sinclair’s book feels surprisingly modern. It is a novel about the New Woman and creativity and explores ideas around gender and the idea of the genius artist, attempting to balance the demands of such genius with being a wife and mother. It feels like something Doris Lessing might have written, and I wonder if she read Sinclair before writing The Golden Notebook.
What I find interesting here though is that Sinclair’s novel examines the idea of the gendered roles of woman and the conflict between this and the idea of the writer/genius, despite Sinclair herself never marrying or having children. It appears that these concerns troubled her enough to commit them to fiction, as perhaps was the case with Mendelson’s creation of Lucia in The Exhibitionist. For Sinclair, her independent means following the successful publication of her early novels ensured that she could devote herself entirely to her art, and perhaps this was something she was all too aware of: the sacrifice and payoff of being a successful, independent female writer.
It was in April 1918 that Sinclair came to the work of Dorothy Richardson through her Pilgrimage series. She praised Richardson’s style of portraying the inner life of her protagonist, what she coined in her review ‘stream of consciousness’. She utilised this approach in her novel Mary Olivier: A Life in 1919, charting the inner life of her protagonist and written as semi-biography reflecting a young intellectual woman’s coming-of-age whilst living with a domineering mother.
Sinclair’s later works appeared to dwell on her own struggles of coming to terms with an old-age with no children or family to support her. Suffering with Parkinson’s disease and living reclusively in Buckinghamshire with her housekeeper and companion, Florence Bartrop, she disappeared from public view and lost contact with friends from the 1920’s onwards, dying in 1946.
Both The Creators and The Golden Notebook were written at a time when gender conformity was more prolific than, say, the modern setting of The Exhibitionist. Interestingly, I have seen various comments referring to Mendelson’s book also as darkly ‘comic’, yet I didn’t find any comedy – black or otherwise – in the story of a bullying, abusive male artist and his subservient (mostly female) family members. The Guardian’s review of the book is telling in its description of ‘the artist as a monster’, and makes for interesting reading in its claim that some readers will fail to fully believe in Ray Hanrahan’s plausibility.
I would tend to agree: I was torn between finding him an implausibly terrible person, and disappointment at the non-agency of the other characters. Whilst I think Mendelson’s technique of allowing readers to access the inner-life of the other characters allows for some degree of seeing them as rebelling against their repression by Ray, (particularly wife Lucia), for me, it wasn’t enough. I wanted rage from Lucia. I wanted a reckoning against the bully at the end of the story. I wanted her to fight for her grown-up children and show them what she was made of.
But I was left wanting. Perhaps that makes the book more believable. I sincerely hope not.
Suzanne Raitt, May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000).