Jane Sinclair, Shy love smiles and acid drops (#BookReview)

Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir, Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage, is an unusual book. Covering around two years in her parents’ life, this book comprises, mostly, letters sent between her parents between April 1960 and July 1962 when Sinclair and her mother were in England while her father remained in Australia. Between the letters (and some entries from her mother’s journal), Sinclair adds explanatory information, which ensures the narrative flow.

Sinclair was 5 to 7 years old when these letters were written. Being so young, her memory of that time is scattered, but she has clearly thought much about her parents in her adult life. Also, she remembers family stories of those times told to her later, and she did discuss her parents’ relationship with them, though, as is the way with such things, not as much as she wishes she had. The book was inspired by her finding the letters that underpin this book.

What makes this book particularly interesting is who her parents are, the artist Jean Langley and music critic John Sinclair. You may or may not have heard of them, but these two were part of mid-twentieth century Melbourne’s arts and music scene. In particular, they had close connections with the Heide artistic community, which inspired Emily Bitto’s award-winning novel, The strays (my review), and which was created by two art-lovers and philanthropists, John and Sunday Reed. This community was famous for two things, the art produced there and the complicated personal relationships amongst its members.

Some of Australia’s best-regarded modernist artists were associated with Heide, people like Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, and Joy Hester, all of whom appear in this book. Artist Arthur Boyd was also close to these people, though not part of the community. However, Heide was just as well-known, as Wikipedia puts it, for “the intertwined personal and professional lives of the people involved”. Sunday Reed herself had affairs with several in the community, with her husband’s knowledge. This art history is what primarily attracted me to the book, but it was the background rather than the focus that I’d hoped. Instead, Shy love smiles and acid drops is exactly what it says it is, the story of “a difficult marriage”. As we are told on the back cover

when Jane Sinclair was five her mother Jean Langley followed her lover, Arthur Boyd, to London and took Jane with her. This book covers the two years they live there before returning to Australia in 1962, by which time her mother is three months pregnant to an Englishman.

“Your letter makes me cross” (Jeannie)

The letters are difficult reading because of the emotional pain and distress they contain. There are some fascinating insights into London and England at a time when many Australians saw it as a mecca for arts and culture. Indeed, while Jean Langley was there, living near the Boyds, so were their friends, Barry Humphries and his wife.

In her introduction, Sinclair speaks of how the letters caused her to “seriously question” her mother’s “version of herself as the aggrieved, wronged wife that she had cultivated and genuinely believe to be true”. Sinclair was also sorry that she had never allowed her father, who died twenty-five years before her mother, to tell his side of the story. This is understandable given when he died, she had probably not reached that age of (hopefully) wise reflection many of us do later in our lives, that age when we start to really see our parents as human beings, rather than seeing them through the prism of their relationship with us. I think this is so, in even the best of parent-child relationships?

Anyhow, Sinclair tells us that her parents’ relationship was “intense and difficult” from the start. They separated many times, but “there remained an irresistible attraction that kept them returning to each other”. Eleven years of age separated her mother and father, but it seems that personality difference (“not compatible emotionally”) was the essential problem. John Sinclair apparently tended to melancholy and depression, while Jean Langley was a romantic. “She could create sparkle and shine” and “wanted the world to be a beautiful place of happy endings”. All this comes through the letters. John expresses his sadness, his missing his wife and daughter, while Jeannie expresses her frustration with him, and her increasing disappointment with life and human beings, as things become more and more complicated. The England she adored at the beginning of her trip is not so great when it becomes cold and grey, and as the reality of never having enough money sets in.

“a riddle, muddle, fiddle, diddle” (Jeannie)

But what comes through even more is miscommunication, and particularly what seems to be Jeannie’s wilful misreading of John’s letters. When he invites her to return home on her terms – meaning she can live separately from him if she wishes – Jeannie seems to misread that wilfully, insisting again and again that she can’t be his wife, she won’t sleep with him, and so on. Readers wonder where she reads this, because we don’t.

At times, I put my feminist hat on and wondered whether there was something about John that we don’t know. Should I be supporting my down-trodden sister, I started to wonder? But, while there are, naturally, gender issues to do with women’s place in the mid-twentieth century, I don’t read a woman wronged by her husband here. I read a woman who, due to her own personality, and upbringing perhaps, regularly let emotion cloud her ability to reason – to her own detriment as well as those around her. She falls in and out of love twice during this English sojourn – besides the apparently abiding love for Arthur Boyd – and admits in June 1962 that, “I seem to have made a mess of my emotions”.

As the narrative progresses, daughter Jean notes that her mother, who liked to see herself as truthful, strayed often from it:

My mother believed in her emotional truth, and unfortunately for my father, it was sometimes very far from reality.

Reading this, I think I would say more than “sometimes”. I have known people like Jeannie, people who have such a zest for life but who wear their emotions so close to the surface that they can’t reason through what is really happening. They can be both joyful and draining to be around, and this is how Jeannie comes across.

This is not my usual review, because, in a sense, it’s hard to review such a personal book. Indeed it’s so personal that it’s worth thinking about its target. There’s some interesting social history here – life in the 60s, the experience of Aussie artistic expats in London, the challenges of communication in those pre-electronic communications days. There’s also a little about the the art world, the odd reference to a Boyd or Nolan exhibition, to the Blackmans, and to Brett Whiteley whom Jeannie calls “a shocking little upstart”. But, overall, this is a nicely presented but intense story of a “difficult marriage”, and it will appeal mostly to those interested in human relationships.

Read for #ReadIndies month (kaggsysbookishramblings and Lizzy’s Literary Life). Hybrid is a Melbourne-based independent publisher, with a special but not exclusive interest in Judaica. I have reviewed many of their books over the years.

Jane Sinclair
Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2021
Cover art: from oil painting by Jane Sinclair
ISBN: 9781925736588

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

60 thoughts on “Jane Sinclair, Shy love smiles and acid drops (#BookReview)

  1. I would never read this book having read your review, ST.
    Not a criticism at all: just that Jeannie sounds like a clone of my mother (or perhaps vice versa).
    And also I loathe the title: that business of putting two unlikely things together that’s so beloved of publishers .. “Mad Soup and Marmalade” was what my editor was fixated on; and it took an awful lot of effort to dissuade her from peremptorily erasing my title. You see where my dislike springs from – and there are dozens of other pairings from around that time that I can’t remember.

    • Tha’s fair enough M-R. It’s not a book for everyone.

      Mad Soup and Marmalade? That does sound weird for your book. Here I think it makes sense, conveying the two sides of the coin … love and acid. ” Acid drops” appears in one of the letters. “Shy love smiles” might too, though I don’t remember that.

    • “Mad Soup”? That’s really got me intruiged. Never seen that juxtaposition of those two words before. I shall have to lay hands on your book to see what inspired your editor!

  2. It sounds heartbreaking, and it reminds me a bit of the poetry of Anne Elder and her daughter’s bio in which she wondered how Anne’s mental instability might have affected her work….
    “She was extremely emotionally labile at times, and in many situations very thin-skinned; but at the same time she had areas of toughness and was passionate and persistent in pursuing activities she loved. How much did the emotional highs and lows provoke her poetry? Would she have been capable of entering into the deepest human experiences if she had not suffered anguish over her relations with other people and over the destructive acts that threatened her beloved spaces of natural beauty? In general, does the extremity of the mental disturbance produce an equivalent force in the work of the artist, and at what point might the disturbance rather hinder the work?”

  3. They are not a group of people I am particularly interested in, so I probably won’t pick it up – though I must say I was attracted by the title. As someone who has conducted relationships through mis-read (and mis-written) text messages, I can feel for the husband.

    • Not intersted in modernist art then, Bill?

      Anyhow, I felt for the husband too. It seemed to me that he bent over backwards to be generous and kind to Jeannie. Of course, it takes two, and all that, but there’s often one who tangoes more than the other, if you know what I mean. In written communication you have to be so careful as you have no other clues like expression, body language etc, do you?

      • I would like the time to become knowledgeable about painting (and ballet) but it’s not going to happen, and I do go up to Heide occasionally with mum to see exhibitions. The most interesting account I read was a short story by Gerald Murnane about attending a party there (Landscape with artist).

        • We can’t be across everything can we. Sometimes I feel I’m a bit too dilettantish – I know a little about a lot! Twould be good to have more depth in more subjects.

          (Will fix the Murnane title…)

        • It came from Murnane’s collection Landscape with Landscape (1987) which was my – belated – introduction to his writing.

          In A Quieter Place than Clun, Murnane attempts and largely fails to meet women. The Clun of the title is from a poem by AE Housman – “‘Tis a long way further than Knighton/A quieter place than Clun” – with which he becomes obsessed, imagining that his literary landscape must be coloured the brilliant green of southern England.

  4. “My mother believed in her emotional truth, and unfortunately for my father, it was sometimes very far from reality”
    What an incredibly useful and astute observation. I feel like I’d like to have that emblazoned on a T-shirt, with just enough modification to reveal how often (and how destructive) this tendency can be-and not only between mothers and fathers! Heh
    This focus on a small group of local artists recalls the book I recently chatted about, newly nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Award, Mark Blagraves, which focusses on a small eastern Canadian community of artists (or, at least, was inspired by it). Outside either of these countries, it would happily read as pure fiction I’m sure.

    • Thanks Buried. Sinclair’s observations were not overdone, but what she says comes across as honestly reflective. And yes, not only between mothers and fathers.

      I don’t remember your post on Mark Balgraves, but it sounds interesting. Artist communities are interesting!

  5. Hi Sue, I picked up this book from the library some time ago, and that was because of the title – it intrigued me.The ‘art world’, do seem to have complicated relationships not only with their art, but also with other people. I found Jeannie too self absorbing, but the story is a a fascinating and worthwhile read.

    • Yes, Meg. As you know I write a lot of marginalia in my books and “self-centred”, “self-absorbed”, appear frequently. But I’m glad you also found it a fascinating read. Such an insight into how people relate to each other – and of course, the long correspondence that we just don’t have now.

      • Hi Sue, I am now reading Carrington Letters, Dora Carrington, Her Loves, Her Art and Her Friendships, edited by Anne Chisholm. Dora is another self-absorbed person, and had an obsession with the writer Lytton Strachey. Though Dora, had more depth than Jeannie. The letters also give a fascinating account of the then artistic world, and including members of the Bloomsbury group. think letters moved a lot faster then than they do now – lol.

  6. I have a friend fascinated by the Heide scene, so I will alert her to this book.
    Jeannie sounds like she would be exhausting to be around for anything length of time. I hope her husband found happiness elsewhere.

    • Thanks Brona … if she’s fascinated, she’ll probably like this, because Sunday Reed in particular is mentioned frequently in the book. Apparently Jeannie’s letters with Sunday are in the state library.

      I think she would have been exhausting to be around, and I don’t know but I think John tried to find happiness elsewhere but it sounds like he really always loved Jeannie.

  7. I am old enough to remember John Sinclair as a reviewer with a very sharp tongue who could make or break, a now my memory fails, was it stage shows or musical performances, or possibly films

    • Oh how interesting ctlbth… I think it was classical music mostly. I have a long article about him that I hope to read tonight. He was both loved and hated I understand. I read about his criticism of the ABC’s promotion of concerts and he had a point.

  8. She does sound like an exhausting woman to be around and to be the daughter or husband of! But an interesting premise for the book. I think I’d want to know more about mother and daughter’s art, too.

    • Thanks Liz … I think so, in answer to all your comments.as I said the book was about something else but she was an artist who was exhibited. It would be interesting to know more about that. Even if she wasn’t among the top, the story of a working artist would be interesting. How did they survive, how did they feel about their art, about other art and artists, etc. But as I said to Lisa that’s not this book which was inspired and driven by the letters.

  9. Anyone interested in seeing some of my mother’s art can google Jean Langley artist. At optushome.com there is a long article about her life, ending with examples of her landscape paintings, wild flower paintings and her fine line drawings (which I reckon are pretty bloody good). As for the title of my book, originally I wanted, ‘Shy Love Smiles, Acid Drops and Razor Blades’ but the publisher said it was too long. After a rejection letter from a lover she wrote that her ‘heart was full of razor blades and her head was full of acid drops’. She wrote about ‘ shy loves smiles’ between her and Arthur Boyd.

    • Thanks very much for all this Jane. You’re publisher was probably right about the long title, but your mum was certainly expressive in her language.

      I found some references to her early work in Trove too. One reviewer of a group exhibition mentions her delicate drawings.

  10. Your review has made me want to read this book. I know of two family members, both women, both of whom feel they are the victim and the hero. They are always right, always good. And yet they drag their child/ren from home to home to home, often chasing an emotion tied to a man. You’d think the man would be the problem in the situation, but in the cases of both women, it tends to be her who cheats/leaves and starts all over again. Both women are always the one who was treated so poorly. Actually, I’m no longer in contact with either of these people, and their child/ren don’t talk to them a whole lot either…

  11. I’m not sure about love, but I liked both my parents, and for most of my adult life I got on extremely well with my mother. Leaving home at 17 helped! Mum could be great company; thoughtful, intelligent and funny, as her many friends would attest. She was at her worst when it came to my father, but until I read their letters I didn’t know the extent of it. I justified publishing the letters partly on the grounds that my mother always insisted on the importance of truth above all. Her occasional obvious distortion of the truth is one of the things I found hard to come to come to terms with. I think she would have been quite happy for me to publish the letters, it would have been my critical comments that infuriated her. I doubt it ever occurred to her that the letters show anything other than her struggle to find some happiness while married to a difficult and melancholic man.

    • Oh thanks for this Jane. You describe your Mum pretty much as I thought she might be in terms of being good company. I appreciate your justification for publishing the letters and your mum’s likely response to what you’ve done.

  12. Pingback: Sunday Lowdown #161 – Grab the Lapels

  13. Just a PS to this: Jane Sinclair was guest speaker today at the local Mentone Public Library — a subscription library, not a municipal one, and they run a regular program of author talks by local authors. So I went to hear her talk about this book. She’s a wonderful speaker, and her talk was very engaging, and full of interesting anecdotes.

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