This important, too long neglected novel is about the plight of a gifted young woman growing up in a Victorian household. Born in 1865, Mary Olivier is the youngest of four children. Although her three brothers are given all the advantages of education, she must struggle to educate herself. But her even greater struggle is with her mother, “Little Mama,” who controls the family through weakness and dependence.
This is one of the finest novels ever written depicting the mother-daughter relationship and the eternal conflict engendered by that deepest of ties. But it is a celebration, too, for although Mary Olivier sacrifices her life–and her lover–to the demands of duty, she finds in the discovery of her intellectual and feminine self a perfect inner freedom.
It’s difficult stuff. The “eternal conflict” is clear quite early on, after one of Mary’s older brothers recovers from a serious illness:
Something she didn’t notice at the time and remembered afterwards when Roddy was well again. Jenny saying to Mamma, “If it had to be one of them it ought to have been Miss Mary.”
And Mamma saying to Jenny, “It wouldn’t have mattered so much if it had been the girl.”
And, on the very next page:
You knew when she loved you. You could almost count the times: the time when Papa frightened you; the time when you cut your forehead; the time the lamb died; all the whooping-cough and chicken-pox times and when Mets, the wax doll, fell off the schoolroom table and broke her head; and when Mark went away to school.
As Mary moves from childhood to adolescence, her mother continues to degrade her and is dismissive of Mary’s intellect. I’m about halfway through, and Mary is about to begin her adult life.
Well, this is just so sad. The book is well-written, but reading it is tying my stomach up in knots. I’m going to shift gears for a day or so and read a few essays from At Large and at Small, by Anne Fadiman. I’ll be back with a review of Mary Olivier in a few days.