Review: Mary Olivier: A Life, by May Sinclair

Mary Olivier was the youngest of four, and the only daughter born to a Victorian family in 1865.  She was treated exactly as you’d expect of girls in that era:  where her brothers were given education and opportunity, Mary’s intellectual and personal ambitions were thwarted.  She questioned the Bible and refused to participate in prayer and other religious practices.  Family and friends ridiculed her attempts at self-education; her mother constantly nagged her about her faith. Meanwhile, Mary’s brothers went off to serve their country in foreign lands, or learn a trade, leaving their mother pining at home, and leaving Mary to look after her:

Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird.  She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never rest till she had broken you, or turned and twisted you to her own will.  She would say it was God’s will. She would think it was God’s will.  (p. 124)

Well that’s pretty heavy, isn’t it?  The back cover of this book includes this description: “This is one of the finest novels ever written depicting the mother-daughter relationship and the eternal conflict engendered by that deepest of ties.”  And in fact, about halfway through I had to take a break from this book — the intensity of the “eternal conflict” was a bit much for me.

In the second half, things picked up a bit as Mary continued to forge her independence, undaunted by societal pressure.  She began writing poetry, and continued to study the philosophers and new scientific topics of the era, such as heredity.  However, her sense of duty called her to care for her mother in her decline, which required Mary to set aside certain professional and romantic aims.  She reached middle age a strong, independent woman, but achieved this at no small personal cost.

I found this book difficult going, and very depressing.  It’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the conditions women faced 100-150 years ago, and the situation was indeed bleak.  The novel’s autobiographical nature also created a problem, described well in Jean Radford’s introduction to my Virago Modern Classic edition: “the pull of the autobiographical impulse makes itself felt within the text. The novel is too long; there are too many lovers lost, too much detail about her philosophical reading, too many scenes in which mother and daughter enact the same painful conflicts.”  This is a powerful book in many ways, but by the end I just wanted to say, “enough already, Mary!”

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4 thoughts on “Review: Mary Olivier: A Life, by May Sinclair

  1. Your posts on this book make me feel ambivalent about picking it up myself. On the one hand, I like the idea of reading such a powerful read on women’s experiences in the past, but then what if it’s too much for me? And the fact that the book is a bit too long, doesn’t help to convince me. I have however noted the title down, since there is something about it that sounds too interesting to ignore.

    • Well Iris, you’ve summed up some of my feelings about this book also! It’s well-written and others have liked it more than me. Might be worth a try!

  2. I wonder how different my response may have been if you’d asked me right after I read this one (maybe five years ago), but I don’t remember it as being an overwhelmingly depressing read. It was definitely one of the VMCs that made me less nervous about tackling some of their longer reissues, and I remember being really surprised by how quickly I read it, so perhaps that mitigated some of the sadness.

    • I’m not sure it was overwhelmingly depressing, but I did find it more of a downer even though she sort of finds her own way eventually. Ah, well …

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