Synopses & Reviews
Originally published alongside Ulysses in the pages of the legendary Little Review, Mary Olivier: A Life
is an intimate, lacerating account of the ties between daughter and mother, a book of transfixing images and troubling moral intelligence that confronts the exigencies and ambiguities of freedom and responsibility with empathy and power. May Sinclair's finest novel stands comparison with the work of Willa Cather, Katherine Mansfield, and the young Virginia Woolf.
As a child, Mary Olivier's dreamy disposition and fierce intelligence set her apart from her Victorian family, especially her mother, "Little Mamma," whose dazzling looks cannot hide her meager love for her only daughter. Mary grows up in a world of her own, a solitude that leaves her free to explore her deepest passions, for literature and philosophy, for the austere beauties of England's north country, even as she continues to attend to her family. But in time the independence Mary values—at almost any cost—threatens to become a form of captivity itself.
First published in 1919, Mary Olivier is one of May Sinclair's best-remembered novels. The youngest of four children and the only girl in her Victorian family, Mary Olivier faces formidable barriers: she will not be educated as her brothers, nor will she be afforded their freedoms. Held emotionally hostage to a calculating mother, Mary retreats into her imagination and into books.
Rejecting Victorian formulas, she becomes a published poet and refuses to marry a succession of suitors. Yet she remains a dutiful daughter. Hers is a timeless story in which obligation and liberty, acquiescence and rebellion coexist in a fully realized, ultimately modern woman.
About the Author
May Sinclair (1863-1946) was the daughter of a rigidly dogmatic Christian woman and a failed shipowner who took to the bottle. She attended Cheltenham Ladies’ College, where she began a lifelong study of philosophy, finding in the works of Plato, Spinoza, and Kant a refuge from the religion in which she had been raised. In 1904 her novel The Divine Fire
was a best seller in America, and helped to make her reputation in England, where she became known not only for her own vividly imagistic and psychologically complex fiction but also for championing a range of challenging new writers. She presented Ezra Pound to Ford Madox Ford, encouraged the work of Charlotte Mew, protested the banning of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow
, wrote an early appreciation of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock
and Other Observations
, and—in a review of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage
—introduced the term “stream of consciousness” into critical parlance. A member of the Women Writers Suffrage League, the Aristotelian Society, and the first group to practice Freudian analysis in England, May Sinclair was the author of poems, stories, essays, two works of philosophy, and twenty-four novels, of which Mary Olivier: A Life
was her favorite.
Katha Pollitt is a poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation. She is the author of a book of poems, Antarctic Traveller, and two prose collections, Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism and Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.
Table of Contents
bk. 1. -- Infancy (1865-1869) -- bk. 2. Childhood (1869-1875) -- bk. 3. Adolescence (1876-1879) -- bk. 4. Maturity (1879-1900) -- bk. 5. Middle age (1900-1910) -- Mary olivier: a life.