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Mary Olivier, a Life (Virago Modern Classic)…
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Mary Olivier, a Life (Virago Modern Classic) (original 1919; edition 1982)

by May Sinclair

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214599,437 (3.75)40
Born in 1865, Mary Olivier is the youngest of four children. Mamma dominates this Victorian household, idolising the boys, rejecting the independent love of her only daughter: the archetype of all women who control by weakness and suffering. Mary adores her mother- and she hates her. Ferociously intelligent, she vacillates between a passionate quest for her own artistic and sexual identity. This is one of the first novels ever written about a mother and daughter relationship, and the eternal conflict engendered by the deepest of ties. But it is a celebration too: for though Mary sacrifices her life- and her lover- to the demands of duty, she emerges victorious, finding in the discovery of her intellectual and feminine self an inner freedom, a perfect happiness.… (more)
Member:lauralkeet
Title:Mary Olivier, a Life (Virago Modern Classic)
Authors:May Sinclair
Info:Doubleday (1982), Paperback, 380 pages
Collections:Your library, Virago Modern Classics, British
Rating:***
Tags:read in 2010, fiction, virago, own, english authors, woman authors

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Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

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Showing 5 of 5
May Sinclair wrote widely, both fiction and non-fiction – though the majority of her work is out of print now. The Life and Death of Harriet Frean is possibly her best-known work, and along with this novel the easiest to find. Though I believe some print on demand versions of some of May Sinclair’s other books are also available. She was a modernist writer, who – it is said – was the first to use the term stream of consciousness in a review she wrote about Dorothy Richardson.

“If you looked back on any perfect happiness you saw that it had not come from the people or the things you thought it had come from, but from somewhere inside yourself.”

Mary Olivier: a life is a novel – though one can’t help but take the name May Sinclair and put it in the place of Mary Olivier. The novel is enormously autobiographical and tells the deeply personal story of a woman’s life from the time of infancy to middle-age.

Mary Olivier is born into a middle-class Victorian family in the 1860s, the fourth child and the only girl. The novel opens while Mary is a young infant – and the viewpoint is that of a very young child –even the language is more childlike. Time passes quite quickly in the early sections of the novel, and as she grows up we begin to see a young girl eager to learn, with a keen interest (like Sinclair herself) in literature, philosophy, religion and spirituality. Mary is not a girl to merely believe what her elders tell her, she is questioning and thoughtful – her beliefs not always fitting in with those of her conservatively religious family.

The house hold is ruled over by Mamma – little Mamma as she is often called by her sons. She is very much a typical Victorian wife and mother, her strength existing in her apparent weakness. As Mary turns from a very little girl into an older child and then an adolescent, her relationship with her mother becomes ever more difficult. Mary comes to realise her mother doesn’t love her – not in the way she does her brothers, especially the eldest Mark, the brother Mary loves with a fierce, loyal adoration. Mary comes to believe that if only she could have remained a tiny little child her mother would have loved her more.

“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.”

As Mary comes to the end of her schooling, the family suddenly leave Ilford, moving North to Greffington Edge, where her father begins his descent into Alcoholism. Back in Essex are Mary’s aunts Charlotte and Lavvy and Uncle Victor, and bit by bit we start to see something of their lives. The narrowness and fear that stopped them from moving forward – a fear that briefly transfers itself to Mary – a fear of madness.

Years pass with terrifying speed, men come along who Mary might be able to love – but they don’t stay around – and gradually Mary’s life becomes one of sad routine and sacrifice. Her brothers go off to see something of the world – her adored bother Mark away for several years – and when he returns they are both changed – and Mary starts to see something of their little Mamma in her brother.

“Mark turned in the path and looked at her; his tight, firm face tighter and firmer. She thought: “He doesn’t know. He’s like Mamma. He won’t see. It would be kinder not to tell him. But I can’t be kind. He’s joined with Mamma against me. They’re two to one. Mamma must have said something to make him hate me.”

Persuaded by her brothers, that their mother is a poor weak little woman, Mary comes to understand that she cannot leave her mother and live her own life as her brothers have– and so she stays.

As she gets older Mary longs for an identity of her own, she wants to know love, and begins to think differently about the drawer full of writing she has amassed over the years. She starts to send things she has written, out into the world, to magazines, and meets a man who will be her greatest love – and her greatest sacrifice.

Although there is a sadness in this novel – Mary is a woman who discovers an inner freedom, and despite everything her own perfect happiness.

This is a brilliant exploration of a mother, daughter relationship, and May Sinclair is a writer who deserves to be more widely read. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Apr 2, 2018 |
May Sinclair (Mary Amelia St. Clair) was a friend and/or reviewer of such Modernists as H.D., Pound, and Eliot (and is credited with coining the phrase "stream of consciousness" in a review of Dorothy Richardson). Mary Olivier, an intensely autobiographical novel, began its serialization alongside Ulysses in Little Review – very aptly, considering that Mary Olivier reads stylistically very much like Joyce's Portrait. In particular, the "baby talk" of the first part of Mary Olivier reminds me of Portrait's "moocow" and "baby tuckoo" language.

Caution: Sinclair, in addition to her literary interests, was much interested in philosophy (and also spiritualism), and references to Ding an sich and philosophical pantheism may be confusing to readers unfamiliar with Kant and Spinoza – but, after all, a knowledge of Greek philosophy (and a whole lot more) is vital to a reading of Joyce!

Another complaint which some readers may have is Sinclair's use of foreign languages – especially German and Attic Greek – which may be "greek" to many of today's readers. In fairness, though, Sinclair could have included footnoted translations only at the expense of distracting from the subjective point-of-view of her title character, and she does at times include translations when reason can be found for inserting them into the third-person narration.

This is a novel that may not be to everyone's taste (and it is considerably longer than Sinclair's better-known and more popular Life and Death of Harriett Frean). Personally, I rate it 4½**** with a sense that the last half-star should be withheld because of a tendency of the narrative to drag on a big as the title character grows older (or, perhaps, simply because my own personal interest is in the earlier childlike narration). ( )
  CurrerBell | Apr 11, 2015 |
So often with a memoir, or a seeming memoir, you will hear that it is “intensely personal,” as when a strong emotion affects one’s thoughts and behavior. Such does not apply to" Mary Olivier: A Life." The novel evokes restrained Victorian mores, and deals with religious doubt, and propounds a variety of philosophical and scientific thought. Its treatment of these themes gives one a brush with some fairly recondite concepts, but when the potentially true shining insight finally cracks through (in the book’s last handful of paragraphs), I was worn out waiting for it.

Mary Olivier the character displays cleverness and a certain stubborn rebelliousness in matters of conscience and religion. She worries her mother when, just starting her teen years, she reads Spinoza and Kant, and annoys her by concluding that the Christian God is only a small example, and not a very good one, of the divine. Mary follows her own compass through her life, but does not behave in any outrageous way, when it comes right down to it. She stays home to care for her mother, living with her into her forties. The events of Mary’s life are relayed in fits and starts, always with the backdrop of the philosophical strands of her thought. Mary is certainly a spirited creature, and ultimately I admire her courage in facing so many people and societal strictures that worked so assiduously to shut her up.

As a reading experience I found "Mary" unrewarding. The philosophic milieu into which Mary thrusts herself and the reader held promise, but in the end there was precious little of it discussed. If it had been more prominent, the book would have difficulty qualifying as fiction, I guess. Mary’s ultimate insights are what set her apart as a fictional heroine: if there is happiness to be had, you will find it within yourself, not in people or objects that are outside of you. I suggest you pass.

http://bassoprofundo1.blogspot.com/2014/07/mary-olivier-life-by-may-sinclair.htm... ( )
  LukeS | Jul 30, 2014 |
Man, how I wanted to like this book! The only other May Sinclair novel I’ve read is The Three Sisters, which I loved, so I expected to love this book just as much. I found Mary Olivier to be a tough slog, the kind of book where I was putting it down to read something else.

Mary Olivier is the youngest child and only girl in a large Victorian family. She grows up in the shadow of her brothers, father, and overbearing mother. The story follows Mary’s point of view from early childhood in the 1860s up through middle age in the first decade of the twentieth century. The story is told from the sensibility of the child, but the author’s handling of this style of writing is clunky. A skilled author can tell a story from the point of view of a child and tell us exactly what happened, even though the child might not understand it. The way that May Sinclair wrote this story, she left the reader in the dark in many places.

The story improves a little bit when Mary reaches adolescence, but not by much. Mary is a dreamy, romantic teenager and has a fondness for poetry. She seems to drift through the rest of her life, allowing things to happen to her rather than take charge of her own life. She also allows her mother to bully her, and she never stand up for herself. This was what made Mary so unappealing as a character, and why I had difficulty continuing with the novel past page 200. It’s a bleak novel, and it has some very profound things to say about a woman’s plight in 19th century England, but May Sinclair didn’t handle the writing of the story well. ( )
  Kasthu | Sep 14, 2011 |
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!" ( )
17 vote lauralkeet | May 16, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sinclair, Mayprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Clausen, GeorgeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McGuire, James L.Cover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pollitt, KathaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Radford, JeanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Born in 1865, Mary Olivier is the youngest of four children. Mamma dominates this Victorian household, idolising the boys, rejecting the independent love of her only daughter: the archetype of all women who control by weakness and suffering. Mary adores her mother- and she hates her. Ferociously intelligent, she vacillates between a passionate quest for her own artistic and sexual identity. This is one of the first novels ever written about a mother and daughter relationship, and the eternal conflict engendered by the deepest of ties. But it is a celebration too: for though Mary sacrifices her life- and her lover- to the demands of duty, she emerges victorious, finding in the discovery of her intellectual and feminine self an inner freedom, a perfect happiness.

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Virago/Dial back cover:

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.

May Sinclair (1865-1946) was one of the most important Georgian novelists, the friend and contemporary of Henry James, John Galsworthy, Ford Madox Ford, Antonia White and of Dorothy Richardson, about whose work she first coined the famous phrase "stream of consciousness." First published in 1919, this novel essentially tells May Sinclair's own story--and reflects the enormous struggle and sacrifice it was necessary for gifted young women of her time to make in order to become artists.
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