Original date of publications: 1919
My edition: 1980 (Dial)
Why I decided to read: read it for All Virago/All August
How I acquired my copy: the Philadelphia Book Trader, February 2011
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.