Here is another book about a spirited young woman who rejects what her parents intend for her: a life of submission and sacrifice. Just like the heroine and writer of the first in this series of the Decades Project, My Brilliant Career, May Sinclair describes how her protagonist, Mary Olivier, broke through to her own freedom. She also rejected marriage. This novel was first published in 1919.
This is the second book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1910-1919 republished by Virago.
Mary Olivier: A Life
We follow the life of Mary Olivier from her early years until her maturity, 1865 – 1910, in five books, written from Mary’s point of view but in the third person (or from time to time in the second person). We follow her through her struggles as the youngest child and only daughter in a middle class Victorian family. Here she is as she reached puberty.
Mamma whispered to Mrs. Draper, and Aunt Bella whispered to Mamma: “Fourteen.” They always made a mystery about being fourteen. They ought to have told 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 let you 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.
They might at least have told you about the pain. The knives of pain. You had to clench your fists till the fingers bit into the palms. Over the ear of the sofa cushions she could feel her hot eyes looking at her mother with resentment.
She thought: “You had no business to have me. You had no business to have me.” (124)
In many ways this is a book about the struggle between a mother, who is staunchly Christian and believes in a duty of sacrifice and submission for women and her daughter who is more independently spirited. Her mother is also very controlling using her meekness and dependence to manipulate her brothers and Mary into taking care of her, especially after the death of their father. In the book the love of ‘little mamma’ for Mary is always conditional and always comes after her devotion to her three sons.
In the chapter entitled Maturity, Mary is rejected by a man because she is no longer compliant. She herself would have rejected him, but for a while it makes her miserable, being jilted.
Mamma had left her alone with her [maiden] Aunt Lavvy.
“I suppose you think that nobody was ever so unhappy as you are,” Aunt Lavvy said.
‘I hope nobody is. I hope nobody ever will be.”
“Should you say I was unhappy?”
“You don’t look it. I hope you are not.”
“Thirty-three years ago I was miserable, because I couldn’t have my own way. I couldn’t marry the man I cared for.”
“Oh – that. Why didn’t you?”
“My mother and your father and your Uncle Victor wouldn’t let me.”
“”I suppose he was a Unitarian?”
“Yes. He was a Unitarian. But whatever he’d been I couldn’t have married him. I couldn’t do anything I liked. I couldn’t go where I liked or stay where I liked. I wanted to be a teacher but I had to give it up.”
“Because your Uncle Victor and I had to look after your Aunt Charlotte.” (221)
The novel is also about how, against the wishes of her mother, she teaches herself languages and philosophy and turns away all suitors. Sometimes this is because she is too independent, but when she finds a man she can love deeply and who is free to marry her, she still cannot bring herself to sacrifice her inner life.
Reflection on Mary Olivier
Much of the novel is Mary’s discussion of competing religious or philosophical positions. It’s a long book – too long – and some of her dilemmas about men’s affections or philosophy are repetitive. But it must have been something of a shock at the end of the WW1 to see a woman’s intellectual life so favoured. Nevertheless she was a much-read and popular writer.
The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. Here we see the pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and lack of role models for young women to pursue education at that time. In this novel the restrictions are policed by the mother. I was reminded of Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton (1953).
Another view of this novel, looking at May Sinclair’s neglected status, can be found on Heavenali’s blog last January.
May Sinclair 1863-1946
In some ways this novel is autobiographical, although it might be more accurate to say that it drew on the author’s experiences. She knew what it was to have a father who suffered from alcoholism, and to have brothers who died young. She also cared for her mother, earning their living by writing. And she too educated herself.
There are some experimental aspects of this novel. For example her use of language to reflect the age of the protagonist: simple vocabulary and short sentences in infancy. She moved freely between using the 3rd person (he/she) and the 2nd person (you) and this seems to signal a moment of reflection about her inner life. In the last two pages she uses the first person: If it never came again I should remember. (380)
She had written her first novel in 1897, Audrey Craven, and Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel. She wrote 23 in all. She was a poet, critic and essayist. She moved in literary circles in London, unlike Mary Olivier, and was an active suffragette. With such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.
Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair was first published in 1919. It was reissued by Virago in 1980. 380pp
The Decades Project 2020
This year I have returned to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20thCentury Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I am choosing one from each decade every month. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries.
The first choice for the project was My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)