Sunday, 22 January 2012

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair

This 1919 novel is a strongly autobiographical Bildungsroman that takes Sinclair's heroine from rural Essex in the 1860s, the youngest child of middle-class parents, to middle age in Edwardian Yorkshire.  On the way she will live through the difficulties of getting an education, the possibilities of marriage, and above all the demands and complexities of family life.  Mary has three older brothers and her mother has hoped for a dutiful daughter, encouraging her from the early pages of the text to give up her own will.  But Mary is never entirely convinced that God really wants her to give up her will, and begins to speculate that it is more her mother's idea.  Despite her tendency towards autonomy, Mary is never entirely able to separate herself from her mother; they live on together through Mamma's widowhood, loving and hating each other in fairly equal measure.  But Mary, in her way, succeeds in preserving her own sense of self, and the novel closes on a personal, triumphant epiphany.

There is a lot to enjoy here.  There is the character of Mary herself, who turns from an engaging child to an engaged woman, and is never less than interesting, with her individual view of the world and her strong sense of beauty; there is a whole range of other fascinating characters, some who appear only briefly but still make their mark; there is the impact of philosophy and psychology, particularly Freud, on the text; and there is May Sinclair's prose.  The novel is structured episodically, in short sub-chapters that tell of key events in Mary's life and sometimes of dull, insignificant days.  Sometimes years pass in a few pages; other periods of time are expanded and considered in minute detail.  The narrative switches between Mary's first person interior monologue, another interior voice which uses the second person, and a third person narrator who is nonetheless narrating from Mary's point of view.  May Sinclair is known for her early engagement with modernism, both as critic and as artist, and the evidence of this is clear in this novel.  But she is not simply dabbling; her techniques are effective and sustained.

As Jean Radford points out in her introduction to the Virago edition, the novel is a bit long, possibly due to autobiographical fidelity, and some of the Freudian references seem a bit obvious to the modern reader.  While I'm not sure if the way Mary resolves her difficulties with life is a way I would choose myself, she remains for me an entirely believable and rather admirable character.  This is partly due to the remarkable number of difficulties that she has to face through her forty-five years, difficulties which often make the book rather sad reading.  Mary's story does provoke both pity and anger, particularly as the narrative reveals how much she has been betrayed by those who claim to love her.  However, the ending is redemptive for Mary, and left me with a sense of hope about the second half of her life. 

The Virago edition of this book is still in print and still has the same lovely George Clausen painting on the cover; there are also secondhand copies easily available.

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