Posted by: zhiv | May 24, 2011

May Sinclair, Mary Olivier: A Life

I fear that I may be reading May Sinclair backwards, and that could be a mistake. Mary Olivier is a significant, deep book, challenging in its way and yet a good read. I suppose I still want a little more context before judging it on its own, which is of course a false equation. It worked, I liked it and admired it, but I feel like I might be able to give it more credit if I had a clearer sense of what Sinclair’s style and subject were like leading up to this book. That’s not fair and shouldn’t be necessary, but it’s just a feeling that I have.

There’s a pall that resides over this novel. It’s clearly an autobiographical work, and it tells the story of sheltered intellectual life half-lived, with ambition and enthusiasm stymied at every turn by false Victorian propriety and duty. It contains a solitary quest for either a romantic connection or a transcendent vision, and neither of them ever quite gels, and it’s frustrating and unsatisfying. That’s partly the point. A romantic coupling and solution would be false, though the ongoing attempt provides some good misdirections. And it’s really interesting that the effort to achieve a vision or an epiphany is genuinely philosophical, not a simple aesthetic and artistic quest. It’s as if, not having a strong, breeding painter sister and living in a community of artists like Virginia Woolf, Sinclair can’t give herself a Lily Briscoe, and it makes a difference in the effect of this work. The resolution is modest, muted, and rather depressing.

I’m a giant Richard Yates fan. I like depressing books and “tragic honesty,” to use the title of Blake Bailey’s Yates biography. And I liked this book. Maybe it’s a guy thing, and I like my depression in the doomed, boozy, stumbling vein, rather than the patient and pious decades of agony depicted here. Thinking of Yates, I find myself in the midst of a spinster run, excuse the phrase, and it sheds a new light on his accomplishment in Easter Parade. There’s a great literary power in the examination of talented, thwarted women, and Yates knew something, tapping into it. Easter Parade seems more impressive after reading Harriet Frean, The Rector’s Daughter, and Mary Olivier. And it’s easy to see that behind those books are Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss and Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, just to name an important pair. But I don’t want to lose focus (too late), and get ahead of things, so I’d double back on the references and use them to point to Mary Olivier. Still I have to say that in my books Easter Parade is about as depressing as it gets, magnificently so, and Mary Olivier (along with Harriet Frean) makes a good job of a similar orientation and search, carving out unique, new turf in an earlier era, and written by a woman.

There’s an almost shockingly strong comparison to The Rector’s Daughter in story and theme, and Sinclair’s book actually builds appreciation and a sense of the neglected importance of Mayor’s novel. The styles of the two books are completely different, and Mary Olivier is Sinclair’s attempt to write a Modernist classic, to use poetic prose and other tricks of the trade to get at the very heart of things, to grasp the essence of existence, of consciousness, to give a true rendering of the self. And Sinclair succeeds, mostly. That’s why I say that I want to be able to put this book into the context of her earlier work and larger enterprise, as I think the boldness of her effort and the accomplishment will resound and gather greater force.

But we live and read, almost a century later, in a world where we know the limitations and foibles of the Modernist (and Post-Modernist) enterprise. Posterity can be cruel when a book falls just short of inspired perfection, for whatever reason, and we know now that it’s safer to err on the side of realism and clarity. I don’t think that The Rector’s Daughter is a better book than Mary Olivier by any means, but it might be better fitted for long term recognition and accessibility. It’s readable, and subtle in its ambition and accomplishment. Still, the goal here is to place Sinclair and give her her due. This book reminded me, more than anything else, of The Waves, and it’s as if that style, actually more accessible here, was used to rewrite and update The Mill on the Floss, and bring that truncated female bildungsroman story to a conclusion. But that only scratches the surface of issues and topics in Mary Olivier. It holds a solid place in the second (badly neglected female) Modernist tier with Richardson, Mansfield, and others, and the trick is to go beyond Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Proust and Pound and create a broader, more informed, unified theory. The best thing I can do I think is to read more Sinclair and keep writing about Mary Olivier, which I will try to do. It’s odd, however, that appreciation of this book and writer has made me want to push the more obscure and seemingly less ambitious F.M. Mayor book I just read even more strongly, as more of a book for everybody.



  1. […] Sinclair establishes Jane at an autobiographical moment, but as she moves on she splits her own experience into the other two women writers, Nina and Laura, both of them much closer to elements of her later life as a writer and her art. Laura is the painstaking, steady creator of small but perfect, charming fictions. Her dilemma, like Sinclair’s was with her mother, is being saddled with caring for a demented and demanding parent. Laura’s struggle gives Sinclair a chance to study and show the cost of female filial and domestic obligations on authorship, how painful and exhausting they can be. Laura’s efforts, both creative and filial, are heroic, as her deep ambivalence almost drives her mad but it never overwhelms her sympathy. This storyline is a strong precursor to the solid Modernist accomplishment in Harriet Frean, and some important currents in Mary Olivier. […]

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