Recreating the stream of consciousness through prose was one of the Modernists’ great achievements, famously demonstrated by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The experiment was revolutionary: in making it these authors broke away from the rigidity of the nineteenth century into the rich chaos of the human mind. No one embraced the attempt more wholeheartedly than the woman who first applied the term “stream of consciousness” to literature: May Sinclair. Yet she is rarely mentioned today, and her masterpiece, the autobiographical novel Mary Olivier: A Life (1919), has been more or less forgotten, despite the fact that it was originally serialized alongside Ulysses in The Little Review. Anyone who reads it, however, will feel its immense and uncomfortable power. Tracing the life of Mary Olivier from her earliest years into middle age, Sinclair forces the reader to experience all the intensity of the protagonist’s joys, frustrations, and defeats. And as the book proceeds, it becomes more and more terrible to know that the intolerably constrained life it depicts reflected the author’s own.
May Sinclair was christened Mary Amelia St. Clair. She was born in 1863 and grew up in Ilford, a suburb of London. Her overbearing, alcoholic father was a partner in a Liverpool shipping company, which collapsed completely while Sinclair was still a young girl. She and her five older brothers were raised by her mother, who believed so fanatically in the severest Christian tenets that she could barely acknowledge her own emotions, let alone indulge the feelings of others. Sinclair, the youngest and the only girl, received her mother’s fiercest scrutiny. It was expected—and thus it turned out—that she should give up the majority of her young life to caring for this unloving woman, while her brothers went out into the world. But death dogged the family on every side: by the time Sinclair reached her thirties, she had lost her father and four of her brothers. In 1905, when she was forty-two, the last brother succumbed—all the men in her family suffered from a congenital heart defect.
During her long years of domestic imprisonment, Sinclair nonetheless found freedom of a kind: she was given unrestricted access to her father’s library and devoured countless works of literature, philosophy, history, and criticism. She learned how to read German and ancient Greek and traveled far beyond the strictures of her religious upbringing. With surprising independence, she sought to understand the nature of reality and human psychology. And, not content with reading, she wrote as well: her first book of poetry, Nakiketas and Other Poems, was published in 1896, when she was twenty-three years old—still living with her mother and struggling to bolster their finances. Eleven years later, after more poetry and several essays, she published her first novel, Audrey Craven (1897). From the first, her novels propounded a creed of liberation: she described the roving minds of women, their plight in unhappy marriages and repressive families, and their need—as pressing as any man’s—for intellectual and emotional fulfillment.
Yet Sinclair did not embrace freedom in her style, as opposed to her subjects, until 1918, when The Little Review began serializing Mary Olivier. By that time Sinclair’s life had expanded. Her mother had died in 1901, allowing Sinclair to live by herself for the first time. A few years later, though still unmarried, she took responsibility for the children of two of her brothers and moved with them to a house in London. Soon she was hobnobbing with literary figures like Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, and Ford Madox Ford. She became interested in women’s suffrage and Jungian psychoanalysis. When World War I broke out, she worked as an ambulance driver in Belgium. All of these new experiences affected her outlook, and they can be seen rippling through her fiction: The Tree of Heaven (1917), for example, depicts a family fractured by the war, and her popular Uncanny Stories (1923) play with her interest in psychic phenomena. One of her best novels, The Three Sisters (1914), drew inspiration from her critical research on the Brontë sisters. Yet Mary Olivier, Sinclair’s own favorite among her works, does not reach forward, beyond the boundaries of her stifled youth. Instead it dives backward into the past, avoiding nothing, unveiling moment after moment of love, disappointment, and emptiness. With riveting immediacy, the novel recreates the first half of Sinclair’s life and exposes the horror of living in a cloistered world.
It is difficult to remember, after reading Mary Olivier, that Sinclair’s life did, in fact, diverge from the novel—she did raise children, enjoy an active social life, and earn an international reputation. Yet one can’t help wondering if Mary Olivier’s ultimate serenity was something that Sinclair never achieved. Though by the 1920s she had become a celebrated figure, she never shed her shyness and anxiety: Mark Twain, sitting next to her once at a dinner party, thanked her afterward for a “remarkably interesting silence.” Though she loved several men, she never married. And by the time she died, in 1946, she was well on her way to being forgotten. For the last twenty years of her life, beset by Parkinson’s Disease, she wrote nothing—merely lived from day to day in one cramped abode after another, with a female companion who increasingly played the role of nurse. Given these long, declining years, one might conclude that Mary Olivier got the best of it after all.
What readers will notice first and foremost about Mary Olivier is its fragmented, internalized narrative. The reader is identified so closely with Mary that the novel often slips into the second person: “The air smelt good; you opened your mouth and drank it in gulps.” When the book opens, we encounter Mary not as a rational adult but as a baby, her impression of the world conveyed in a series of fleeting images and sensations: the railings on her cot, her nurse’s face, a frightening man in the road. Reality slips in and out of imaginings, and the vignettes are linked by emotion, not logic. The language is simple and direct, focused on sensory experience—and though Mary matures as the narrative continues, that directness remains throughout. There are almost no compound sentences in the novel and few scenes longer than three or four pages.
Given this insistence on uncomplicated prose and miniature scenes, it is all the more impressive that the novel builds so rapidly into an immersive experience. The sentences may be short, but they are not simplistic, and Mary’s family, though seen in bits and pieces, nevertheless come to life with extraordinary complexity and force: her beloved brother Mark, her malicious father, the unbearable weight of her mother’s personality. The family’s criss-crossing lines of loyalty and jealousy are drawn in quick strokes, as Sinclair jumps from one emotionally searing moment to another. Mary’s older brothers fantasize about killing their father after he takes their dog away; Mary’s mother remarks in her hearing, after her brother Roddy falls ill, that she wishes it had been “the girl” instead—meaning Mary herself. This poisonous atmosphere envelops the reader like a miasma, horrible and fascinating at the same time, so that it becomes near-impossible not to root for Mary’s liberation.
And the liberation she achieves, though limited, is extremely satisfying, not only because her pleasure in reading Spinoza and other philosophers is so vivid but also because Sinclair shows uncompromisingly that a woman can, after all, find joy through her intellect. Compelled each day to parrot her mother’s beliefs and describe her own virtues and happiness as “filthy rags,” Mary privately rebels: before she is even out of childhood, she has rejected Christianity altogether, delving deep into pantheism and the abstractions of continental philosophy. Only in the coldest reaches of Germanic thought can she find space to breathe.
Yet her yearning for human connection never goes away. One of the book’s most chilling scenes presents Mary, as a little girl, begging her mother to say, “I love you.” Again and again she offers her own adoring love, but her mother, taking visible pleasure in the refusal, won’t say the words—in part because (as Mary comes to understand) they wouldn’t be true. She prefers her sons. So Mary’s thirst goes unassuaged by the person she loves most, and her idolized brothers offer no comfort: they, like her, can’t help giving all their devotion to their deceptively gentle, tyrannous mother.
When Mary grows up, her instinct to love matures with her, but because she has been kept in near-total ignorance about sex and romance, she envisions her perfect companion as a comrade of the mind. Men come into her life, intrigued by her unusual ideas, but they don’t stay. And as the novel continues, the reader may feel a growing dissatisfaction with its protagonist—for Mary is complicit in her own imprisonment. Again and again she chooses her mother and the narrow confines of her home over possible escapes: the love of an older man, the chance to travel, the publication of her poems and translations. For years she turns away from these avenues because, rebel though she is, she can’t abandon her family ties—they bind her so tightly that she can’t even feel the urge to abandon them without guilt.
When she finally does break out—luckily for the novel, which would be unbearable without at least one outward rebellion—her adventure is an enormous relief, for the reader as much as for Mary herself. But it’s a long time coming. And though the book ends with her conviction, in middle age, that she has finally discovered the secret of peace, it may well seem to the reader like poor compensation for the many years of isolation and squandered opportunities.
Sinclair, however, had no interest in catering to readers’ hopes, much less Mary’s: she was too aware of how relentlessly life deals out disappointment—and too intent on showing how much satisfaction can nonetheless be wrung from each day. The balance of these two opposites suffuses the entire narrative, giving it a poignant urgency that never flags. Here, for example, is a scene from halfway through the novel—quoted in its entirety—when Mary, seventeen years old, returns from a short interlude at a boarding school to join her parents and brother Roddy at their new home in Yorkshire:
The scent of hay came through the open window of her room. Clearer and finer than the hay smell of the Essex fields.She shut her eyes to live purely in that one sweet sense; and opened them to look at the hill, the great hill heaved up against the east.You had to lean far out of the window to see it all. It came on from the hidden north, its top straight as a wall against the sky. Then the long shoulder, falling and falling. Then the thick trees. A further hill cut the trees off from the sky.Roddy was saying something. Sprawling out from the corner of the window-seat, he stared with sulky, unseeing eyes into the little room.“Roddy, what did you say that hill was?”“Greffington Edge. You aren’t listening.”His voice made a jagged tear in the soft, quiet evening.“And the one beyond it?”“Sarrack. Why can’t you listen?”Greffington Edge. Sarrack. Sarrack.Green fields coming on from the north, going up and up, netted in with the strong net of the low grey walls that held them together, that kept them safe. Above them thin grass, a green bloom on the grey face of the hill. Above the thin grass a rampart of grey cliffs.Roddy wouldn’t look at the hill.“I tell you,” he said, “you’ll loathe the place when you’ve lived a week in it.”The thick, rich trees were trying to climb the Edge, but they couldn’t get higher than the netted fields.The lean, ragged firs had succeeded. No. Not quite. They stood out against the sky, adventurous mountaineers, roped together, leaning forward with the effort.“It’s Mamma’s fault,” Roddy was saying. “Papa would have gone anywhere, but she would come to this damned Morfe.”“Don’t. Don’t—” Her mind beat him off, defending her happiness. He would kill it if she let him. Coming up from Reyburn on the front seat of the Morfe bus, he had sulked. He smiled disagreeable smiles while the driver pointed with his whip and told her the names of the places. Renton Moor. Renton Church. Morfe, the grey village, stuck up on its green platform under the high, purple mound of Karva Hill.Garthdale in front of it, Rathdale at its side, meeting in the fields below its bridge.Morfe was beautiful. She loved it with love at first sight, faithless to Ilford.Straight, naked houses. Grey walls of houses, enclosing the wide oblong Green. Dark grey stone roofs, close-clipped lest the wind should lift them. On the Green two grey stone pillar fountains; a few wooden benches; telegraph poles. Under her window a white road curling up to the platform. Straight, naked houses, zigzagging up beside it. Down below, where the white road came from, the long grey raking bridge, guarded by a tall ash-tree.Roddy’s jabbing voice went on and on:“I used to think Mamma was holy and unselfish. I don’t think so any more. She says she wants to do what Papa wants and what we want; but she always ends by doing what she wants herself. It’s all very well for her. As long as she’s got a garden to poke about in she doesn’t care how awful it is for us.”She hated Roddy when he said things like that about Mamma.“I don’t suppose the little lamb thought about it at all. Or if she did she thought we’d like it.”She didn’t want to listen to Roddy’s grumbling. She wanted to look and look, to sniff up the clear, sweet, exciting smell of the fields.The roofs went criss-crossing up the road—straight—slant—straight. They threw delicate violet-green shadows on to the sage-green field below. That long violet-green pillar was the shadow of the ash-tree by the bridge.The light came from somewhere behind the village, from a sunset you couldn’t see. It made the smooth hill fields shine like thin velvet, stretched out, clinging to the hills.“Oh, Roddy, the light’s different. Different from Ilford. Look—”“I’ve been looking for five weeks,” Roddy said. “You haven’t, that’s all. I was excited at first.”He got up. He stared out of the window, not seeing anything.“I didn’t mean what I said about Mamma. Morfe makes you say things. Soon it’ll make you mean them. You wait.”She was glad when he had left her.The cliffs of Greffington Edge were violet now.
This passage demonstrates the endless drag of her family’s misery on Mary, but it also shows her capacity for happiness, the energy with which she wills herself to appreciate her surroundings. Quiet, unsatisfied, and alone, Mary still keeps going. With passion and intelligence, she nurtures the small spark of her self, and by following its growth Sinclair’s novel becomes a unique exploration of the inner experience.