Mary Olivier: A Life

May Sinclair (Author) Katha Pollitt (Introduction by)


Originally published alongside Ulysses in the pages of the legendary Little Review, Mary Olivier: A Life is an intimate, lacerating account of the ties between daughter and mother, a book of transfixing images and troubling moral intelligence that confronts the exigencies and ambiguities of freedom and responsibility with empathy and power. May Sinclair's finest novel stands comparison with the work of Willa Cather, Katherine Mansfield, and the young Virginia Woolf.

As a child, Mary Olivier's dreamy disposition and fierce intelligence set her apart from her Victorian family, especially her mother, "Little Mamma," whose dazzling looks cannot hide her meager love for her only daughter. Mary grows up in a world of her own, a solitude that leaves her free to explore her deepest passions, for literature and philosophy, for the austere beauties of England's north country, even as she continues to attend to her family. But in time the independence Mary values--at almost any cost--threatens to become a form of captivity itself.

Product Details

New York Review of Books
Publish Date
June 30, 2002
5.08 X 1.02 X 7.9 inches | 1.0 pounds

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About the Author

May Sinclair (1863-1946) was the daughter of a rigidly dogmatic Christian woman and a failed shipowner who took to the bottle. She attended Cheltenham Ladies' College, where she began a lifelong study of philosophy, finding in the works of Plato, Spinoza, and Kant a refuge from the religion in which she had been raised. In 1904 her novel The Divine Fire was a best seller in America, and helped to make her reputation in England, where she became known not only for her own vividly imagistic and psychologically complex fiction but also for championing a range of challenging new writers. She presented Ezra Pound to Ford Madox Ford, encouraged the work of Charlotte Mew, protested the banning of D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, wrote an early appreciation of T.S. Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations, and--in a review of Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage--introduced the term "stream of consciousness" into critical parlance. A member of the Women Writers Suffrage League, the Aristotelian Society, and the first group to practice Freudian analysis in England, May Sinclair was the author of poems, stories, essays, two works of philosophy, and twenty-four novels, of which Mary Olivier: A Life was her favorite.

Katha Pollitt is a poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation. She is the author of a book of poems, Antarctic Traveller, and two prose collections, Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism and Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.


This extraordinary novel translates traditional novelistic materials into an interiorized modernist narrative with utmost inclusiveness. It makes a savage, ironical analysis of Victorian family life that can be set alongside The Way of All Flesh, Father and Son, To the Lighthouse, or The Fountain Overflows No one will be able to ignore May Sinclair again.
-- Hermione Lee, The Times Literary Supplement

May Sinclair's great literary works tell of the inner lives of quiet women.
-- Joanna Griffiths, London Review of Books