Tracing Mary Olivier’s evolving consciousness from her first memory of lying in her crib at the age of two, May Sinclair stresses the basis in experience of her protagonist’s psychological development. Mary’s earliest memories are of sharing her parents’ bedroom, of being attracted to her mother’s breast and repulsed by her father’s lifted nightshirt. She senses the tension that exists between her parents and creates a scene when, carried down to the family dinner table, she is forced to sit on Emilius’ lap and sip from his glass of port. Mary recognizes that she cannot depend upon her mother’s and father’s feelings for her. Emilius gives her a stuffed lamb for a birthday gift, but he also allows her to run and fall in the dining room, cutting her head on a metal fireguard. Caroline is terrified by the accident into an expression of maternal concern, but Mary knows that she comes behind her brothers Mark, Daniel, and Rodney, in her mother’s heart.
Emilius and Caroline force Mary and her brothers to conform to rigid patterns of conventional behavior. They hold out as examples of the consequences of wrong conduct a series of relatives. Whenever she questions religious training, Mary is reminded of the case of Emilius’ sister Lavinia, a spinster who has converted to Unitarianism. Whenever Mary shows interest in young men, her parents refer to the case of Aunt Charlotte, Emilius’ other sister, a woman beset with the conviction that every man she has glimpsed wants to marry her. Mary’s eldest brother, Mark, escapes the claustrophobic family...
(The entire section is 643 words.)