Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643
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 atmosphere by becoming a career army officer and shipping out to India. Rodney emigrates to Canada to become a farmer, but he comes home to die when his heart cannot withstand the physical strain. Daniel, like his father, finds solace in drinking and depends for employment on Emilius’ brother Victor.
On the surface, Mary is more victimized than her brothers by her parents’ notions of propriety. Poorly educated and untrained for any occupation except wife or companion to elderly parents, Mary reads hungrily, initially in the classics, which formed the foundation of her brothers’ education, and later in the works of Benedict de Spinoza, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Charles Darwin. She seeks answers to questions about the meaning of human existence, and in her search for answers draws close to a series of men. Her adolescent attraction to Mark’s schoolmate Jimmy Ponsonby, sent to Australia for a breach of the public school code, gives way to a more mature attraction to Maurice Jourdain. Nearly twenty years her senior, Jourdain seems to be sympathetic to her need to explore ideas, but when Mary sees that he does not want her to be his intellectual equal, she turns for friendship to Mr. Sutcliffe, the squire of Greffington Hall. Mr. Sutcliffe is married; he encourages her to read and to write poetry. Mary does not recognize how he feels about her until she meets his nephew Richard Nicholson, a classics scholar who arranges the publication of her poems and of a translation of the Euripides’ Bacchae.
Richard Nicholson would be an ideal husband and companion. He is sympathetic to Mary’s interests and supports her work as a translator. By the time Mary meets him, however, she is middle-aged. Her father has suffered business losses in Essex and moved his family to Yorkshire, where his alcoholism culminates in an apoplectic stroke. Mark dies suddenly in India, and Rodney’s heart gives out despite Mary’s careful nursing. Daniel is a drunken burden, not a source of help, and Mary will not leave her mother, slipping into senility, to marry Richard. They agree to go their separate ways, and Mary learns of his marriage to another lady only ten days after Caroline Olivier’s death.
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