The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Taken as a whole, May Sinclair’s Mary Olivier argues for treatment of women as individuals deserving the education and career opportunities given men. Mary is more intelligent and sensitive than her brothers Mark, Daniel, and Rodney. Her parents, in particular her mother Caroline, refuse to see Mary’s potential. They discourage her interest in ideas, her reading and writing, and her association with the sort of man who values her mind and sensitivity. Caroline Olivier admits, in old age, that she did not want Mary to marry or to have an education. If she had had six or seven daughters, she adds, she might have chosen one of them as her companion and allowed Mary her independence.

The focus of Sinclair’s satire is the family structure parodied in her treatment of the Oliviers. With an authoritarian father, a religious mother, dotty maiden aunts, and a dashing army-officer brother, Mary lives in a family approaching a Victorian stereotype. Nevertheless, Sinclair handles these minor characters in ways that individualize them. For example, the jealousy which fuels Emilius Olivier’s drinking and mistreatment of his sons rings true, as does the mixture of love and hatred characterizing the feelings of the boys for their mother Caroline. In Sinclair’s eyes, the mother is the villain in the piece. Her intense emotional attachments to her children weaken their wills. None of her sons marries. Mark, Daniel, and Rodney are psychologically...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Mary Olivier

Mary Olivier (oh-lee-VYAY), the protagonist, whose search for happiness is the story of her life and the theme of the novel. Treated with indifference by her mother, she yearns for love but always loses the object of her affections. A bright girl with an independent mind, she is expelled from school for her religious unorthodoxy. Later, she is jilted by Maurice Jourdain because she is too intensely intellectual for a woman. In middle age, she finds a satisfying relationship with the scholar Richard Nicholson but rejects him so that she can care for her mother. At that point, she realizes that happiness does not depend on others but instead lies within herself.

Emilius Olivier

Emilius Olivier (eh-mee-LYEWS), Mary’s father, an impressive man with a red-brown beard and mustache. He is jealous of his wife’s love for her sons and bullies them until he can get them out of the house. He is occasionally kind to Mary only because her mother does not love her. After getting drunk and disgracing the family at the home of the local squire, he is forced to relocate the family in an isolated Yorkshire village. He dies of apoplexy.

Caroline Olivier

Caroline Olivier, Mary’s mother, a soft, pretty woman with brown hair. She struggles to protect her beloved sons from her tyrannical husband. In old age, she has a stroke. Having lost all of her sons, she is now dependent on the daughter whom she has always kept at a distance. Two years after Mary has given up her lover, Caroline...

(The entire section is 661 words.)