As the novels The Three Sisters (1914), Tree of Heaven (1917), and Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1920) suggest, May Sinclair returns time and again in her work to the subject of unmarried, middle-class women living in England at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. In Mary Olivier, she gives her most exhaustive, and perhaps her most satisfying, analysis of the character and situation of the kind of woman whose life attracts her. It is the character closest to Sinclair’s own life as well. Both novelist and character were two years old in 1865. Like Mary, Sinclair had an alcoholic father and a domineering mother, and suffered the decline of family fortune and status. Yet despite the persona created for herself in Mary Olivier, the book is chiefly an objective account of one woman’s successful struggle against repression. The coupling of stream-of-consciousness with third-person narrative suggests the degree to which Sinclair distanced herself from the material and became an objective analyst, even a scientific observer, during the writing of the novel itself.
In a review of a novel in Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” series (1915-1938), Sinclair used William James’s term “stream of consciousness” to describe Richardson’s rendering of the working of a character’s mind. In Mary Olivier: A Life and Life and Death of Harriett Frean, Sinclair evolved her own kind of stream of consciousness, closer to the realism of other novelists than is Richardson’s work, to probe the minds of the women whose lives interested her. The early pages of both books compare favorably to the opening of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), in which he renders the language and thoughts of a young boy. Sinclair’s novel also bears favorable comparison with Samuel Butler’s Ernest Pontifex: Or, The Way of All Flesh (1903) as a study of the effects of Victorian mores on the lives of ordinary men and women. Sinclair’s is the only substantial analysis of this subject from the vantage point of a female character.