Mary Olivier: A Life


380 pages
ISBN 0-88619-014-2





Reviewed by Joan McGrath

Joan McGrath is a Toronto Board of Education library consultant.


An all but forgotten novel first published in 1919, Mary Olivier: A Life may now be appreciated by a wider audience than that which greeted its radical notions with dismay. This is the story of an intellectually gifted woman born youngest child and only daughter to a mother devoutly committed to the ideal of woman’s selfless service to others — i.e., their menfolk. Her three sons absorb all the mother’s love, and for their success in life she holds the highest, most unrealistic aspirations; but for her daughter’s lonely struggles toward education and self-fulfillment, she has only contempt for what she sees as Mary’s selfish wilfulness. In an era in which young women were very much under the control of their families and the surveillance of their mothers, ardent spirits like Mary Olivier (whose close resemblance to her creator, May Sinclair, has been remarked upon) bed stifled, stunted lives. This exploration of a lifetime of sacrifice and eventual freedom is very much a product of its times, but it is nevertheless readable and meaningful today.


Sinclair, May, “Mary Olivier: A Life,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 10, 2023,