Welcome to a small world in which “a world in which everything was fierce and piercing, everything charged with strange emotions, clothed with extraordinary mysteries, and in which I myself seemed to exist only as an inner core of palpitating fire.” Isn’t that a place you want to go?
I happened across this slim novella by chance in the classics section of a nearby indie bookstore. The author’s surname caught my eye, and I did a quick search to see if she was related to that other Strachey, the one I was in the middle of reading at that time and who keeps popping up in the Virginia Woolf biography I’m working through. Sure enough, Dorothy Strachey was indeed the sister of Lytton Strachey, a woman on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group; she married a French painter who was friends with Henri Matisse, and had an affair at one point with Ottoline Morrell, a patron of a number of artists and writers. She was also friends with and translator of French Nobel laureate André Gide, and he in fact was the first person who read Olivia, though he gave her zero feedback on it (boooo! men are so unhelpful!). Partly as a result, it wasn’t published until 1949, by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, and Strachey insisted on the first editions being published anonymously. It was based, in part, on her own experience as a young woman at the boarding school Les Ruches, in France, run by Marie Souvestre, who later founded another school in England and educated other such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt.
The plot is fairly simple: Olivia, the protagonist, is sent off to a finishing school in France in the late 1800s, which is run by a pair of unmarried Frenchwomen, Mlle Julie and Mlle Clara, who were once upon a time close friends, but have been driven apart, perhaps by competition for the admiration of their pupils, perhaps also by the German teacher who has attached herself to Mlle Clara and encourages her to see herself as fragile and greatly put-upon. (Yes, there is a lot of homoerotic suggestion in the relationships between all three women.) Another pupil tells Olivia soon after she arrives that all the students either draw toward Mlle Julie or Mlle Clara, and sure enough, Olivia is no exception: she becomes enraptured with the elegant, sophisticated Mlle Julie, much to Mlle Clara’s distress. Although Olivia hears of–and even meets one of–Mlle Julie’s previous favorites, she cannot help her profound infatuation with her teacher, yearning for every opportunity for closeness. Certainly Mlle Julie seems equally adoring of Olivia, yet she will not cross that final line and consummate the affair.
As a result, this is a story of intense yearning more than anything else, with all of Olivia’s passions hinging upon a glance, the touch of a hand, the hearing of a footstep outside her door. Strachey beautifully captures the intense emotional interiors of Olivia, her constant and fruitless yearning. But, of course, this is a love that is not to be, and, honestly, I preferred it that way, because Mlle Julie had to be at least fifteen years older than Olivia and in a position of power over her: to see her choose, ultimately, to never cross that line rendered the story poignant and also is what holds it back from true tragedy when this delicate, passionate house of cards all comes fluttering down.
It is almost too short: I wouldn’t have minded another 15 pages or so to round matters out just a bit. And it’s not, I think, a work I’ll include in the class I’m planning, but it was truly a pleasure to read: Strachey’s prose is enjoyably swooning, and Olivia herself, even telling the story in retrospective, has an earnestness and vitality to her recollection that is deeply winning. She says at one point, “I understand at last. Life, life, life, this is life, full to overflowing with every ecstasy and every agony. It is mine, mine to hug, to exhaust, to drain.” And the work does indeed absolutely pulse with energy and life and desire.
It’s an influential work, too: the foreword in this Penguin edition was contributed by Andre Aciman, the writer of Call Me By Your Name, who credits Strachey’s novella as a vital inspiration and forerunner to his own most famous novel. If you want to idle away in afternoon with some dreamy queer desire, you could definitely spend the time with Olivia.