What is it about tragic, doomed romances that makes them such irresistible reading? Especially in this day and age? We know, at long last, that it’s possible for queer relationships to turn out happily and for queer books to have happy endings. We have no shortage of joyous depictions in print to choose from.
Yet those classic tragedies retain a power and magnetism that often surpasses their more upbeat contemporary cousins. Perhaps it’s because so many of their authors were writing from bitter first-hand experience and exorcising personal ordeals in print. There’s a power in that. Literature produced because it’s the only outlet for experience exists on a different plane from carefully crafted commercial storytelling. It has a power and authenticity that’s visceral, and even if it indulges in excess or melodrama, it manages to touch a chord inside us that writing simply for the sake of writing often misses.
Of course, we ought never to romanticize queer tragedy, nor an era in which repressive and backward social norms brought about tremendous suffering and unhappiness for so many people. And let us also acknowledge there have been significant numbers of same-sex partners who lived happy lives as couples and in spite of terribly repressive social and legislative regimes, in the distant past as well as today. Many of those stories are only now being reclaimed from the obscurity of an all-too heterocentric history. But as countless authors have noted, repression – and repressed desire in particular – is often channeled into creative works of unsurpassed power, of literature and poetry in particular.
In its opening pages, the author-cum-narrator laments the fact that love has been “poisoned” by psychologists, physiologists, psycho-analysts – “the Prousts and the Freuds.” Olivia, she writes, is her “offering on the altar of absence.”
The book has been in and out of print since its initial publication in 1949, but it’s been recognized as a masterpiece from the beginning. It was even made into a French film by Jacqueline Audry in 1951. Its latest reissue by Penguin Classics features a new introduction by André Aciman, award-winning author of Call Me By Your Name. (PopMatters’ review of Luca Guadagnino’s film adaption can be read here.) Aciman does a superb job of contextualizing the book’s history and its sustained power (it helped inspire his own bestseller, he admits, which he envisaged as a male version of Olivia and once whimsically considered calling Oliver).
Olivia almost emerged as a masterpiece 15 years before it was published, but when Strachey shyly and nervously shared it with her close friend and eminent author André Gide, asking his opinion, he did what most creative male egos do when confronted with a work of superior genius by a woman: he downplayed and ignored it. She stuffed the draft away in a drawer for a decade and a half.
It’s remarkable that although Strachey was deeply ensconced in the Bloomsbury literary community – her brother was the eminent writer Lytton Strachey, and she was Gide’s English translator – she only wrote the one novel, and then only when she was in her late 60s. It wasn’t until she was in her 80s that she mustered the courage to share the draft once more, this time with some women friends of hers. They instantly hailed it a masterpiece and saw to it that it was published without delay.
It’s a shame she wasn’t encouraged earlier, because judging by the clever, witty style and the profound depths of emotional characterization Olivia shows her capable of, one can only imagine what other beautiful books she could have penned over her long lifetime.
We are however fortunate to have at least the one. Olivia is a novel rooted in Strachey’s experience. Its simple plot follows Olivia, a British teenager from a well-to-do family, who is sent off to France for a ‘finishing year’ at a prestigious female boarding school. She falls in love with one of her teachers, Mlle Julie, who it is clear reciprocates her feelings but is conscious – as the young Olivia is not — of the many taboos that would be crossed in a same-sex relationship between teacher and student in the late 1800s. One gets the impression Mlle Julie has had first-hand experience crossing those taboos before.
The nascent relationship is further troubled by other pre-existing power dynamics and conflicts at the boarding school. One can well imagine there’s no way such a setup in that era was going to turn out happily.
But it’s not for the plot that one reads Olivia. It’s for the beauty of the language, for the depths of perception Strachey achieves in plumbing her young character for emotional insight. Strachey takes the reader by the hand and helps them rediscover the complexity and contradictions of first love. The reader comes to crave those sparse moments of intimacy just as much as Olivia does, and to experience them with a crest of feeling on par with Olivia’s own.
Indeed, Strachey writes with striking psychological power and perception. Her portrayal of personality is superb, and her description of feeling and intimacy, hope and disappointment, are crushingly poignant. The reader feels – much like Olivia – that it doesn’t really matter how things turn out in the end; what matters is the moment, those brief few spaces of intimacy that justify all the pent-up longing which fills the intervening pages.
It’s all the more remarkable an achievement when one considers that managed to revisit her teenage consciousness so perceptively, recreating such fickle and confused emotions, such powerful depth of feeling, despite the passage of so many decades from her experience of first love.
Just how true to life the story remains a matter of conjecture. (Shameless celebrity hosts and unremitting social media gossip would doubtless have drawn it out of Strachey if she published the book today.) The contours of the story match her history closely. As a teenager, she attended Les Ruches (‘the beehives’), a French boarding school whose parallel in the novel is called Les Avons. The real-life Les Ruches was founded and operated by Marie Souvestre, a prestigious, charismatic, feminist educator who was also a lesbian and founded the school with one of her lovers.
Marie Souvestre (no restrictions / Wikipedia)
She’s the clear model for Mlle Julie in the novel, Olivia’s (ie Strachey’s) crush. When Souvestre and her partner separated, she moved to England with one of the other teachers, an Italian woman, where they founded Allenswood Academy and lived together for the remainder of their lives. This narrative chronology is echoed in Olivia as well. Souvestre’s students included a host of well-known women and several lesbians, including Natalie Barney and Eleanor Roosevelt. One gets hints of this too in Olivia, where the protagonist hears whispers of other student ‘favourites’ past and present.
Strachey herself seemed torn about how to claim her story publicly. It was originally published as Olivia under the authorial pen-name Olivia. Olivia was the name of Strachey’s sister who died as an infant, and it seems that in adopting the name Strachey is asserting the autobiographical nature of the story (the fact that author and protagonist are one), while remaining understandably hesitant to publish a clearly lesbian memoir under her name in the still-repressive 1950s.
Her friends and publisher alike urged her to ditch the pseudonym and use her own name – they wanted her to get the literary recognition she deserved – but she balked, even though she didn’t really exert any effort to keep her identity as its author a secret. Subsequent editions have identified her as its author, but one wonders whether it would then be more appropriate to call the book ‘Dorothy’, retaining the alignment between author and protagonist that she established in its first iteration.
However complicated the backstory, Olivia remains a simple and beautiful novel. It has the flavour of Victorian melodrama, but not to any excessive degree. What melodrama there is, is easily offset by the perceptive first-person psychological insight which accompanies it. Isn’t love, by its very nature, often melodramatic? Especially when viewed through hindsight?
The short, slim novel (a mere 100 pages) has moments of exceptional beauty and poignancy. Descriptions of Paris, descriptions of poetry, descriptions of people, all work to animate the reader’s emotional register. Olivia, craving recognition of her feelings from Mlle Julie, is susceptible to the slightest variation in attitude, tone, or look from her crush. They can send her soaring on emotional highs, or crash her on debilitating, depressing lows.
My brain was whirling…What did it all mean? Why did I suddenly feel as if I were surrounded by horrors, as if the landscape, which a moment before had shone with an almost celestial radiance, were clouded now with darkness, full of abominable pitfalls and lurking hideous monsters?…In so short a time to be cast from the glories of Paradise into this direful region! It was the first time I learnt how near, how contiguous, are the gates of Heaven and Hell.
How near – how true.
One detects in the story’s denouement a tone of rebuke, the only glimmer of social commentary in what is otherwise a deeply psychological, emotional book. No, that’s not true, because the penning of the book – a love affair related with such emotional and narrative intensity – is itself a statement. But there is a particular poignancy in an exchange that occurs between Mlle Julie and Olivia near the end, when Mlle Julie tries to justify her emotional ambivalence toward Olivia. As usual, the characters speak in oblique terms, although it’s obvious what they’re referring to.
It has been a struggle all my life – but I have always been victorious – I was proud of my victory.” And then her voice changed, broke, deepened, softened, became a murmur: “I wonder now whether defeat wouldn’t have been better for us all – as well as sweeter.” Another long pause. She turned now and looked at me, and smiled. “You, Olivia, will never be victorious, but if you are defeated –” how she looked at me! “when you are defeated –” she looked at me in a way that made my heart stand still and the blood rush to my face, to my forehead, till I seemed to be wrapped up in flame – then she suddenly broke off and brushed her hand across her eyes, as if brushing away an importunate vision. When I saw them again, they were extinguished and lifeless.
In a novel in which the characters are surprisingly open about their feelings for each other – “Everything is withheld and yet all is unavoidably transparent”, observes Aciman in his introduction – it is at the end that the closet suddenly appears, in Mlle Julie’s library. Mlle Julie admits she’s struggled all her life with her feelings, and has managed to avoid succumbing to the love she feels. Moreover, she valorizes her homophobic repression as ‘resistance’.
One detects in Strachey’s recounting of the moment a combination of feelings. There is anger and resentment at Mlle Julie for resisting her feelings and pushing away the joy they both know they find in each other. And yet there is also sadness and pity, at the realization that Mlle Julie has spent a lifetime trying to rationalize this self-abnegation, this denial of her love for other women, as a noble struggle in which she has proven victorious, despite the obvious cost to her soul and to their mutual happiness.
Strachey herself, although married to the painter Simon Bussy, had relationships with other women. During a stint as a teacher, she also taught the young Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt lurks as a mysterious presence around the narrative. One of the book’s characters is Cecile – a beautiful American also favoured by Mlle Julie and of whom Olivia is desperately jealous. Eleanor, perhaps?
But other commentators have suggested that the mysterious Laura, a young graduate of the school also beloved of Mlle Julie and whom Olivia meets and is smitten by. “Oh, Laura,” I cried, “When shall I see you again?” “When you leave school, we shall see each other very often. We’re going to be friends all our lives.” And so, dear Laura, we have been,” writes Strachey. It’s been suggested that Laura is a stand-in for Eleanor. And yet Strachey also taught Eleanor during her stint as a teacher at Allenswood. Might one detect a hint of desire toward her former student informing Strachey’s insightful exposition of Mlle Julie’s own tortured feelings toward her pupil(s)?
All this is tangential gossip, of course. It doesn’t matter who is whom, or how much of the story is even true, for that matter. What matters is that Olivia is a beautiful glimpse at the fickle flames of love, at what it is like to straddle that shaky, precarious boardwalk between the contiguous gates of Heaven and Hell. It was a masterpiece when it was first written nearly 100 years ago, and it remains a masterpiece today. Not only does it stand up to the test of time, but in its exquisite attention to language, to feeling, its desperate determination to cultivate sensation and longing in the reader, it easily surpasses many of the more positive narratives that characterize modern gay and lesbian literature.
It’s good that we have our happy stories today, but it’s also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. A book like this underscores just how true it is that one cannot deny love. If repressed in real life, it will sometimes emerge through the creative voice – and produce gorgeous novels like Olivia.
Image by Nana-ne from Pixabay