Book club

Introduction to Olivia by Dorothy Strachey

‘I have condensed into a few score of pages the history of a whole year when life was, if not at its fullest, at any rate at its most poignant – that year when every vital experience was the first, or, if you Freudians object, the year when I first became conscious of myself, of love and pleasure, of death and pain, and when every reaction to them was as unexpected, as involuntary as the experience itself.’[1]

Our novel for August is Olivia, which explores one young woman’s unfolding adolescent passion. Our shortest book, at just 105 pages, it is part autobiographical, written by the writer and translator Dorothy Strachey (née Bussey, 1865-1960). Strachey wrote the book between 1930 and 1933 but it was not published until 1949, under the pseudonym Olivia, by Hogarth Press, the publishing house founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

First edition copy of ‘Olivia.’

Dorothy Strachey was born in London (as Dorothy Bussey), one of ten surviving children. After spending some of her early years in India with her mother she moved between London, Edinburgh, Fife and the Scottish highlands. At age 16 she went to Les Ruches Finishing School at Avon, Fontainebleau, France, headed by Marie Souvestre (1830-1905). Other well-known pupils at the school were the French lesbian writer, Natalie Barney (1876-1972), and Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat and First Lady of America. Souvestre went on to set up a school in Wimbledon Park where Strachey taught for several years.

Dorothy Strachey wrote Olivia based in part on her own experiences of the finishing school and her own feelings for Souvestre. The book is written in the first person by Olivia, a 16 year old girl at a French finishing school. The book traces the development of her passionate feelings for one of her teachers, Madamoiselle Julie, who runs the school jointly with her female companion, and lover, Mademoiselle Cara. We follow Olivia as she begins to understand and explore the nature of her feelings for Mademoiselle Julie. Her own feelings are set against the backdrop of wider emotional dramas at the school.

Strachey went on to marry the French painter Simon Bussy (1870-1954) in 1903, at the age of 37 and the two had a daughter together. In 1918 she met French writer Andre Gidé (1869-1951) and the two became close friends and collaborators. Strachey held passionate feelings for Gidé over many years, as can be seen in their hundreds of letters to one another.

Dorothy Bussy (née Strachey) by Ray Strachey, NPG x88549

Olivia was Strachey’s only novel. She spent most of her literary career as a translator, translating many of Gidé’s works into English. Yet, when Olivia first came out it was a bestseller. It was adapted into a screenplay by Colette, the French lesbian writer, and was made into a film in 1951.

More recently, in 1999, the book was included on the Publishing Triangle’s list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels of the twentieth century.

Terry Castle suggests that while the book has its weaknesses, few other writers ‘have captured as well as Strachey the giddy amours of adolescence or the shocks of amorous betrayal’.[2]

[1] Dorothy Strachey, Olivia, (London: Vintage Books, 2008), 7.

[2]  ‘Dorothy Strachey’ and excerpt from Olivia, in The Literature of Lesbianism, edited by Terry Castle, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 1015.

Further reading:

Selected Letters of André Gide & Dorothy Bussy. Edited by Richard Tedeschi with an Introduction by Jean Lambert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

‘Dorothy Strachey’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry by D.A. Steel

‘Dorothy Strachey’ and excerpt from Olivia, in The Literature of Lesbianism, edited by Terry Castle, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 1014-1021.

Dorothy Strachey, Olivia, (London: Vintage Books, 2008).

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