Book club

Olivia: Our Readers’ Verdicts

Our readers were reasonably united in finding sixteen-year-old Olivia a difficult character to warm to, describing her variously as ‘intense’ or ‘exhausting’. One of our readers wanted to give her a ‘good shake’, while another said that she disliked her. While some did not find Olivia quite as frustrating as others, she was definitely not as popular as some of the characters we had encountered in our previous book club novels.

Despite this, our readers did on the whole enjoy reading the book and felt that it captured well the intensity and all-consuming nature of young passion or love, particularly love which was apparently, or possibly, unrequited.

One of the first issues our readers discussed was the extent to which Olivia’s feelings for Mademoiselle Julie – joint owner and teacher at her Parisian finishing school – were unrequited. We considered how far Mademoiselle Julie reciprocates Olivia’s feelings, and the ambiguity surrounding their relationship. In a related discussion, we questioned how well the book translates across time. We felt that Mademoiselle Julie’s behaviour would be considered differently today and seen as inappropriate at times. On the one hand, she does not have a relationship with Olivia and does not allow anything physical to happen between them. In this respect, we felt, she exhibited wilful control. However, we questioned other aspects of her behaviour, such as taking Olivia out on special trips to Paris and whispering into her ear at a dance. We felt that these actions were inappropriate because even though Olivia is sixteen, she is still a pupil at the school.

We were uncertain about the extent of Mademoiselle Julie’s feelings for Olivia. We agreed that Mademoiselle Julie enjoys Olivia’s infatuation (and infatuations which other girls held for her). We felt too that she probably does love Olivia but is wrestling with her feelings. In part, we felt that this is because she is aware that they cannot be in a relationship, even once Olivia leaves the finishing school. We were divided on why this might be. Some felt that it was because of their pedagogical relationship. Others felt that Mademoiselle Julie was aware that Olivia was only just starting out in life and that for her Mademoiselle Julie would be just one of many love affairs. We also wondered whether Mademoiselle Julie’s loyalty to her partner, fellow teacher Mademoiselle Cara, even after death, meant that everything surrounding them and the school was tainted.

We pondered the meaning of the gift of an ivory paper-cutter, which Mademoiselle Julie gives Olivia when the school closes. We felt that it could represent both a desire to keep in touch (with the promise of letters) but also a desire to wound. Indeed it does wound Olivia who reflects: ‘She has barricaded and armed herself against me.’[1]

The group agreed that one of the things Strachey does best in the book is to portray not only the intensity of first love, but the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of a finishing school, or similar residential institution. One of our members who had lived in a residential training institution for two or three years after leaving school felt that the book captured perfectly her own experiences of how intense such a setting could be.  She also felt that Strachey’s physical descriptions of the school, including the staircases and corridors, brought back her own memories of being in a similar institution.

Towards the end of our discussion we turned our attention to whether or not Mademoiselle Cara had been murdered. While this is a significant event in the book it is noteworthy that we only felt moved to discuss this towards the end of our session. We concluded that this was because, for most of us, our lasting impression of the book was not the actual events, but rather the atmosphere and the degree of emotional intensity which Strachey evokes.

Olivia seemed to provoke less disagreement or divergent opinions than some of our other books. However, one area which readers were slightly at odds over was whether or not Mademoiselle Julie and Mademoiselle Cara were in a relationship. However, although Strachey does not directly represent the physical side of their relationship, there is every reason for us to assume that the two women were in a lesbian relationship together. Strachey clearly describes the two women as bound together with a shared life:

They were a model couple, deeply attached, tenderly devoted, the gifts of each supplementing the deficiencies of the other. They were admired and loved. They were happy.[2]

As noted in an earlier post on this blog, we felt that in many of the previous novels we have read in the book club we have been able to find a specific passage where the author appeared to speak directly to us as readers, particularly about women’s opportunities in society. We found such a moment in the Introduction which is written in Olivia’s voice, but which we felt was the author speaking directly. In Olivia’s voice, Strachey writes that the ‘chief business’ of her life is ‘love’ and that during this period at the finishing school she was innocent of what love was. Nonetheless, she was also ‘more utterly absorbed [in love] than was ever possible again.’

Dorothy-Bussy-ne-Strachey
Dorothy Bussy (née Strachey) by an unknown photographer, 1900s, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG x38598

Strachey writes, in Olivia’s voice, about the complexity of being able to identify her feelings as love, particularly as it was love for her female teacher:

Was this stab in my heart, this rapture, really mine or had I merely read about it? … How should I have known indeed what was the matter with me? There was no instruction anywhere…my case was so different, so unheard of. Really no-one had ever heard of such a thing, except as a joke. Yes, people used to make joking allusions to “school-girl crushes”. But I knew well enough that my crush was not a joke. And yet I had an uneasy feeling that, if not a joke, it was something to be ashamed of, something to hide desperately.[3]

Strachey’s desire to publish the book anonymously suggests that this sense of shame and of needing to hide her same-sex desires may have continued for many years.

The novel has gone on to be described, by Triangle Publishing in 1999, as being in the Top 100 LGBT novels. Yet sadly, like many of the small number of LGBT novels which preceded it, its characters do not find happiness.[4] While Mademoiselle Julie and Mademoiselle Cara were, arguably, in a happy relationship (certainly in their early years together) this has been destroyed by the end of the novel. And a relationship between Olivia and Mademoiselle Julie is impossible. However, despite this, the book should be celebrated because of its representation of Olivia’s passionate same-sex desire. While not all of our group warmed to Olivia, they did feel that Strachey perfectly captures the intensity of the first awakenings of passionate love and desire.

[1] Dorothy Strachey, Olivia, (London: Vintage, 2008), 100.

[2] Strachey, Olivia, 52.

[3] Strachey, Olivia, 9.

[4] Martha Vicinus argues that many lesbian novels in early twentieth century Britain were marked by pain and melodrama. Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women who loved women, 1778 – 1928 (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2004), 227.

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