July 3, 2020 at 3:26 pm EDT | by Kathi Wolfe
Classic queer novel ‘Olivia’ gets deserved reissue
Olivia book review
(Image courtesy Penguin Classics)

‘Olivia’

By Dorothy Strachey

Penguin Classics

June 9

$15

128 pages

There’s breakfast in bed on your birthday, the text break-up, the great Valentine’s Day date and the night when your romantic partner prefers binge-watching Netflix to having sex. But nothing leaves you so blissed out, yet so sucker-punched as your first crush. Especially if you’re young, queer and in the throes of your first love.

“Olivia,” by Dorothy Strachey, rereleased on June 9, is an elegant, evocative, absorbing love story. Set in the 19th century in Les Avons, a finishing school outside Paris, it takes us into the solar plexus of Olivia, 16, in the midst of her first infatuation. Olivia, an English girl who’s been sent by her family to Les Avons, has a crush on Mlle Julie, a founder of the school and one of its headmistresses. The story is narrated by Olivia, decades later, as she recalls the first time she was possessed by love. Andrè Aciman, author of “Call Me by Your Name,” has written a fascinating introduction to the volume.

Strachey’s tale would be a striking coming-of-age story no matter when it was published. What makes it even more remarkable — even groundbreaking — is that it was originally published in 1949.

A film of “Olivia” with the same name, directed by the French filmmaker Jacqueline Audry, released in France in 1951 and in New York in 1954, is streaming now on the Criterion Channel. The film with its Parisian scenes and repressed, but not totally hidden, queer desire, is well-worth watching with your favorite libation in hand.

Today, queer romances are Amazon bestsellers. But until recently (the late 1990s-early 2000s), most tales of LGBTQ passion ended with the illness, death or imprisonment of their queer protagonists. Stories of open, unpunished LGBTQ love were frequently banned and their authors often used pseudonyms.

The history of “Olivia” is as engaging as the novella itself. When the volume was first published, Strachey used a pseudonym. It was released as “Olivia” by Olivia.  

“Over the years, “the author’s true identity has stopped being the poorly guarded secret it once was,” Aciman writes.

Strachey wrote “Olivia” 15 years before it was published. In 1933, she sent her manuscript of “Olivia” to her friend, the renowned queer French author Andrè Gide. As Aciman notes in his introduction, Gide wasn’t much impressed with Strachey’s work.

“Three evenings I delved into those pathetic reminiscences,” Gide wrote dismissively to Strachey, who was the translator of his works into English. “How few are the ashes that even today cover so much flame.”

After doing nothing with it for over a decade, in 1949, Strachey submitted it to the Hogarth Press, which was helmed by Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s husband. After it was accepted for publication, Strachey wrote Gide (who when he was an editor at the French publisher Gallinard had rejected Proust).

“As repentant and embarrassed as with Proust,” Gide replied by telegram.

Since its initial release, “Olivia” has fallen in and out of print. In later editions, Strachey was named as its author.

Strachey, who was bisexual, was inspired to write “Olivia” by her experience as a student in Les Ruches, a girls school in France. Eleanor Roosevelt who had relationships with women was also a pupil at this school. Strachey’s mother was friends with Marie Souvestre, who ran Les Ruches.

Olivia’s love for Mlle Julie is heart-stopping.

“Was this stab in my heart, this rapture, really mine or had I merely read about it?” Olivia wonders.

Years later Olivia says of this time, “I was without consciousness, that is to say, more utterly absorbed than was ever possible again.”

Mlle Julie runs the school with Mlle Cara. Though the word lesbian isn’t used, the two women who lived together, appear to have a same-sex relationship. Olivia’s passion grows as tensions develop within the couple.

It’s not too much of a reveal to say that Olivia’s affections are unrequited. Mlle Julie is aware of her crush. She likely is attracted to Olivia, yet, she’s the adult in the room; she doesn’t acquiesce to Olivia’s desire.

Though tinged with melancholy, “Olivia” is filled with hope. Without being sappy, this luminous, queer novel radiates love and beauty. It inspired Aciman to write “Call Me by Your Name.” What more could you ask of a book?

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