Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Lesbian literary artifact


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Olivia by Dorothy Strachey; Cleis Press, $13.95

The late Dorothy Strachey wrote Olivia, originally published in 1949, as a faux memoir, taking the title of her novel and using it as her pen name. At the time, this was not simply a literary device, but a necessity for a work dealing so specifically with lesbian attraction. Now Cleis Press unearths this ground-breaking work in a new paperback edition.

Strachey married late in life and gave birth to one daughter. Most of her literary endeavors were in the service of Andre Gide, a personal friend; she worked as the primary translator of Gide's work from French into English. In 1933, she sent Gide a copy of Olivia, and when he responded less than enthusiastically, she put it in a drawer for 15 years. In 1949, it was published in London with some success by Hogarth Press.

The current Cleis edition is accompanied by an intelligent foreword by author Regina Marler. Marler correctly observes that the book "is both sexually tame and profoundly erotic." Despite the absence of any graphic lesbian love-making, short of the occasional kissing of hand or brow, Olivia is actually quite a potboiler.

The adolescent Olivia is sent by her British family to a French boarding school for girls run by two headmistresses, Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara, who are clearly lovers. A new teacher, Frau Riesener, has taken up residence at the school and formed a wedge between her two employers. Into this lesbian triangle comes young Olivia, who develops a major crush on Mlle Julie, and, quite innocently, becomes the catalyst for tragedy.

Strachey's story, told in the first person through the eyes of Olivia, is remarkable both for its restraint and for the author's ability to portray the single-minded passion of adolescent romantic obsession. Such unnatural attachments were not spoken of in the 30s when Strachey first penned her novel, nor were they acceptable in the late 40s when it was finally published. Although Olivia is not a well of loneliness, it does affirm social values of the time which dictated that such unnatural attachments could only lead to misery and scorn. Today it is a curiosity and something of a literary artifact, although highly readable. Those who look closely will find story elements that subsequently surface with great success in later works like Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour and Pierre Boileau's Diabolique .

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