Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Translating Desire: Queer Affect, Autobiography, and Involuntary Love in Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia

Dorothy Strachey, the older sister of the biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey, and of the psychoanalyst and translator of Sigmund Freud, James Strachey, published her only novel, Olivia, in 1949, under the pseudonym of “Olivia.”[1] Written in 1933, when Olivia Strachey was 68, and only published when she was 83, Olivia, set in the 1880s, tells the story of a 16-year old girl from London, who is sent to a French “pension,” Les Avons, just outside of Paris. Olivia is immediately enchanted by the school’s international atmosphere, the cultural richness of the school curriculum, and above all by the charismatic Mlle Julie, with whom she falls deeply in love. Over the course of the school year, Olivia’s relationship with Mlle Julie develops in intensity, until the novel’s tragic ending.

Olivia’s storyline is loosely based on the year Strachey spent at Les Ruches, a boarding school just outside of Paris, under the direction of the charismatic Marie Souvestre, which makes it tempting to read the text as a form of fictional autobiography. Olivia can also be read as part of the tradition of girls' boarding school narratives in which the narrator is looking backward to a time when she experienced same-sex love in a boarding school setting, as in, for example, Colette's Claudine à l'école (1900) and “Nuit blanche” (1908), Christa Winsloë’s The Child Manuela (1933), and Dorothy Manning’s The Chinese Garden (1962). In “Lesbian Intertextuality,” Elaine Marks describes this mode of lesbian fiction as containing characters “whose existence in a text is due to a prior existence in what it is difficult not to call ‘life.’”[2] To this extent, girls’ boarding school novels addressed to adults tend to draw on their autobiographical roots, journeying between memoir and fiction, and past and present, often through a nostalgic backward gaze that simultaneously gestures towards alternative futures.

The aim of this essay is to analyze how queer desire in Olivia emerges as a defining experience through the interplay between fiction and memory, translation and nostalgia, and the questioning of linear temporality. It will consider how each of these strands weave themselves through the novel to create a vision of queer desire that challenges much of the early twentieth century’s prevailing discourses on sexuality. I will begin by examining the biographical and autobiographical context for Olivia, and then show how the novel makes use of the concept of translation and translatability—both as a narrative technique and as a trope—in order to challenge narratives of linear time and to posit queer desire not as an accident of context, but as foundational to the structure of desire itself. I will then examine how the question of translation is tied to that of nostalgia, and read Olivia through these key concepts.

Strachey, Gide, and the Role of Translation

In the novel’s Introduction, which prefaces the main narrative, Olivia stages her story in autobiographical terms, claiming that: “Its truth has been filtered, transposed, and, maybe, superficially altered, as is inevitably the case with all autobiographies.”[3] This fictional narrative therefore presents itself as an autobiography while warning the reader that all autobiography is also, to some extent, fictional. As a narrator, Olivia explicitly foregrounds what Paul de Man sees as the “undecidability” of the autobiographical project, and how “the distinction between fiction and autobiography is not an either/or polarity.”[4] In turn, this play with the status of autobiography raises inevitable questions concerning Strachey's actual life narrative: did she in fact experience a boarding-school romance with her teacher? Why did she write this, her only novel, at such a late stage? What made her turn her gaze backwards to these boarding school years as the site of her literary endeavor?

Although these questions remain speculative, they can help to direct our reading of Olivia. There is clearly a strong link between the composition of Olivia and Strachey’s early experience of French culture. While Strachey’s year at Les Ruches turned her into a committed Francophile—leading to her eventual marriage, in 1903, to the French painter Simon Bussy, and to her settling in Roquebrune in the South of France—her Francophile identity was further cemented when she met André Gide in 1918, not only a renowned French author, but also a relatively open gay man. Their relationship developed both a professional and a personal quality, as Strachey eventually became the principal translator of Gide's work, and also developed an unrequited passion for Gide that was to last until his death in 1951 (fig. 1).

Portrait of Dorothy Strachey by “Ray” Strachey (ca. 1923).
Fig. 1. Portrait of Dorothy Strachey by “Ray” Strachey (ca. 1923).

This passion seems to have been sublimated to some degree through Strachey's role as Gide's translator. According to Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright, not only did Strachey produce “amongst the most valuable documents in the history of translation,” but the two of them also wrote to each other in their respective native languages.[5] This constant movement between languages became its own form of seduction, creating a love of language between “excruciatingly sensitive translators” (Caws and Wright, Bloomsbury, 345) that enabled a connectivity that was neither physical nor explicitly erotic, yet that produced what Caws and Wright have called “an inexhaustible relationship” (344).

Strachey’s professional and personal relationship with Gide also brought her into a more intimate intellectual connection with the queer side of modernism, since she found herself as Gide’s friend and confidant in close proximity to his intimate homosexual experiences. Furthermore, as part of the Bloomsbury group—of which Gide, as one of the founders of the journal La Nouvelle Revue Française, was the “French equivalent”—Strachey was no stranger to the period's queer subculture” (Caws and Wright, Bloomsbury, 8). Not only was her brother Lytton an adherent of the notion of “the Higher Sodomy,” but references to Oscar Wilde appear in the Gide-Strachey correspondence, as does Strachey’s meeting with Natalie Barney.[6] Strachey will dedicate Olivia to Virginia Woolf, whose Orlando was published in 1928, the same year as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, showing the extent to which Strachey was embedded in a queer literary world that traversed and defined her heteronormative one.

These intricate biographical ties between translation as a form of sublimation for unrequited love, and Strachey's connection to a modernist queer subculture, all leave their traces in Olivia. Strachey’s encounter with French culture at a young age enabled a simultaneous translation of sensibilities from what her narrator describes as “duty, work, abnegation” to a sense of openness and discovery that reflected the broader trend of the Bloomsbury group's orientation towards France, what Kathryn Holland calls the “Anglo-French modernist network” (“Bussy,” 168). In 1923, Virginia Woolf wrote to the painter Jacques Raverat: “How much more enjoyable in some queer way France is than England!”[7] It is in light of this notion of a “queer way” between cultural and sexual spaces—shaped by translation, a queer backward gaze, and queer sexuality—that we can begin to unpack the narrative of Olivia.

The Fiction of Autobiography

From both an intra- and an extra-textual perspective, Strachey plays with the undecidable status of her novel. To Gide, she writes: “J’espère que vous n’avez pas cru que toute mon histoire était vraie. Une grande partie l’était, mais une plus grande part encore ne l’était pas” (I hope you didn't think that my entire story was true. A large part of it was, but an even larger part wasn’t).[8] Echoing her narrator, Olivia, Strachey here playfully moves between “truth” and fiction, and between autobiography and story. As Strachey implies to Gide, Olivia’s narrative destabilizes the ground upon which the reading contract takes place, demonstrating “the impossibility of closure and of totalization . . . of all systems made up of tropological substitutions” (de Man “Autobiography,” 922). Olivia is not only a fictional narrative making claims to autobiographical authenticity, but as we shall see, it uses queer desire to make certain claims about the metaphysical meanings of truth and love.

More recently, Harald Emeis has convincingly argued that Strachey extensively plundered her correspondence with Gide in order to write her novel, adding a further layer of biographical “material” to the text. For Emeis, Olivia is less the story of Strachey’s boarding school past than “l’histoire romancée de ses rapports avec Gide au cours des années 1918-1933” (a romanticized version of her relationship with Gide during the years 1918-1933).[9] Emeis therefore reads a heterosexual subtext into Olivia’s lesbian storyline, arguing that, “L’assurance qu’elle n'a pas fait de l’ami admiré un héros de roman n’exclut pas la possibilité qu’elle en a fait une héroïne, moyen de camouflage efficace et assez répandu” (The assurance that she has not turned an admired friend into the hero of a novel does not exclude the possibility that she turned him into a heroine, an effective and fairly widespread form of camouflage) (“Olivia,” 8). While there is undoubtedly a great deal of Gide in Olivia, Emeis’s reading also effectively erases the novel’s privileging of queer desire by translating it back into a heterosexual romance, albeit a queer-ish one, considering Gide's own sexuality. Also absent from Emeis’s analysis is that the central theme of the boarding school romance had been preoccupying Strachey before she ever met Gide.

Around 1917, Strachey wrote a three-act play called Miss Stock’s School that was never published, describing a romance between the student Phyllis Winter and her teacher Miss Harley.[10] In Olivia, Miss Stock is invoked at the beginning as the teacher who ran the Wesleyan school Olivia attended before Les Avons. However, while Miss Stock is referred to three times in Olivia, there is no mention of the play itself. In her analysis of the play, Holland argues that it “contests cultural anxieties about erotic pedagogy and acquired inversion that gained momentum in the British press via Clemence Dane's novel Regiment of Women (1917)” (“Bussy,” 167). Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women is itself a fascinating account of a predatory teacher in a boarding school setting that appears to endorse contemporary theories of same-sex desire as a form of pathological deviance. As Holland suggests, it would seem that Strachey was not only aware of but actively resisting such theories, and offering a very different reading of lesbian desire well before the composition of Olivia. As Phyllis, Miss Stock’s School’s central character, says: “I'm perfectly certain that the love of a girl for a woman . . . makes one understand all the most wonderful things in the world—poetry and music and everything that is beautiful” (167). In this Sapphic model of pedagogical seduction, same-sex desire emerges as the highest good.

Holland claims that the play was not published “because of its controversial subject,” yet it seems to have garnered interest from both Gide and Virginia Woolf, who lists it as one of the manuscripts promised to the Hogarth Press (168).[11] In a letter dated April 17, 1932, Gide asks for a copy of “cette étrange comédie que vous m’aviez donnée à lire, il y a deux ou trois ans ?” (this strange play that you gave me to read, two or three years ago?) (Correspondance, 10:420). Gide links Miss Stock’s School to the recently produced German film Mädchen in Uniform (1931), scripted by Christa Winsloë, which tells the story of Manuela, a female student in a Prussian boarding school who falls in love with her teacher. Gide claims that Mädchen in Uniform “se passe dans la même atmosphere” [takes place in the same atmosphere] as Miss Stock's School, and he asks Strachey to “Envoyez vite le manuscrit!” (send the manuscript quickly!), with the idea of having his lover, Marc Allégret, turn it into a film. Although nothing comes of this project, Gide is so excited by it that “ça [lui] fait tourner la tête” (it was obsessing him) (10:420). Therefore, rather than positing that Olivia’s composition is based almost exclusively on Strachey’s relationship with Gide, as Emeis does, it would be more accurate to argue that Gide enabled the transition between Miss Stock’s School and Olivia, encouraging Strachey to take seriously a theme that had been preoccupying her prior to their initial encounter.

Written in 1933, the year after Gide’s excitement over Miss Stock’s School, Olivia is unsurprisingly offered to Gide first, but in the form of a secret in the post scriptum to a letter dated December 5, 1933: “Un secret absolu. J’ai écrit un livre! Un livre très court, mais je meurs d’envie de vous le montrer. Personne d’autre au monde ne le sait, ni sans doute ne le saura jamais. Je ne pensais pas le dire quand j’ai commencé cette lettre.” (A total secret. I've written a book! A very short book, but I'm dying to show it to you. No one else in the world knows about it, nor will they probably ever. I didn’t think I would tell you when I started this letter) (10:511). Ironically, for Strachey, the revelation of having written a novel is highlighted as far more of a “coming out” moment than is its queer content, thereby binding the question of authorship to that of queer desire. The language Strachey uses is also that of the closet, of secrecy, of the fear of being exposed, so that being laid bare as a writer becomes itself a “queer” experience.

This fear is then compounded by Gide's lukewarm response to Olivia, particularly in light of his enthusiasm for Miss Stock’s School. In 1948, Strachey reminds Gide that when he read the novel in 1933, he found it, “pas très entraînant” (not very stirring), which means Strachey would return Olivia to the closet until 1948, at which time, as Leonard Woolf eagerly accepts it for the Hogarth Press, Gide will apologize profusely for not having seen the merit in this small masterpiece.[12] In 1948, amid his newfound praise for Olivia, Gide makes only one suggested correction. In the final chapter, at the point when Olivia is trying to ascertain Mlle Julie’s state of mind once her teacher has turned away from her, Olivia speculates that Mlle Julie: “had been disgusted.” In response to this line, Gide writes: “Vous savez bien que ce n'est pas le dégoût qui cause son retrait, à elle, mais la peur” (You know very well that it's not disgust that causes her withdrawal, but fear) (Correspondance, 11:498). Gide is encouraging Strachey not only to be more explicit about queer desire, but also to refuse the standard narrative of shame and disgust that dominated much queer writing of the period. While Strachey will not follow Gide’s advice here, his intervention reveals the openness of their discussions around same-sex love (fig. 2).

Cover of Olivia, 1st edition (1949), Hogarth Press.
Fig. 2. Cover of Olivia, 1st edition (1949), Hogarth Press.

The contextual underpinnings of the composition of Olivia help to frame the novel’s key preoccupations. As a queer female-centered narrative that questions the supremacy of heterosexual desire, Olivia exploits the possibilities of transitions and translations; the novel’s eponymous title itself alludes to Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroine in Twelfth Night, and Olivia begins her narrative by crossing the English Channel from England to France, as well as crossing over from her heteronormative nuclear family to a homosocial world in which the vectors of desire flow in multiple directions. As a young girl, Olivia describes her English world as follows: “We were a Victorian household [. . . with] a horror and a terror of lapsing from the current code” (Strachey, Olivia, 13). Coming from a prestigious and well-to-do middle-class family invested in the Anglo-Indian empire, Olivia’s world is defined by upholding the normative values of her social and economic class, which include education, marriage and family—her mother having birthed thirteen children.[13] Yet in the background of this normative world hover the figures of Mademoiselle Julie T— and Mademoiselle Cara M—, friends of Olivia's mother, who are “invested in a kind of romance from the fact of their foreign nationality” (19). As a child, Olivia has a sense of their presence—she receives a child’s French book from them every New Year’s—and they occasionally come to stay with her family.

From the beginning, this female couple functions as the spectral possibility of an alternative kinship structure, invading Olivia’s childhood yet also remaining on the periphery of her quotidian Victorian life. When Olivia turns sixteen—after an unpleasant period at Miss Stock’s Wesleyan school, mentioned earlier—she is sent by her mother to Les Avons, run by Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara, and “situated in one of the loveliest parts of a great forest and within easy reach of Paris” (20). In this idyllic location that seems to partake of both the fairy tale and the urban, Olivia leaves behind her Victorian world and appears to move into cosmopolitan modernity, encountering “English, American and Belgian” students, and “a staff of German, Italian, English and French mistresses, a music mistress, and so forth” (20). Although decidedly Euro- and American-centric and grounded in class privilege, this world has the sparkle of the new.

The novel is therefore framed in terms of a translation between cultures, signaling the extent to which Strachey's personal and professional engagement with translation underwrites the crossings and transitions that structure Olivia’s adolescent journey. Yet this move from England to France, and from heterosexuality to homosociality, is of course not a precise translation. As a practice, translation is predicated on reproducing the original as faithfully as possible within a different linguistic system, with its own rules of grammar and vocabulary. In the case of Olivia, the protagonist is being sent to a French boarding school in order to acquire social capital with a view to returning to England as a more eligible marriageable subject, the assumption being that her time in France will be translatable back into the heterosexual matrix of marriage and reproduction. Instead, the translation from English norms to French ones turns into a deviation away from heterosexuality, as well as a displacement of the initial culture by the new one, in each case leaving behind the original referent.

Sexuality and Translation

To what extent, then, can there be an alignment between the discourse of sexuality and that of translation? According to Walter Benjamin, although the task of translation is to reproduce the original text, moving away from the origin is also integral to the process. For Benjamin, the function of translation is not to be slavishly faithful to the original text, but rather to produce a new text that exploits the possibilities of the language of destination. He writes: “The translator’s task is to find the intention toward the language into which the work is to be translated, on the basis of which an echo of the original is awakened in it.”[14] In other words, the hierarchized sequence of original and copy must be dissolved in order to highlight the true “kinship of languages,” making translation itself part of the aesthetic process of creation rather than simply of imitation (Benjamin, “Translator’s Task,” 78). Yet this also involves a rupture with the original, for the translated text will equally “remain inadequate, violent, and alien with regard to its content” (79).  For Patrícia Vieira, “translation has a metaphysical import, namely, that of permanently striving toward the exact rendering of one language into another, an ideal that forever eludes fallen humanity.”[15] In this sense, the act of translation is never comfortable, for it highlights both the communicability and incommunicability of all languages, and the ultimate impossibility of the task of translation itself. As Jacques Derrida argues, the work of translation is always “in transit, traveling, travailing, in labor,” and never complete.[16]

Strachey herself was a highly skilled translator, able to maintain a sense of “the kinship of languages,” yet in Olivia, the translation between cultures produces an element of Benjamin's “violent” and “alien” rupture with the original, creating a new aesthetic and sexual sensibility that would have been unrecognizable to Olivia’s family of origin. Indeed, once Olivia has crossed over, there is no crossing back. While Olivia’s newfound queer desire, to an important degree, is beyond translatability, the reading of translation as a failed ideal intriguingly echoes sexology’s construction of the queer subject as a failed replica of the heterosexual ideal. If we think of translation, in some sense, as always failing, we can begin to see parallels between the failure of translation to reproduce the original, and the failure of the queer subject to reproduce what Judith Butler refers to as the “heterosexual real.”[17] For sexologists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, heterosexuality was the true referent against which homosexuality could only be a pale “inverted” imitation.[18] In response to this long-held view, Butler has shown how the “failure” of gender and sexuality lies as much in hetero- as in homosexuality, in that “heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing” (“Imitation,” 313; emphasis in original). For Butler, “true” heterosexuality is no more real than “true” homosexuality, in that both are effects of the cultural codes that produce them. In terms of translation, the idea of “failure” arguably lies less in either the origin or the copy, but rather in the impossibility of faithfully translating the one into the other.

While not wanting to push this parallel too far, in that linguistic translation seeks to reproduce the original, whereas queer desire in many ways seeks to undermine heterosexuality as the original, both make a claim for a certain kind of authenticity, and for access to full representation. The translated text asks to be read on its own terms, without reference to the original, just as the queer subject asks for their mode of desiring to be fully acknowledged, which, as we shall see, is precisely the claim made in Olivia. In each case, the original referent is present yet also superseded, leading to a process of resignification, and to the possibility of new meanings and interpretations.

In Olivia, the play of translation also moves in several directions. For example, when Olivia discovers Racine for the first time, she writes: “Strange that for an English child . . . my first conception of tragedy . . . should have come through Racine instead of Shakespeare. But it did” (31–32). Although, of course, this is not a direct textual translation, it is nevertheless a cultural translation of the genre of tragedy from the English to the French canon, whereby Shakespeare is both invoked as an expression of origin, yet also culturally “translated” into Racine. This displacement of Shakespeare by Racine is then inextricably tied to the “discovery” of Mlle Julie, and to the erotics of pedagogy to which the reading of Racine gives rise, with Mlle Julie’s extraordinary voice leaving Olivia's “child's soul shaken and exhausted” (31).

Furthermore, Olivia explicitly rails against another kind of translation, namely her era’s scientific bias towards translating complex human emotions and behaviors into intelligible and classifiable medical and scientific language. For her, “the physiologists, the psycho-analysts . . . the Freuds” all conspire to "poison the sources of emotion,” and lie “in ambush" in order to name and categorize specific forms of desire, “to recognize this one and that, to give it its name, to be acquainted with its habits” (9–10). Olivia’s analysis suggests that scientific classification functions as another iteration of translation, rendering what are often incoherent and involuntary experiences and emotions into a readable scientific nomenclature. As Olivia writes, this process leads to an emptying of the self, for “what [is] left of oneself after this relinquishing of one’s property?” (10). Throughout the novel, therefore, there is both a privileging and an implicit critique of the goal of translation, and a refusal to allow that one set of terms can be translated into another without certain unexpected effects. Arguably, what the novel moves towards is an experience of untranslatability, where the involuntariness of desire cannot be captured by another discourse and translated back into anything other than its own terms. For Strachey, that is precisely the role of art.

Queering the Past

How, then, is the novel's preoccupation with translation and translatability tied to its backward gaze, and to its privileging of the past as the site of queer desire? As mentioned, the novel is written in the 1930s, and set in the 1880s, and the narrator, Olivia, appears to be the same age as Strachey, the author, in that Olivia’s Introduction explicitly addresses the emerging crisis of pre-World War II Europe:

The world, I know, is changing. I am not indifferent to the revolution that has caught us in its mighty skirts, to the enormity of the flood that is threatening to submerge us. But what could I do? In the welter of the surrounding storm, I have taken refuge for a moment on this little raft, constructed with the salvage of my memory. I have tried to steer it into that calm haven of art in which I still believe. (7)

In this passage, Olivia's “salvag[ing] of [her] memory” into “that calm haven of art,” and away from “the welter of the surrounding storm,” initially suggests a turning away from the political turmoil of the 1930s. The past becomes a way of forgetting the present rather than confronting it, with the novel performing what Marianne Dekoven calls modernism's “retreat from, or rejection of, the failed, degraded, violent world of twentieth-century society and politics.”[19] Yet Olivia’s turning to the past is arguably also engaging with the possibilities of an alternative future, and with what Elizabeth Freeman calls “new practices of hoping, demanding, and otherwise making claims on the future.”[20] In privileging the past over the present, Olivia is also asking some key questions about memory and representation: can art be a faithful rendering of memory, or only its idealized distortion? And whose memory is it, Strachey the author's, or Olivia the narrator's? And finally, what is being memorialized, the art that articulates the desire, or the desire that generates the art? Is the autobiographical moment—fictional or otherwise—more or less important than its artistic expression?

The turn to the past can arguably be thought of in terms of the question of translatability. Strachey’s present seems to preclude queer desire, both in a political sense—with the rise of Fascism—and in a personal sense—with Strachey married and in love with Gide—so that in this context the possibility of queer desire paradoxically belongs to the past. In this sense, just as Strachey’s narrative runs counter to sexological discourse, it also challenges emerging twentieth-century queer narratives that are “deeply committed to the notion of progress.”[21] Instead, it privileges nostalgia—as “a wistful or excessive sentimental yearning for a return to some past period or irrecoverable condition—as its delineating temporality.[22] Nostalgia, of course, is always a “fictional” or artistic recreation of a time gone by, it is a misremembering and an idealization of the past, involving both “a sentiment of loss and displacement” and “a romance with one’s own fantasy.”[23] It also brings the past into the present in a way that is inaccurate and unscientific, and laden with affect. Nostalgia is as much about what might have been as about what was, and in this sense it contains a parallel futurity within it. Nostalgia, unlike translation, can free itself from origins.

In this nostalgic celebration of pastness, what Les Avons offers is what Freeman calls a kind of “temporal drag” (Time Binds, xxiii), a lingering on the possibility of another world, and another way of desiring. Olivia explicitly creates an alternative to “dominant forms of object choice, coupledom, family, marriage,” or what Freeman calls the linear temporality of chrononormativity, and in its place dwells in art, beauty, and queer eroticism (xv). Indeed, Olivia’s boarding school of the 1880s permits a slowing down of time. Furthermore, in Olivia, same-sex love metonymically stands in for the unresolved emotions of adolescence and acts as an alternative to the fractured political landscape during which Strachey was writing, giving queer desire a fleeting as well as a foundational quality. Lesbian passion becomes the means by which Strachey, the author, and Olivia, the adolescent narrator, come to know and to lose themselves, as they journey through the “haphazard time of desire.”[24]

This journeying or movement, in turn, foregrounds how, as Barbara Cassin notes, “each language has its own way of saying nostalgia.”[25] In Olivia's turn towards the past, French becomes the nostalgic language that enables the equally nostalgic remembrance of queer love. At the same time, Olivia’s nostalgic positioning is also a form of counter-attack, a turning away from both the conventions and norms of the 1880s, and of the scientific master narratives of the 1930s, articulating a “rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress” (Boym, Nostalgia, xv). Strachey’s novel dwells in what Svetlana Boym calls “the future of nostalgia,” looking to the past in order to reimagine the present.

Furthermore, Strachey’s ambitions for her novel as a literary work are specifically tied to a tradition that explores the experience of desire as loss, and as leading backward rather than forward. In a letter to Gide in 1948, Strachey places Olivia alongside La Princesse de Clèves and Werther, among others—including Gide’s La Porte etroite, which she translated—all works that emphasize not only intimacy and self-revelation, but also examples of impossible desire (Correspondance, 11:487). Strachey herself aspires to create a highly intimate experience of being “transfigurée, transformée par le souvenir, par la connaissance de l'art” (transfigured, transformed by memory, by the knowledge of art), as well as creating an “évolu[tion] vers un apogée qui devrait être tragique, puis s’éteindre et s’effacer, comme la vie elle-même, dans une paix mélancolique” (evolution towards a tragic apogee, then dying down and fading away, like life itself, in a melancholic peace) (11:487). This literary framing—seemingly grounded in Greek tragedy and French classical theatre as well as in a modernist aesthetic—suggests that Strachey is aiming for the distillation of memory—“une expérience personnelle”—into a pure literary experience. In Olivia, Strachey combines the precise practice of translation with the aesthetic freedom of literature to dramatize the foundational quality of queer desire.

Yet this foundation is also always under threat, particularly when, at the time of writing and as already discussed, the popularized language of sexual deviancy and inversion tended to cast non-normative desires as imitative and inauthentic.[26] As the narrative progresses, Olivia moves back and forth between establishing queer desire as an authentic mode of being, and casting it as the secret that undermines the very notion of spontaneous authentic experience. Ultimately, queer desire becomes that which cannot be translated into socially acceptable terms, thereby leading to the novel’s tragic ending, yet it is also that which shapes the nostalgic desire to return to a place of fresh beginnings, and to uncover a self that up to that point had been “kept . . . from any form of unveiling,” and “forbidden . . . many of the purest physical pleasures and all literary expression” (Strachey, Olivia, 11). For Strachey, literary expression opens the door to queer experience and vice versa. Olivia's narrator engages in a retrospective “coming out” or unburdening of queer love, confessing to a desire that has both shaped and failed to shape the present, and that signals the ultimate instability of the quest for a moment of origin.

Indeed, the more the narrative moves towards pure, distilled affect, the more it becomes embedded in the literary. Olivia first falls for Mlle Julie as her teacher is reading Racine’s Andromaque out loud. Andromaque, the story of an unrequited love chain between Pyrrhus, Andromaque, Orestes, and Hermione in the aftermath of the Trojan War, stages a narrative of unfulfilled and impossible desires. As a result, rather than coming to the experience of love unmediated by literature, Olivia is seduced through it: “I, sitting beside and below her, saw her illumined and almost in profile. I looked at her for the first time as I listened. I don't know which I did more thirstily—looked or listened” (29). Sexual awakening passes through two of Olivia's senses simultaneously, so that seeing and listening become indistinguishable. The literary text is therefore inseparable from the experience of “being awakened to something for the first time,” aligning Olivia with a long tradition of textual seductions, from Dante’s Paolo and Francesca onwards (29).

Although Olivia can find echoes of her exceptional love in Racine’s tragic plotlines, Racine is also not fully translatable into the frame of Olivia’s desire. While forms of impossible love may echo one another, they also produce an untranslatable remainder, located in the specificity of each individual experience of desire, and in the case of Olivia, in the specificity of queer love. In Olivia, the translatability of first love into queer love, the latter of which Olivia describes as “so different, so unheard of,” both ensures the involuntariness of Olivia’s narrative and its exceptionality. Queer desire becomes the new, originating experience that mobilizes Strachey’s literary enterprise (10).

Indeed, writing in an era when sexual inversion was presented as an unnatural copy of heterosexuality, Strachey retranslates queer desire as beginning and as origin. By the very fact of its “unheard-of” quality, and its outlaw status, queer desire comes to exemplify what Laszlo Földényi describes as “the essence of love . . . [its] irreplaceability, incomparability, and uniqueness.”[27] Olivia’s love for Mlle Julie cannot become instrumental; it literally has no future, no possible legacy or inheritance. It generates nothing except the aesthetic experience of the feeling itself; it becomes what Földényi describes as “a work of art in the process of being realized,” exemplifying the aesthetics of desire and vice versa (Melancholy, 246). Such an erotic encounter cannot be duplicated, it is a one-off, a spot of time. For Strachey, queer love is not only constructed as pure, unadulterated, distilled, and exquisite, but it also renders the narrator “more utterly absorbed than was ever possible again” (Olivia, 9). Strachey reverses her era's model of queer love as derivative, imitative and inauthentic, and presents it as the founding model for all desire.

Yet in its incarnation as the defining narrative of desire, queer love in Olivia is also melancholic. Not only can Mlle Julie never be obtained, but the entire narrative is structured as a nostalgic return that, to quote Boym, “tantalizes us with its fundamental ambivalence” by being “the repetition of the unrepeatable” (Nostalgia, xvii). Strachey stages a melancholic narrative in which "the past remains steadfastly alive in the present,” and where the uniqueness of the experience of love can only be retold as a story that has already ended, as the citation or quoting of a foundational moment.[28] This is reflected in Strachey’s choice of epigraph by La Bruyère: “L’on n’aime bien qu’une seule fois : c'est la première. Les amours qui suivent sont moins involontaires” (One only loves well once: that is the first time. The passions that follow are less involuntary). Left in the original French in the Hogarth and in later editions, this quotation gestures towards the symbolic untranslatability of “la première fois,” a moment whose authenticity is both absolute and yet is always beyond reach by the very fact of its reinscription.

Nevertheless, Strachey also reinserts the term “involontaire” into a new context, describing her own experience as “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 amazing, as involuntary, as the experience itself” (Olivia, 8). By italicizing involuntary, Strachey brings our attention not only to La Bruyère’s use of the term, but she also literally translates it back into English, and thereby reclaims it for her own purposes. She is both citing La Bruyère and breaking away from him. In this Derridean moment of repetition-as-difference, Strachey foregrounds an “involuntary” love that is both subject to citation and repetition, and yet distinct from La Bruyère's original quotation.

In its primary sense, the term “involuntary” means the unintentional, the spontaneous, the uncontrollable, but in its secondary sense it means something that is forced or compulsory, something happening against one's will. Both suggest a form of invasion, but while the former is desirable, the latter is unwanted. Olivia's experience of queer love, however, appears to partake of both definitions: it is  “involuntary” in the sense of “spontaneous”—a term she herself uses—yet its non-normative and unclassified status risks invoking the other meaning of “involuntary”—of something happening against one's will, or at least against the expected social script by which subjects are interpellated. Olivia experiences both the pleasures of the “unexpected” and the weight of social shame (8, 10). Her mode of desiring will therefore be saturated with the two registers of the “involuntary,” and her exclusion from social norms—both willed and unwilled—will structure her singular adolescent experience.

In Olivia, queer desire therefore defines the novel's anguished relationship to first love. As an “involuntary” love, queer desire is a form of liberation, and exposes the constraints to which such desire is subject, highlighting Diana Fuss’s contention that “in our present cultural symbolic the language of desire is the language of prohibition.”[29] Queer desire, in turn, overdetermines this prohibition, to the extent that it is already 'against' the law, both in its juridical and social senses. From the beginning, Olivia’s narrator is outside the intelligibility of the adult world: “Yes, people used to make joking allusions to ‘school-girl crushes.’ But I knew well enough that my ‘crush’ was not a joke” (10). With this joke that is not a joke, Olivia finds herself claiming a different discursive space, yet the authenticity of her desire—its very seriousness—is what cannot or will not be taken seriously, either by a medical discourse that casts it as inauthentic, or by the world of grown-ups who dismiss it. Olivia is left without a translatable language, but it is also this very incommunicability that marks out her desire as an exceptional experience.

From the novel’s opening, melancholia and loss, as well as nostalgia, haunt Olivia’s desire. Joking leads to shaming, which leads to the structure of the closet: “And yet I had an uneasy feeling that, if not a joke, it was something to be ashamed of, something to hide desperately” (10). Here, Olivia needs to hide her intense feelings as much from her peer group as from the adult world. The very sense of liberation Olivia feels sitting at Mlle Julie’s feet is also what produces silence and secrecy. Yet the quality of Olivia’s silence also differs, for example, from the tortured ignorance of Radclyffe Hall’s Stephen Gordon, who can only come to understand herself through the sexological language of inversion. While Stephen Gordon gradually comes to terms with her medicalized identity, Olivia filters her desire through a kind of cultural reprogramming. Existing outside of her native English culture enables a step into the unknowable, and an embracing of the never-before-experienced. The foreignness and newness of French culture exists in a metonymical relationship to her “unheard-of” queer desire.

As mentioned, the radically new world of Les Avons is a place of contrasts, characterized by its difference from the ordered Victorian domesticity of the narrator's home. Olivia is taken up “by the kind of disorder that reigned, by the chatter and laughter, by the foreign speech, by the absence of rules, by the extraordinary and delicious meals, by an atmosphere of gaiety and freedom which was like the breath of life to [her]” (21). Furthermore, Olivia, although a new girl, is already an elite member of the school by the fact of having superior French—"I knew French better than a great many of the [elder pupils]”—and by her prior knowledge of Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara, which gives her the privilege of being addressed by the familiar tu rather than the formal vous (22–24).

Indeed, Olivia’s relationship to her new cultural space can be understood as a phenomenological orientation, foregrounding what Sara Ahmed describes as “a matter of residence; of how we inhabit spaces as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we inhabit spaces with”[30] (1). Olivia’s burgeoning desire for Mlle Julie is generated by her new national space—France—her new communal space—the boarding school—and by how she occupies space around Mlle Julie herself. When Olivia first listens to Mlle Julie read, she is “sitting beside and below her,” which enables her to see Mlle Julie “illuminated and almost in profile” (29). When Olivia reveals enthusiasm for French food, she suddenly finds, “at the next meal . . . my napkin ring . . . placed next to Mlle Julie’s own” (35). Each moment of “seduction” involves a spatial orientation towards Mlle Julie, which functions simultaneously as an orientation towards Olivia’s new sense of cultural belonging. However, although Olivia has found her home, it does not take her long to understand that the school is actually divided by a schism aligned along those who are in Mlle Julie’s camp and those in Mlle Cara’s. Although Les Avons is presented initially as a paradise, it is also an Eden in decline; Olivia has arrived after the beginning of the fall.

It is also unclear to what extent Strachey would have taken account of the reputation of boarding schools at the turn of the century. At the time the novel is set, in the 1880s, boarding schools in France and Britain were both becoming increasingly popular—as an affluent middle-class sought to take advantage of educational opportunities for their daughters—and the source of augmenting anxiety over questions of sexual morality. As Fuss suggests, these schools “were widely regarded as places of illness and contagion—enclosed social containers of infectious diseases” (Identification Papers, 107), which included the category of sexual contagion. By choosing the boarding school context for the unfolding of her narrative—the very space condemned by Havelock Ellis as “the great breeding-place of artificial homosexuality among the general population”—Strachey arguably redirects the boarding school narrative away from its investment in contagion, disease, and madness, towards an idealized and unfettered model of “spontaneous” or “involuntary” love that is as substantive as the passion in La Princesse de Clèves.[31] Yet, as mentioned, the occasional references to “shame” and “disgust” also suggests that Strachey’s narrative of queer desire is caught between a refusal of its pathologization and an acknowledgment of its anti-social and anti-normative qualities.[32]

Furthermore, while Olivia looks backwards as a narrative, its principal object of desire, Mlle Julie, embodies futurity. Although Mlle Julie teaches the French classics, she is the incarnation of the New Woman, “independent, educated, (relatively) sexually liberated, oriented more toward productive life in the public sphere than toward reproductive life in the home” (Dekoven, “Modernism and Gender,” 174). Mlle Julie is a sophisticated and educated socialite, an independent thinker, an aesthete, and unmarried. She embodies urban chic, often “going out—to dinner in the town or to an evening party in Paris,” and gives Olivia access to Parisian theatre, art and culture (Olivia, 39). Cast as a worldly subject, Mlle Julie also offers a new way of conceptualizing the feminine as queer rather than as maternal. As the antithesis to the domestic and domesticated woman, Mlle Julie inhabits a femininity that is more closely aligned to models of queer masculinity—perhaps influenced by Gide—than to conventional femininity per se. Parisian life, in turn, becomes the symbol of this alignment. As Olivia explains during a visit to one of Mlle Julie's accomplished Parisian acquaintances: “I sat silent in my corner and wondered at these French, at the readiness of their wits, at their unfailing interest in things of the mind, at the profound seriousness that underlay all this surface brilliance” (44). As the opposite of “the Victorian ideal of closeted, domesticated, desexualized, disenfranchised femininity,” Mlle Julie's world intertwines French culture, modernity and the New Woman in ways that demand a rethinking of the very meaning of the feminine (Dekoven, “Modernism and Gender,” 177) (fig. 3).

Film poster for Olivia, dir. Jacqueline Aubry (1951).
Fig. 3. Film poster for Olivia, dir. Jacqueline Aubry (1951).

Olivia’s Queer Coming of Age

In this queer Bildungsroman, much of Olivia’s psychosexual development occurs by learning the contours and mapping out the parameters of her unexplainable desire. Olivia orients herself to her own unscripted, unintelligible feelings by a process of elimination, gradually giving them shape and form by distinguishing between her various relationships. The three figures who become reference points for Olivia are Mlle Julie’s favorite ex-pupil, the saintly and brilliant Laura; the Italian mistress, Signorina Baietto, Mlle Julie’s devoted colleague; and the “American beauty,” Cécile. Each represents a different form of affect and a specific language of desire.[33] While Baietto’s love for Mlle Julie is both servile and idolatrous—as Olivia explains, “I think she wanted nothing for herself but to be allowed to serve”—Laura's love for Mlle Julie is that of a deeply grateful student (Olivia, 61). As Laura explains to Olivia: “She has been the best part of my life. . . . She has opened my eyes to all I like best in the world, showered me with innumerable treasures” (57–58). When Olivia asks Laura: “And tell me this, Laura. Does your heart beat when you go into the room where she is? Does it stand still when you touch her hand?” Laura answers candidly: “No . . . None of all that” (58). It is in fact Cécile, for whom Mlle Julie has no particular attachment, who becomes Olivia’s visceral rival. At the Mardi Gras ball, Mlle Julie places “a long and deliberate kiss on [Cécile’s] naked creamy shoulder” causing Olivia to be stabbed with “an unknown pang of astonishing violence” (81). Through these different models of love and affection, Olivia begins to articulate the “queer” difference of her own desire, leading up to the point at which her body responds rather than her mind.

Yet the potentiality of queer desire also unfolds through substitutions and displacements. In the arc of Olivia's fantasies, she comes to a point where she “could not imagine how Mlle Julie could love [her]” (77, emphasis in original). The italicized how points to queer desire’s unintelligibility, even as it invades every part of Olivia's being: “My indefinite desire was like some pervading, unlocalized ache of my whole being” (77). The how of queer desire becomes one of the novel's central preoccupations. How does one translate queer desire into embodied being? How does one experience a love without a script? How can “involuntary” love become voluntary, possible, livable? In Olivia, Strachey is strategically asking these questions outside the parameters of sexological or psychoanalytic discourses. However, although the novel refuses to have desire classified as a form of pathology, Olivia is nevertheless seeking a viable script: “And so I made myself another dream. It was a man I loved as I loved her, and then he would take me in his arms . . . and kiss me” (77). Yet this heterosexual fantasy is then immediately dismissed: “No, no, no, that way lay madness. All this was different—hopeless” (77). This refusal suggests that the heterosexual model of substitution undoes, rather than restores, intelligibility, by failing to account for the “difference” that defines Olivia’s yearnings. As Olivia in fact claims prior to this fantasy, “[a]nd now I understood that it was that difference I wanted” (72).

While queer desire in Les Avons is intelligible only as a prohibition, or as a joke, the school itself creates the conditions for the circulation of that very desire, in that, as Fuss argues, “the institution of the secondary school actually helps to produce the very desires it was instituted to manage” (Identification Papers, 126). In Olivia, this reaches its zenith during the carnivalesque Mardi Gras fancy dress ball, presided over by Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara, and which highlights, for Mlle Julie, “the different self that each girl revealed in her disguise” (Olivia, 80). Once again, the model of difference infuses the school with erotic possibility. In this space of festivity and reversal, a realm of erotic performativity is opened up through the inhabiting of disguises. Olivia is disguised in “a Parsee lady’s dress [her] mother had brought home from India,” emphasizing not only the exoticism of the occasion, but also symbolically transferring her family’s colonial legacy into this relatively unregulated space of schoolgirl revelry (80). Ironically, Olivia’s disguise also acts as an ostensible barrier to Mlle Julie’s playful advances; having placed the aforementioned kiss on Cécile’s “naked creamy shoulder,” Mlle Julie says to Olivia: “But even if I wanted to kiss you, how could I, wrapped as you are in all those veils?” (81). As a marker of female modesty, the veil here symbolizes both the temptation and the taboo of queer desire.

The sequence of events at the ball exposes the unspoken flows of desire between the various participants. Mlle Julie’s kiss on Cécile’s shoulder, which makes Olivia madly jealous, is followed by Mlle Julie’s promise to bring a sweet to her room that evening. This tryst leads Olivia to an evening of frenzied dancing, first with Georgie, who “with her false moustache and pointed beard . . . made a marvellous romantic poet of 1830” (80). Yet in this drag coupling, Olivia is also aware that “we knew well enough that we were not dancing with each other” (83). While masculinized Georgie is fantasizing about her male lover, whom Olivia and Georgie briefly discuss before their dance, feminized and exoticized Olivia is of course fantasizing about Mlle Julie. The disguises effect a double substitution, enabling the fantasy of proximity with the unattainable other. Mlle Julie’s active participation in the reversal of rules and the play of seduction underlines the erotic freedom enabled by this carnivalesque setting, yet this temporary excess will also heighten the fissures already present in the school's fragile community.

While Mlle Julie restrains herself from visiting Olivia that evening, much to the latter’s disappointment, Olivia, spurred on by the fact that Mlle Julie has told her that she possesses “un joli corps,” nevertheless looks at her naked body in the mirror for the first time:

I looked at the figure in the glass, queerly lighted, without head or legs, strangely attractive, strangely repulsive. And then I slowly passed my hands down this queer creature's body from neck to waist—Ah!—That was more than I could bear—that excruciating thrill I had never felt before. In a second my chemise was on again, I was back in bed. (84–85)

Olivia’s body is doubly defamiliarized, in that Olivia not only refers to herself in the third person, but she also can see only her torso in the mirror, which detaches her body from the moment of facial recognition and identification. This strange, alien body is also a “queer” body, an adjective used twice in Olivia’s description. Although its primary meaning in the 1930s was still “strange, peculiar, eccentric,” the term “queer” was also beginning to contain the overtones of “homosexual.”[34] Accompanying this process of defamiliarization, however, is the most physically intimate moment in the novel, as Olivia tentatively begins to masturbate before rushing back into bed. Brief as it is, the act nevertheless gives her an “excruciating thrill.”

Although Strachey makes no reference to The Well of Loneliness in her correspondence, there are strong echoes between the mirror scene in Olivia and the one in Hall’s novel. In the middle of her doomed affair with Angela Crossby, Stephen decides to look at herself in the glass:

That night she stared at herself in the glass; and even as she did so she hated her body with its muscular shoulders, its small compact breasts, and its slender flanks of an athlete . . . She began to grieve over it, touching her breasts with pitiful fingers, stroking her shoulders, letting her hands slip along her straight thighs—Oh, poor and most desolate body![35]

While this scene takes place before Stephen reads Krafft-Ebing and comes to the “knowledge” that she is an invert, it anticipates Stephen’s discovery, emphasizing the masculinity of her body. Yet her body is not so much strange or queer, as with Olivia’s, as it is molded to fit the sexological model of inversion. Stephen’s mirror scene is less a scene of discovery than one of loss. While both Stephen and Olivia explore their bodies by moving their hands along them, Stephen bypasses her genitalia and goes straight to her thighs. Hers is an act of grieving over her “desolate body,” whereas Olivia’s is a scene of tentative celebration. Once again, Strachey appears to be alluding to and turning away from the “explanations” for queer desire her cultural moment has made available, precisely by refusing the mirror image she is being offered.

Within the novel, Strachey provides the alternative mirror image of the Mlle Julie-Mlle Cara couple, which comes into focus and recedes at key moments throughout the narrative. Present from the novel’s opening pages, it appears to shadow Olivia’s narrative, and also threatens to undo it. In the past, the Mlle Julie-Mlle Cara relationship has served as a role model, and Olivia describes the two women as having been “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” (67). Furthermore, the ideal quality of their partnership hinges on the undecidability of their sexual status, positioning them as the novel's central enigma. Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara also reflect a strong tradition of boarding schools run by female couples, both in fiction and in fact. Indeed, Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara are likely based on Marie Souvestre and her partner, Caroline Dussaut, whose relationship also disintegrated not long after Strachey left Les Ruches, causing Marie Souvestre to relocate to Wimbledon and to open the Allenswood school.[36]

In contrast to male couples, female couples were largely protected by the much broader leeway given to women's displays of affection, and the general encouragement given to female intimacies, from the long-established custom of sharing beds to the tradition of the female confidant joining the bride on her honeymoon, which lasted until the nineteenth century.[37] As historians of sexuality have noted, it was precisely because women were not considered sexual agents that such intimacies were allowed and encouraged.[38] For women, there was generally perceived to be no possible translation between homosociality and homosexuality. Yet it is also clear that accompanying this assumption was an unnamed anxiety about female intimacy. Examples such as the Woods-Pirie trial of 1811—where two schoolteachers were accused of lewd acts together by a pupil and the school was consequently shut down—through to school manuals advising on how to control intimacy between girls, reveal, alongside the denial of female sexual agency, a social impulse to carefully monitor female sexuality.

The Mlle Julie-Mlle Cara couple reflects this ambivalence, with Olivia describing them as being “[l]ike a wedded couple” (Olivia 72). One again, this puts into play a structure of substitution, to the extent that while Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara have every appearance of being a “wedded couple,” they are, of course, not wedded. The effect of the simile underlines the complicated performative status of queerness in the novel, for the appearance of being “wedded” is precisely just that; their social status depends on the preposition “like,” which emphasizes their difference from as much as their similarity to a wedded relationship. The structure of the simile, of “likeness,” underlines the paradoxical extent to which translation, on the one hand, can only ever be an approximation of the original, yet on the other hand that very approximation opens up new interpretative possibilities.

Although it is Olivia who invokes this simile, she also has very little difficulty in treating Mlle Julie as a “single” woman, about whose history she openly fantasizes: “What had her life been? Had she suffered? . . . Had she loved? Whom had she loved?” (46). To this extent, Mlle Julie's being “wedded” to Mlle Cara is never perceived as an obstacle, because their marriage’s status as “similar” rather than “actual” permits its dismissal, in spite of the couple's long history. What the Mlle Julie-Mlle Cara couple does provide is a socio-affective atmosphere in which the potentialities of queer desire and the pedagogy of seduction can circulate freely. It is recognized as a given that each woman has her favorite pupils, with whom the line between nurturing and seduction appears to be deliberately blurred.

The Mlle Julie-Mlle Cara couple therefore occupies the liminal space between “safe” intimate friendship and “deviant” female intimacy, and to some extent Strachey appears unclear as to how to treat this relationship. As Fuss has argued, the novel undergoes a somewhat jarring genre shift from sentimental romance to crime novel at the point when Mlle Cara dies from an overdose of chloral, the drug she takes to treat her hysteria. It remains unclear in the novel whether the overdose was self-dispensed or not. Although the novel largely eschews queer desire as pathology, it is in the figure of Mlle Cara that illness emerges as a symptom of sexual deviance. Mlle Cara is a textbook hysteric, “graceful enough and languid,” with the “pervading influence . . . of an invalid” (25, 48). With the German mistress, Frau Riesener, stoking Mlle Cara’s invalidism and petty jealousies, Mlle Cara becomes the force of disharmony and irrational excess within the school community.

Yet as Fuss has pointed out, it is also Mlle Cara who becomes the voice of the law, and who will accuse Mlle Julie of various forms of deviancy. Mlle Cara initially tells Olivia that she is “being led astray” and “has fallen into the hands of a low-born Italian Jewess—and into others, worse, worse!” (90). This disturbing reference alludes to the Italian mistress, Signorina Baietto, who, as we have seen, is devoted to Mlle Julie. This is the first time that both race and class explicitly enter the novel, and Mlle Cara’s extended accusation of Olivia falling into “worse hands” implicitly aligns Mlle Julie with Signorina Baietto on the wrong side of a set of norms that creates, for Mlle Cara, a seamless link to sexual deviancy. In an echo of sexology’s classification of sexual deviance, and in light of the wave of anti-Semitism spreading through Europe in the 1930s, this categorizing of Baietto proleptically anticipates how both Jewishness and queerness would be framed as impossible identities within fascist ideology.

Mlle Cara then moves on to accusations of sexual impropriety: “Oh yes, you go to their rooms at night—Cécile's, Baietto's and now hers! You do, you do” (91). It is unclear whether Mlle Cara is accusing Mlle Julie of sexual betrayal—a form of adultery—or of sexual deviance. Mlle Cara's hysteria—as Olivia describes it, “I thought she was demented”—blurs the line between the “false” and the “true” (90). While Mlle Cara is technically on the side of the law, she is also its failed representative. She can only be heard as a hysteric, and therefore as outside of the rational logic the law is intended to uphold. At the same time, Mlle Cara’s hysterical—but not necessarily false—claims about Mlle Julie, will force the latter to succumb to the demands of the law and to surrender her share of Les Avons by drawing up a “deed of separation,” followed by her self-exile to Canada (97). As the novel translates the language of the law into that of the hysterical woman, Mlle Cara's ability to lay down the law as a hysteric, as Fuss suggests, points to the law's own hysterical repression of queer desire (Identification Papers, 130).

The unraveling of the Mlle Julie-Mlle Cara narrative has recognizable roots in Racinian tragedy, but it also alludes to the emerging political tensions of 1930s Europe, cast in terms of the novel’s implicit critique of German scientific bias. For the narrator, the psychologists’ cure is a form of theft; it translates the individual into their symptom, proffering only “the poisonous antidotes of the poison of passion” (Olivia, 10). Rather than being an effective antidote, fighting one poison with another effectually erases the ground of any possible cure. The theme of poison then returns on Mlle Cara’s deathbed, in that she is poisoned with the medicine intended to treat her. In Derridean terms, this embodies the undecidability of Plato's pharmakon—which can signify both “poison” and “remedy”—and which foregrounds how terms are engaged in a “movement and play that links them among themselves, reverses them or makes one side cross over into the other.”[39] Just as the joke is not really a joke, the slippage between “poison” and “remedy” is high risk. The play of language can lead to death.

While Olivia began with the translation of cultures from England to France, which embodied openness and possibility, the narrative moves towards its tragic conclusion by invoking the work of translation in a different way. Mlle Cara becomes the figure whose hysterical logic effectively dissolves the distinction between terms, translating them into their opposites, turning “remedy” into “poison,” “good” into “bad,” and “virtue” into “vice.” In this way, Mlle Cara destabilizes the foundations of Olivia's involuntary love, as Olivia writes: “It was the first time I learnt how near, how contiguous, are the gates of Heaven and Hell” (91). For the first time, Olivia’s desire risks being explicitly translated from a form of love to one of “vice” (91). Furthermore, during the resulting discussion concerning the number of doses in the bottle of chloral, potential suspicion falls on Frau Riesener, who will be the one to benefit most directly from Mlle Cara’s death now that Mlle Julie has withdrawn from Les Avons (124). The Germanic link between sexology and Frau Riesener implicitly aligns the theft of Mlle Cara’s body with the sexologists’ and the psychologists’ theft of the mind, each of which plays into the logic of the pharmakon.

The novel’s tragic structure inevitably ties the question of queer desire to those of shame and disgust, even as Gide attempted to turn Strachey away from such an interpretation. Mlle Julie herself contemplates suicide, but is saved by stumbling upon Olivia, who has spent the night outside her teacher’s bedroom door. Her last intimate words to Olivia: “Believe, Olivia, believe . . . I don't want to harm you,” point to Mlle Julie’s own capitulation to the dictates of heteronormativity (120). Mlle Julie withdraws from the scene of pedagogy—we learn that in Canada she refuses to open another school—which has become the scene of harm. All that remains of Mlle Julie is her “long ivory paper cutter,” the object she is holding during her first and last readings, and which she bestows as a gift to Olivia at their final meeting (31). Olivia, however, reads the gift as an act of rejection: “I took the paper cutter—a gift, I thought bitterly, that lessens no distance between us—that she can give me without any fear of our fingers touching,” and promptly throws it in the bushes (128). At Mlle Julie’s death four years later, the paper cutter has clearly been retrieved, and Olivia is once again bequeathed it as a gift. In the nineteenth century, the paper cutter would have been used to slice open the pages of books, literally enabling access to the printed word. The paper cutter provides symbolic access to meaning, but for Olivia it also acts as a barrier, a way for the word to never become flesh. Queer desire remains suspended in the objects that mediate it and render it always beyond reach: the sweet, the napkin ring, the woolen dress, the paper cutter.

In its yearning and intensity, ultimately grounded in the impossibility of fulfillment, Olivia suggests that first love is always a queer love. As an involuntary process, it can never be translated fully into the terms of its idealization. It is beyond language yet subject to its rules, leaving a gap between the involuntariness of authentic experience, and its necessary and inevitable translation or rendering. In Olivia, the resistance to modernity—specifically to the emergence of the new human sciences and to their system of sexual classification—enables Strachey to focus on the singular, unique, unclassifiable experience of queer love, in both its spontaneous and destabilizing manifestations. This focus, in turn, gestures towards a different vision of the modern, embodied in Mlle Julie’s incarnation of the New Woman. In spite of her eventual exile, the figure of the brilliant, autonomous and seductive Mlle Julie appears able to navigate hetero-patriarchal constraints and to offer new, if as yet not fully realizable, potentialities for female agency. Whether or not Mlle Julie is modeled on Marie Souvestre, through this idealized figure Strachey offers a compelling vision of alternative modes of femininity and desire, and invests in modernism’s privileging of the “moment”—in this case the experience of involuntary love—as an aesthetic event. By dedicating Olivia to Virginia Woolf—the modernist author who “revised the association of Modernism with masculinity by associating it with femininity instead”—rather than to André Gide, Strachey is arguably making a case for a queer feminism avant la lettre, anticipating queerness’s refusal to fix identities—or to be fully translatable—even as she nostalgically memorializes the lost domain of adolescence (Dekoven, “Modernism and Gender,” 187).


[1] Dorothy Strachey's married name was Bussy, and scholars have referred to her using either the surname Strachey or Bussy. I have chosen to use her maiden name of Strachey.

[2] Elaine Marks, “Lesbian Intertextuality,” in Homosexualities and French Literature, ed. George Stambolian and Elaine Marks, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 353–78, 354.

[3] Dorothy Bussy Strachey, Olivia (San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press, 2006), 8.

[4] Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-facement,” Modern Language Notes 94 (1979): 919–30, 921.

[5] Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright, Bloomsbury and France: Art and Friends (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 331.

[6] See Julie Anne Taddeo, Lytton Strachey and the Search for Modern Sexual Identity: The Last Eminent Victorian (London: Routledge, 2002), 6, for an analysis of Lytton Strachey's notion of “the Higher Sodomy,” an elitist Neoplatonist doctrine formulated by the Cambridge Apostles, a club to which Strachey belonged during his time at Cambridge University.

Natalie Barney admired Strachey’s writing, and on December 23, 1950, Strachey signed a letter to Barney, “Olivia/alias Dorothy Bussy” (See Kathryn Holland, “Dorothy Bussy, the Strachey Family, and Sapphic Literature,” in Beyond the Victorian/Modernist Divide: Remapping the Turn-of-the-Century Break in Literature, Culture and the Visual Arts, ed. Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada and Anne Besnault-Levita, [New York: Routledge, 2018], 163–80, 168).

[7] Virginia Woolf to Jacques Raverat, quoted in Caws and Wright, Bloomsbury and France, 3.

[8]  Correspondance André Gide-Dorothy Bussy, in Cahiers André Gide, ed. Jean Lambert (Paris: Gallimard, 1981), 10:524; all translations by author unless otherwise noted.

[9] Harald Emeis, “Olivia: Roman à clefs,” Bulletin des amis d’André Gide XI. 57 (1983): 7–36, 7–8.

[10] See Dorothy Bussy Strachey, Miss Stock’s School, (1917), TMs. XII.A.151.1012, Lehmann Family Papers: 1649-1990, Princeton University.

[11] See Holland, “Bussy,” 174.

[12] Correspondance André Gide-Dorothy Bussy, in Cahiers André Gide, 11:487.

[13] It should be noted that while Bussy’s novel draws on much autobiographical material, Olivia presents her family through a relatively conventional Victorian lens, when in fact the women in Bussy’s family included generations of feminist activists who addressed “suffrage, higher education [and] women's professional rights.” Bussy’s mother, Jane Strachey, “was an activist from the 1860s to the 1920s” (Holland, “Bussy,” 166).

[14] Walter Benjamin, “The Translator's Task,” in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti, (New York: Routledge, 2012), 75–83, 79.

[15] Patrícia Vieira, “Phytographia: Literature as Plant Writing,” in The Language of Plants, ed. Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan, Patrícia Vieira, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017),  215–33, 222.

[16] Jacques Derrida, “What Is a Relevant Translation?” in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti, (New York: Routledge, 2012), 365–88, 367; emphasis in original.

[17] Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Ana Barale, David M. Halperin, (London: Routledge, 1993), 307–20, 313.

[18] Richard von Krafft-Ebing reads homosexual desire as an inversion of the “normal” sexual instincts. He writes that under certain conditions, “a sexual instinct may be developed which is the exact opposite of that characteristic of the sex to which the individual belongs” (Psychopathia Sexualis [London: Staples Press, 1965], 187). (Psychopathia Sexualis [London: Staples Press, 1965], 187). While Havelock Ellis was more sympathetic to the “condition” of homosexuality and felt it should not be stigmatized, his theory of inversion in Sexual Inversion is based on the idea of “arrested development,” often found in a boarding school context (Sexual Inversion [New York: Arno Press, 1975], 39).

[19] Marianne Dekoven, “Modernism and Gender,” in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, ed. Michael Levenson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 174–93, 175.

[20] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), xxi.

[21] Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.

[22] Merriam-Webster, 11th ed., s.v. Nostalgia.”

[23] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), xiii.

[24] Madhavi Menon, Unhistorical Shakespeare: Queer Theory in Shakespearean Literature and Film, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 9.

[25] Barbara Cassin, Nostalgia: When Are We Ever at Home? trans. Pascale-Anne Brault, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 8.

[26] The discourse of the sexologists varied from wanting to create acceptance for non-normative sexualities, as with Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), who created the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, advocating for homosexual and transgender rights, and Havelock Ellis (1838­–1939), whose Sexual Inversion (1897) offered the first “objective” study of homosexuality, through to Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), whose Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) pathologized homosexuality as a form of perversion and inversion. The popularization of these discourses led to a fascination with the idea of deviant or non-normative sexualities that ranged from tolerance to condemnation.

[27] Laszlo Földényi, Melancholy, trans. Tim Wilkinson, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 238.

[28] David L. Eng and David Kazanjian, “Introduction: Mourning Remains,” in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, ed. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 1–28, 3–4.

[29] Diana Fuss, Identification Papers, (New York: Routledge, 1995), 133–34; emphasis in original.

[30] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 1.

[31] Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, Sexual Inversion, (New York: Arno Press, 1975), 141.

[32] In her analysis of Olivia, Terry Castle concludes that the novella is yet another example of “the sexual love of woman for woman” that “may be sensed but never seen” (The Apparitional Lesbian [New York: Columbia University Press, 1993], 45; emphasis in original). Yet I would argue that queer desire in Olivia is rendered visible in multiple ways, even if it cannot be acted on.

[33] Laura may have been modeled on Eleanor Roosevelt, who went to Allenswood, the school in England that Marie Souvestre established after Les Ruches, and where Strachey herself taught for several years, with Eleanor as her pupil. In “Who Is Laura?” London Review of Books 3, no. 22 (1981): 25–27, Susannah Clapp argues Laura may also have been based on Beatrice Chamberlain, the eldest daughter of Joseph Chamberlain and half-sister of Neville. Beatrice was a friend of the family and attended Marie Souvestre’s school in France.

[34] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first uses of the term “queer” to designate “homosexual” date from 1922.

[35] Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, (London: Virago Modern Classics, 1982), 186–87.

[36] For accounts of the relationship between Souvestre and Dussaut, see Barbara Caine, Bombay to Bloomsbury: A Biography of the Strachey Family (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); David Steel, Marie Souvestre 1835–1905: Pédagogue pionnière et féministe (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014).

[37] See Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778–1928 (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[38] See Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Sixteenth Century to the Present (New York: Morrow, 1981).

[39] Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 127.