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Olivia (1949) by Dorothy Strachey. With introduction by André Aciman

Cover of Olivia, by Dorothy Strachey
Olivia (1949). Dorothy Strachey. New York: Penguin Classics, 2020. Pp. 128. $15.00 (paper).

In 2020, Penguin Classics reissued Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia (1949), which tells the story of a sixteen-year-old girl from London sent to a French boarding school on the outskirts of Paris, Les Avons, where she falls passionately in love with one of her teachers, Mlle Julie. Olivia is an exceptional narrative in terms of its content, its composition, and its publication history. Strachey (1865-1960) was part of the prominent Strachey family, whose father played a key role in the development of the British Empire in India as a military engineer. Dorothy’s five siblings included Lytton Strachey, author of Eminent Victorians (1918); James Strachey, translator of Freud’s English Standard Edition; Pernel Strachey, who became principal of Newnham College, Cambridge; Pippa Strachey, who became Secretary of the London Society of Women’s Suffrage; and Marjorie Strachey, a writer and French teacher. Dorothy, not to be outdone, became the official English translator of the eminent French author, André Gide.

Existing on the margins of the Bloomsbury group, Strachey dedicated Olivia to Virginia Woolf who had died before the novel’s publication. Strachey’s love life rivaled that of Bloomsbury for its complexity: in 1903 she married the French painter, Simon Bussy; she harbored a secret lifelong passion for Gide—one of the first out French gay authors—; she is thought to have had an affair with Lady Ottoline Morell, and she had several other intense female friendships. Olivia is Strachey’s only novel, written at the age of sixty-eight. She showed it first to Gide in 1933 with great trepidation, only to receive a lukewarm response, and returned the manuscript to the bottom drawer until 1949. The manuscript was then eagerly picked up by Leonard Woolf for the Hogarth Press and translated into French in the same year by Strachey’s friend, Roger Martin du Gard, with an introduction by Rosamond Lehmann. By then Strachey was in her eighties and at her request both of these publications appeared anonymously as Olivia by Olivia. The novel was published to great critical acclaim and Gide apologized for his initial lack of enthusiasm.[1]

There is also speculation on the degree to which the novel is autobiographical. As a teenager, Strachey attended a boarding school for girls called Les Ruches in Avon-Fontainebleau, France (echoed in the fictional school, Les Avons), run by the formidable Marie Souvestre and her female lover, Caroline Dussaut; Natalie Barney was one of the school’s more famous pupils. When Souvestre and Dussaut broke up, Souvestre relocated to London and opened the Allenswood Academy, where Strachey worked as a teacher and where she taught another notable student, Eleanor Roosevelt. All in all, Strachey can be said to have lived in a very queer world, and her novel is an early example of a subgenre of boarding-school narratives written by female authors later in life, who look back on—and some might say obsess over—their boarding-school days. Other examples include Rosemary Manning’s The Chinese Garden (1962), Amanda Prantera’s Sabine (2005), and Nayana Currimbhoy’s Miss Timmins’ School for Girls (2011).

Having published on Olivia, I am very pleased to see this queer lesbian romance become part of the Penguin Classics collection. Although critically acclaimed, Olivia has remained a ‘small’ text, existing on the margins of both women’s and queer writing and not getting the attention it deserves. Nevertheless, Olivia has managed to remain in print for much of the time since its publication. Editions can be broadly divided into two categories: the classic presses such as the Hogarth Press, which features a sketch of horses and carriages navigating their way around Paris’s place de la Concorde—signalling Olivia’s discovery of French urbanity and worldliness—the Penguin Press, which issued editions of Olivia in 1966, 1990, and, in 2008, a Vintage Classics edition, prior to the current Penguin Classics edition. These editions are accompanied by others from women’s, queer, and feminist presses, including a Virago Modern Classics edition from 1987 with an afterward by Susannah Clapp, a Triangle Classics edition from 1995, and a Cleis Press edition from 2006 with a foreword by Regina Marler. Olivia was also made into a French film scripted by Colette and directed by Jacqueline Audry in 1951.

Including Olivia in the Penguin Classics collection should raise its profile as a minor classic, one that continues to have relevance today. This edition is valuably supplemented by a thoughtful and erudite introduction by André Aciman, author of Call Me By Your Name (2007). Acknowledging the influence of Strachey’s novel on his own work, Aciman is critical of Gide’s initial “tepid” response to Olivia, which delayed the publication of what he calls “a modern classic” (xix). Aciman also notes that Gide refused Proust’s manuscript for publication with Gallimard, putting Strachey in good company. Indeed, once Strachey recirculated the manuscript in 1948, other early readers such as Lehmann immediately recognized Olivia’s literary value, with Strachey writing to Gide in what must have been a moment of vindication, “They astonished me by the—almost violence—of their approval.”[2]

Aciman combines his personal encounter with Olivia—coming across the novel for the first time in Rome and purchasing a copy in Paris in 1971—with a nuanced analysis of Olivia’s literary forebears. As he astutely observes, “it turns out to be one of those very rare French novels that happens to have been written in English” (xv). It is perhaps telling that Strachey is said to have written the first draft in French, and Aciman recognizes in Olivia the genre of the roman d’analyse, following in the tradition of Racine and Mme de Lafayette, in which “everything is withheld and yet all is unavoidably transparent” (xv). The introduction gets to the heart of the novel in its foregrounding of the tension between overwhelming physical desire and the “limpid and elegant prose” (xvii) through which that desire is expressed. Olivia’s yearning for Mlle Julie is obsessive and all-consuming, yet the novel’s  prose remains surgically precise and clear-eyed in its narration: “My indefinite desire was like some pervading, unlocalized ache of my whole being” (56). For Aciman, what Olivia offers is “a tapestry of tortured, introspective moments” (xvi) that anatomize the journey of desire and loss. For the contemporary reader, one of the thrills of this novel is the way it universalizes the experience of falling passionately in love through a queer lens. In this sense, desire crosses all borders and boundaries, ignoring norms and constraints that exist in every time and every place.

At the same time, Olivia, coming from a Victorian household “attached … to the ideals of the time: duty, work, abnegation” (5), is as much seduced by France, by its language, its elegance and its cultural sophistication. Olivia first becomes enthralled by Mlle Julie as she listens to her teacher reading Racine, so that Mlle Julie’s beauty is inseparable from Racine’s words: “There was a table in front of her with a lamp on it which cast its light on her book and her face” (19). The independent and worldly Mlle Julie embodies a form of freedom that is both sexual and cultural, and with its history of being seen as more sexually liberated than Britain, France metonymically stands in for queer desire.

One unusual editorial decision of this Penguin Classics edition is the positioning of the epigraph by La Bruyère, “L’on n’aime bien qu’une seule fois: c’est la première,/ Les amours qui suivent sont moins involontaires” [We love fully only once: the first time. The loves that follow are less involuntary]. Strachey’s careful choice of La Bruyère to introduce her novel speaks to her investment in the French classical period. The adjective “involuntary” is then taken up by Olivia in the novel’s introduction to describe the overwhelming quality of first love, “when every reaction . . . [to] love and pleasure, [to] death and pain, was as unexpected, as amazing, as involuntary as the experience itself” (emphasis in the original, 1-2). However, in this edition the epigraph precedes Aciman’s introduction rather than Strachey’s text. While this encourages us to read the introduction in the light of La Bruyère, it also removes the continuity between the epigraph and Strachey’s opening words. Otherwise, in a further challenge to Gide, this edition compellingly attends to the intensity and elegance of this gem of a novel by a writer who understood both queer desire and the impossible longings of youth. Olivia continues to speak to us with immediacy and force across the years and creates a compelling queer bond between past and present.


[1] Gide-Bussy Correspondence, 5 June 1948. Full reference: Correspondance André Gide-Dorothy Bussy, janvier 1937-janvier 1951, vol. III, in Cahiers André Gide, ed. Jean Lambert (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), 498–99.

[2] Correspondance André Gide-Dorothy Bussy, janvier 1937-janvier 1951, vol. III, in Cahiers André Gide, ed. Jean Lambert (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), 483. Translation by the author.