Book Review || Olivia by Dorothy Strachey

Olivia, set in Paris, is about first love, sexual awakening, and all the confusion surrounding it. And imagine the confusion as Olivia bears her first loving, obsessive feelings for her schoolmistress in the 1950s!

Olivia is sent to a boarding school to further her education, finding what she believes is a kindred spirit in her beautiful, intelligent, and refined headmistress Mademoiselle Julie, who also takes a shine to her. But Julie’s relationship with her partner, Mademoiselle Cara, is complicated.

The big mystery of the novel turns out to be, not whether Julie reciprocates Olivia’s feelings, but what is really happening between Julie and Cara. Is Cara truly overreacting with regards to Julie’s behaviour? Has Julie betrayed Cara before? Have Cara and Julie truly been separated by the ministrations of someone with an ulterior motive?

Told from the point of view of Olivia as an older woman who has since experienced more of life, her anecdotes of the time are informed by these later experiences and are as such filled with insight.

Looking back on her first love, for example, she says,

at that time, I was innocent, with the innocence of ignorance. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t know what had happened to anybody. I was without consciousness, that is to say, more utterly absorbed than was ever possible again. [2008:8]

This is a lovely way of describing the selfishness of adolescent love. There is for the those falling in love the first time the feeling that no one has ever felt so deeply for someone as they do now. It was

...the feeling that some divine power had suddenly granted me an undreamt of felicity and made me free of boundless kingdoms and untold wealth... [2008:60]

which left Olivia morose and gloomy.

Of course, its controversial subject matter means that it often touches on issues of gender. As a girl’s school, it came to be seen as somewhat of a sanctuary for these girls, learning about academic subjects the same way that boys had been. When they write their devoirs, they are sent to a young male professor, held in more contempt than that of Julie, the very woman who picks the devoirs to send.

And yet beauty is so valued as a means to secure a future that the headmistress herself encourages those who are beautiful not to be ‘slaves of fashion’ or they will lose their charm, inferring that those who are not beautiful will have to be so. She says,

...remember you are so perfect that you needn’t bother too much about showing it. [2008:47]

This touches indelicately on the show of femininity, of women acting beauty if they are not beautiful, as much a necessity of patriarchy as acting masculinity was for men. This question of beauty is to Olivia the inspiration behind her sexual awakening, realising that she has a body and that it is attractive.

Olivia’s prettiness has no bearing on whether she and Julie can be together; rather it all depends on circumstance and death, which shows itself to her as an unapprehended and malignant power that consumes the people we hold dear.

The novel not only touches on these themes, but also considers ideas of art, philosophy, and literature.

Full of interesting and thought-inspiring phrases and ideas, Olivia is a quick read that is bound to get you thinking.


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