Sunday, 5 July 2009

Olivia by "Olivia"

I have mentioned previously my love for Virago Modern Classics and my burgeoning collection. Olivia by "Olivia", the pseudonym of Dorothy Strachey (sister of Lytton Strachey), was one of the Viragoes that I relentlessly hunted down in a rare green spine, and not merely for the beautiful cover featuring the Gustav Klimt painting, Mäda Primavesi. The synopsis for the novella intrigued me and I knew it would be one that I would enjoy reading. From the back cover:

In this famous novel, first published in 1949, a woman recollects an extraordinary year "when life was, if not at its fullest, at any rate at its most poignant . . . the year when I first became conscious of myself". Olivia is sixteen years old when she goes to Les Avons, a finishing school near Paris, run by two Mademoiselles. It is a place of few rules, of laughter and lively conversation -- a welcome surprise for a reserved young English girl. But the gaiety and freedom of Les Avons is only surface deep and emotional liaisons and jealousies form the hidden curriculum. Very quickly Olivia too is caught up in its spell, overwhelmed by her increasing infatuation with Mademoiselle Julie. Here she describes the powerful allegiances and repressed desires which smoulder at this secluded school, and the intensity and desperation of adolescent love.

Olivia, the protagonist, develops a crush on Mademoiselle Julie, who treats her as teacher's pet. Mademoiselle Clara is jealous and petty until her death, suicide or murder unclear. Olivia is a melodramatic potboiler of adolescent obsession but it is engaging and kept me occupied of a weekend afternoon. The language is quite lush at times, despite the hyperbole, and evokes the intoxicating passion of first "love", the fervent and all-consuming infatuation of a young girl for her teacher. Her rapture and ardor are intense and the pervasive alliances and jealousies of the Mademoiselles is insidious. The unsettling nature of the teachers reminded me of Jean Brodie.

I was also greatly reminded of Colette's Claudine à l'école, which was published more than thirty years prior to Olivia, but it was the latter that was considered ground-breaking and made its way onto the Publishing Triangle's 100 Best Gay & Lesbian Novels. Further reminders, albeit subtler, of convent rather than school set literature in Diderot's The Nun and VMC #1 Frost in May by Antonia White. Moreover, I realised that I still haven't read Lillian Hellman's 1934 play, The Children's Hour, nor watched the big-screen adaptation with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley McClaine, about the two boarding school headmistresses whose careers and lives are destroyed by a vindictive pupil who accuses them of Lesbianism.

Olivia was published anonymously by the Leonard and Virginia Woolf founded Hogarth Press in 1949. Rosamond Lehmann, another Virago Press author, was an enthusiastic supporter and perhaps found similarities with her own famous campus novel of lesbian attraction and affection, Dusty Answer.

I enjoyed Olivia and its capture of the intensity of teenage infatuation and crushes, although as Olivia says:

"My case was so different, so unheard of. Really no one had ever heard of a thing, except as a joke. Yes, people used to make joking allusions to "school-girl crushes". But I knew well enough that my "crush" was not a joke."

This holds particular resonance for me, as I am sure it would for anyone who was once a school-girl with a crush. Olivia's affection for Mademoiselle Julie, however, is ambiguously not necessarily a case of unrequited love.

I will leave you with a longer passage:

I have often wondered what share Racine had in lighting the flame that began to burn in my heart that night, or what share proximity. If she hadn't read just that play or if she hadn't called me up by chance to sit so near her, in such immediate contact, would be inflammable stuff which I carried so unsuspectingly within me have remained perhaps outside the radius of the kindling spark and never caught fire at all? But probably not; sooner or later, it was bound to happen.


verity said...

I am looking forward very much to reading this book - I have it, unfortunately not in a Virago edition, on the TBRBC. I loved the Colette books and I love the genre of schoolgirl books from that sort of period (have you encountered Frost in May?)

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Verity. I intend to re-read Claudine at School soon as it has been a long time and I want to read the other Claudine novels. I loved it though and the genre.
I read half of Frost in May last year but for some silly reason (like life) I didn't finish it; I'll definitely be picking it up again, perhaps on another weekend afternoon. I have so many Viragoes now that I really need to read them quickly.

StuckInABook said...

Thanks for pointing me in this direction, I'm even more intrigued now - though also coveting your beautiful Virago edition. Makes mine look very drab...

Paperback Reader said...

No problems, Simon; I knew you would appreciate it. It is an exceptionally pretty edition and one I am very lucky to have. I'm looking forward to seeing a complete photograph of yours, not just the spine, out of interest.

Nymeth said...

Thank you - I had never heard of this before and it sounds like something I would love.

Paperback Reader said...

I think it will, knowing your love of boarding school stories and LGBT literature. Vintage Classics have republished it in a lovely edition.