‘[H]ave you ever been in love?’ …
‘Yes,’ she answered somberly, ‘yes.’
‘And what’s it like?’
‘Too horrible to speak of … And too delicious.’
Olivia, sixteen, and ready to have the half-sleep of childhood burned from her. Her bildungsroman, inspired by Strachey’s own life, blooms in Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara’s school. But her education extends beyond academia, as she cannot help, nor tries to help, that she loves her schoolmistress, Mlle Julie. A love perhaps returned.
Strachey wrote this novella in the 30s/40s1. Not really halcyon days for homosexuals. So the novella’s unashamed Sapphicness comes as a surprise. Olivia may question if her feelings are Love, but once she accepts she loves Julie she never denies it, nor wonders what her parents or society may think. Only once does a character (not the author) border on condemning homosexuality2. E. M. Forster refused to publish Maurice3 until after his death because he felt the British public couldn’t handle a non-tragic portrait of homosexuality. Strachey, meanwhile, makes no attempt to hide the euphoria of this young, gay love. On every other page she weaves passages like:
‘[M]y favourite [painting] would always be one I could look at without letting her out of the compass of my eye.’ (34)
‘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 the 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.’ (24)
‘Does your heart beat when you go into the room where she is? Does it stand still when you touch her hand? Does your voice dry up in your throat when you speak to her? Do you hardly dare raise her eyes to look at her, and yet not succeed in turning them away?’ (45)
If those lines sound melodramatic, or ultra-passionate, that’s because they are. On my first reading I held this against Strachey, her resort to proto-camp extremity. Not because I thought the writing poor, but that I felt it disingenuous. I saw a writer whose style lacked justification. Then I learnt how old she was when writing this. She wrote this in her eighties. I believed her in her 40s at most, extending her faculties back only a few decades. When she says ‘those Victorian days’ (66) she means 1870s. In her eighties she writes of a time a whole world ago, of a self she has long since passed. Considering that, Strachey’s writing feels sincere, and not the product of stylistic extremes. The over-flowing of feeling is a conscious choice for thematic reasons. She writes in the mind of Olivia, a young woman, more a girl, fired by first love. Her writing is the natural explosion of accumulated fuel exposed to flame, an eruption from one who ‘at home [n]ever alluded to feelings or ever attempted to express them’ (11).
Olivia’s coming-of-age is the time she first opened herself to feeling, experiencing the world with the sensitivity of a just exposed nerve, not yet dulled by time. Early on Strachey contrasts Olivia with her mother, a woman who ‘had the most singular faculty of keeping experience at bay’ (11). Though she inherited from her mother a love of literature, her mother viewed literature from behind a ‘wall of principle and morality’ to avoid ‘dangerous contact’ (11). This refusal to let literature affect her made her ‘incapable of the mystical illumination’ it brings (12).
Compare this with Olivia’s first time hearing Julie read Racine:
‘The sonorous vowels, the majestic periods, the tremendous names sweep on; one is borne upon a tide of music and greatness; one follows breathlessly the evolutions, the shiftings, the advances and retreats of the doomed quartet as they tread their measured way to death and madness, through all the vicissitudes of irresolution, passion and jealousy, leaving at the end a child’s soul shaken and exhausted, the first great rent made in the veil that hides the emotions of men and women from the eyes of innocence.’ (26)
Olivia by opening herself to art, opens herself to ‘the emotions of men and women’. To view art behind a ‘wall of principle and morality’ is to view life behind the same ‘veil’. This reading is the catalyst of Olivia’s coming-of-age, the epiphany encompassing the major themes of the novella: coming-of-age; the power of art; the passion of first love.
Concerning her respect for art, it possesses a sincerity which seems lost today.
‘Was this stab in my heart, this rapture, really mine or had I merely read about it? For every feeling, every vicissitude of my passion, there would spring to mind a quotation from the poets … Nothing ever seemed spontaneously my own. As the blood dripped from the wound, there was always a part of me to watch with a smile and a sneer: “Literature! Mere literature! Nothing to make a fuss about!” And then I would add, “But so Mercutio jested as he died!”’ (8)
If a novelist today spoke the same I might suspect a postmodern apology for unoriginality, an attempt to pre-emptively excuse derivativeness by admitting derivativeness. But Strachey wrote this in her eighties during Modernism’s waning, hardly circumstances for postmodernism. She continues:
‘The poets, it is true (for even then I frequented the poets), had a way of talking sometimes which seemed strangely to illuminate the situation.’ (9)
She mentions her literary progenitors (‘Shakespeare[,] Donne[,] Heine’ (8)) not as apology, but as justification, a testament that her feelings are so true that they resonate through the literary canon.
But while Olivia’s story is one of expanding horizons, it is also one of limited geography. The novella plays out in the Victorian era, that era when no telephones or automobiles existed to abridge roads and sea – a time when Olivia’s school, that hermetic Arcadia, could seem the entire world. While not actively foreshadowed, the wider world threatens to intrude upon her.
The ending (spoilers) contains tragedy, but not the kind you’d expect from a mid-century gay novella. Strachey doesn’t concede to her time’s bigotry, writing a story of homosexual experience, then having characters suffer for those experiences, as a kind of plausible deniability. The ending, though not happy or sappy, holds no sense of ‘punishment’, nor even a ‘The world is cruel to those like us.’
On the ending, I feel conflicted. In general it disappoints me when introspective dramas, so subdued throughout, end with gunshots. Olivia has no guns, but you get the point. Take a slice-of-life novel, generally coming-of-age, where a few friends discover themselves, and love, and life, so everyday – then BANG, someone’s dead. Because a writer can’t just stop their story, no, they must end it. They believe, perhaps justifiably, that the middle can’t just keep going until the pages run out, a climax must mark the end. In clumsy hands the climax rings false. The contrast of its lightning with the rest of the story’s calm creates unpleasing melodrama.
Olivia totters on the line between artful and melodrama4. I understand the thematic reasons behind the ending. A ‘brutal stroke of some awful, malignant power lying in wait’ (84) just had to smash Olivia’s Arcadia. But Strachey weaved plotlines into the story that could’ve forgone the climax, yet have the same ultimate result. But then the ending wouldn’t be ‘unexpected, apprehended’ (84), it would be slow, evoking a death-row agony, hardly the same effect. Olivia’s is not a bad ending, nor even an out-of-nowhere one. It feels like the last piece of a jigsaw, one that’s in place, but jutting slightly. I should say, all this refers to the climax. The denouement is a thing of beauty, finishing the novella with bittersweet closure.
Olivia’s not gotten the respect it deserves. If the price of a first edition can measure prestige, Olivia has little. Compared to other decades old masterpieces, it’s affordable. Vintage, in 2008, republished it, making it available, though not known, to a modern audience. Strachey’s only novella comprises a hundred pages of poetic prose, each page a throbbing rose. Open yourself to it, bask in ‘mystical illumination’.
0 All page references for the 1950 Hogarth Press Readers Union Edition
1 McCann, Ruth. “Finding and Keeping Olivia”. 2009. Accessed 12 May 2015. https://lib.stanford.edu/files/ruth_mcCann.pdf
2 Even then, the dubious ethics of teacher-student relationships seems the main, if not whole, issue.
3 Another homosexual romance that *shock* doesn’t end in death.
4 As the novella is only semi-autobiographical, it is fiction, and shall be judged by the standards of fiction. The excuse ‘But it really happened’ cannot apply. On that note, I’ve not done the research so I’m unsure if this part of the novella even refers to reality.