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Olivia by Dorothy Strachey — book review

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“And so that was what love led to. To wound and be wounded. ”

Set in a French finishing school Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia tells the story of a schoolgirl’s infatuation with her headmistress. Narrated by its titular character, Olivia perfectly evokes adolescent love. Olivia becomes enamoured with Mlle. Julie, and experiences an awakening of sorts.

“Pretty girls I had seen, lovely girls, no doubt, but I had never paid much conscious attention to their looks, never been particularly interested in them. But this was something different. No, it was not different. It was merely being awakened to something for the first time—physical beauty. I was never blind to it again.”

Not only do her feelings towards Mlle. Julie alter her sense of self but they also seem to heighten her senses. Her narration is full of ecstatic exclamations and passionate declarations. She often looses herself is sensuous raptures in which she elevates Mlle. Julie to a godly status. Olivia however is not the only to pine after her, and Mlle. Julie herself seems to be involved with the other headmistress, Mlle. Cara. Strachey’s perfectly captures the anguish of unreciprocated love. Mlle. Julie is Olivia’s objet petit a, in other words her unattainable object of desire. Although Olivia longs for Mlle. Julie, it seemed to me that the impossibility of this love magnified the intensity of her feelings. She seems almost satisfied by her own yearning and angst. Strachey vividly renders Olivia’s finishing school, from the petty jealousies between pupils to the rivalry between Frau Riesener and Signorina. I particularly liked reading about the school’s two factions: the ‘Julie-ites’ (who studied Italian with Signorina) and the ‘Cara-ites’ (who studied German with Frau Riesener).

The novel doesn’t have a plot as such. The narrative seems intent on using a certain type of language in order to translate to the page Olivia’s feelings towards Mlle. Julie. Through her grandiose prose Strachey articulates the highs and lows of Olivia’s infatuation. Her writing has a flamboyantly poetic quality, one that complements Olivia’s emotions—from her desire to her misery—and her reverence towards Mlle. Julie.
Being an individual who is not only prone to crushes, but one that tends to romanticise said crushes, well, I rather identified with Olivia. It’s a pity that Olivia is Strachey’s only novel.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes:

“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 into my mind a quotation from the poets.”

“These people seemed to be beset on every side by “temptations”; they lived in continual terror of falling into “sin”. Sin? What was sin? Evidently there loomed in the dark background a mysterious horror from which pure-minded girls must turn away their thoughts, but there were dangers enough near at hand which made it necessary to walk with extreme wariness—pitfalls, which one could hardly avoid without the help of God.”

“Did I understand the play at that first reading? Oh, certainly not. Haven’t I put the gathered experience of years into my recollection of it? No doubt. What is certain is that it gave me my first conception of tragedy, of the terror and complication and pity of human lives. Strange that for an English child that revelation should have come through Racine instead of through Shakespeare. But it did.”

“I went to bed that night in a kind of daze, slept as if I had been drugged and in the morning awoke to a new world—a world of excitement—a world in which everything was fierce and piercing, everything charged with strange emotions, clothed with extraordinary mysteries, and in which I myself seemed to exist only as an inner core of palpitating fire.”

“But there was no need of wine to intoxicate me. Everything in her proximity was intoxicating.”

“The dullest of her girls was stirred into some sort of life in her presence; to the intelligent, she communicated a Promethean fire which warmed and coloured their whole lives. To sit at table at her right hand was an education in itself.”

“No, I have never seen anyone freer from every sort of selfishness, never seen anyone devote herself to others with such manifest gladness. And yet, with all her altruism, one could never think of her as self-sacrificing. She never did sacrifice herself. She had no self to sacrifice. When she gave her time, her thoughts, her energies to bringing up her stepbrothers and stepsisters, it was really a joy to her.”

“I think there was nothing else she wanted. If I too would have liked to serve, I was continually conscious that I was incapable and unworthy, continually devoured by vain humilities. And then there was also in me a curious repugnance, a terror of getting too near.”

“Let me think of those words later, I said to myself, there’s too much in them—too much joy and terror. I must brush them aside for the moment. I must keep them, bury them, like a dog his bone, till I can return to them alone.”

“It was at this time that a change came over me. That delicious sensation of gladness, of lightness, of springing vitality, that consciousness of youth and strength and ardour, that feeling that some divine power had suddenly granted me an undreamt-of felicity and made me free of boundless kingdoms and untold wealth, faded as mysteriously as it had come and was succeeded by a very different state. Now I was all moroseness and gloom—heavy-hearted, leaden-footed.”

“But I wasn’t thinking. I was sometimes dreaming—the foolish dreams of adolescence: of how I should save her life at the cost of my own by some heroic deed, of how she would kiss me on my death-bed, of how I should kneel at hers and what her dying word would be, of how I should become famous by writing poems which no one would know were inspired by her, of how one day she would guess it, and so on and so on.”

“On the very first morning of what was to be my new life, how could I expect to banish entirely those haunting visions—of a shoulder—of a profile?”

“I had been so utterly absorbed by the newness and violence of all my emotions, that it had never occurred to me the present could be anything but eternal.”

“I must feed on beauty and rapture in order to grow strong.”

“I pondered the episodes I have just related. I lived them over again, sometimes with ecstasy, sometimes with anguish.”

BOOK REVIEWS

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

Goblin Market features female characters who are subjects to desire. It has been said that in this poem, Rossetti attempts to capture the complexity of human sexuality and desire through a sensual language. I, however, do not share this opinion.
From the very first lines it was quite clear that Rossetti responded to the aesthetic movement. Sadly, while I do enjoy certain aspect of this movement, I found the beauty imposed by Rossetti’s many vibrant descriptions to be lacking feeling. There was an underlying simplicity behind Rossetti’s colorful words which rendered the whole poem rather frivolous.
Despite my personal opinion, critics read many different things in Goblin Market: it is a cautionary tale for women and children, a critique of consumerism, a tale of sisterhood, or even a poem that both encourages and critiques female sexual pleasure. In my opinion, it is just a flashy collection of pretty images that doesn’t truly dwell on anything deep or meaningful.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars