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Monday, 20 August 2012

Book Review: Olivia by Dorothy Strachey

This book is something between a long short story and a novella at just over a hundred pages. First published in 1949 (but written years earlier), it's a semi-autobiographical piece based on the author's time at a school in France in the late nineteenth century. It depicts adolescent over-emotion as new student, Olivia, finds herself becoming infatuated with Mlle Julie. She is the latest in a sequence of cracks in the relationship between Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara, a relationship destined for tragedy.

Submerged in the viewpoint of the title character, we're given only her standpoint on events coupled with things she learns from conversation. However, that allows the reader to infer a lot about the relationships depicted, examining them from a more adult point of view. While it may feel that nothing actually happens between Olivia and Mlle Julie, the undercurrent of emotion on Olivia's side is certainly strong and, again, it's important to pay attention to what isn't said as much as what is. The tone of the book is naturally quite stifled by the nineteenth-century setting (and the time it was actually published) and my Vintage edition includes quite a bit of untranslated French which can prove frustrating.

It's difficult to say much about this without ruining the small book. It's worth a read and won't take you very long but be prepared to dig inside the words for the truth.

"Mlle Julie, then, and Mlle Cara (so Signorina told me) had lived together for about fifteen years. They were both young, beautiful and gifted when they first met and decided to become partners in starting a girls' school. It was Julie who had the capital, the influential friends, the energy, the intellect, the commanding personality. It was Cara who had the charm that gained fond mothers' hearts and the qualifications that made the enterprise possible. She had passed all the necessary examinations, and Julie none. They had begun in a small way, but had soon become surprisingly successful, increased their numbers, widened their circle, moved into a larger house, built a library and a music-room. They were something of an institution among a certain set of Parisian intellectuals. Julie was the daughter of a well-known man of letters; her father's friends had been distinguished and at his death had continued their friendship for his brilliant daughter. Julie was eminently sociable and Cara's caressing, cooing manners softened her abruptness and sweetened her epigrams; together they made their drawing-room an attractive place with the added charm of the jeunes filles who flitted in and out of it, ministering cakes and coffee to the guests. They were a model couple, deeply attached, tenderly devoted, the gifts of each supplementing the deficiencies of the other. They were admired and loved. They were happy." (p52)

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