A Forgotten Classic of Lesbian Literature: Olivia by Dorothy Strachey

Olivia by Dorothy Strachey cover

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I had found out about Olivia by Dorothy Strachey through the 1951 film of the same name by Jacqueline Audry. MUBI describes the film quite beautifully: “Dreamy laces, soft lighting, and longing glances induce an erotic headiness that renders this landmark lesbian love story a transgressive masterpiece.” I at once started watching the film and loved its atmosphere that was at the same time simple and intense, funny and reflective. The book, on the other hand, was not as funny and simple as the movie was, because of which I loved it even more.

I finally got my hands on the 100-page book with a pretty cover consisting of two women wearing gowns, with their hands slightly touching. I could not quite grasp the exact time-period of the novel, but I presume it’s during the late 1800s, since the novel is partly autobiographical and Strachey was born in 1865. 

The novel is narrated by sixteen-year-old Olivia, who is sent to a finishing school in France. I viewed this novel primarily as a coming-of-age story. Olivia is at an age where one continuously discovers more about oneself and the world. The book depicts the process of this discovery through the clandestine conversions between Olivia and her friend about agnosticism in a strict Wesleyan school, and later through Olivia’s discovery about her love and admiration for her teacher, Mlle Julie, in her finishing school, Les Avons.

I love how passionate and keen the character, Olivia is. The book lets us feel the intensity of Olivia’s emotions ourselves. It has lots of descriptions of theatres and art galleries in Paris, all told through Olivia’s perspective. It lets us feel the excitement of falling in love, as well as the heartbreak that follows when Olivia realises that her love for Mlle Julie has no future.

What I found interesting about this novel was the coexistence of freedom and repression. In the introduction, Strachey writes, “And yet I had an uneasy feeling that, if not a joke, it [her love for her teacher] was something to be ashamed of, something to hide desperately.” Reading some of the descriptions of Les Avons, one would hardly believe that someone could feel so restricted while being allowed to run wildly in the forest full of flowers that surrounded the school. Perhaps this shows that there is more beneath the surface—that a seemingly idyllic setting can foster repression when it comes to certain matters. The relationship between the two heads of Les Avons, Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara, is very interesting, and it is suggested that their relationship was not purely platonic.

Olivia’s morals and her feelings for Mlle Julie contradict each other. She believes that her feelings are shameful: “Was I really capable of vice? Yes, I felt it within me, in this hatred, in this horror, in this confusion itself.” Then again, she thinks, “But love was no vice.” This constant argument with oneself is interesting to observe because we all go through a phase where we realise that our morals and feelings contradict each other and it is up to us to decide which of them to act on. At the same time, Olivia’s thoughts are upsetting to observe, as she was being made to feel guilty when she had done nothing wrong. I think this feeling of guilt is one most of us can relate to, because society often makes us feel guilty for something that literally causes no harm to anyone.

Feelings take precedence over events in Olivia. All the seemingly insignificant events evoke significant emotions, which eventually lead to the “final catastrophe”, as Strachey calls it. The final events of the book are heartbreaking, and are enough to bring tears to the eyes of people as sensitive as I am. In short, I love this book and I don’t know why it isn’t more popular. 

This has been a guest review by “Mysterious”. You can find out more about guest reviews at the Lesbrary on the About page.

Danielle Izzard reviews Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken by Nita Tyndall

the cover of Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken

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Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken by Nita Tyndall is a queer YA historical fiction novel—a genre that I had yet to come across, and knew I had to read as soon as it was released. I was immediately intrigued by its poetic title, as well as by the promise of a topic I wasn’t used to reading. Tyndall certainly delivered with this novel: it is well written, intricately plotted, and overall beautiful. Following strong female characters as they navigate not only personal relationships, but WWII in the heart of Germany, this was an interesting read that captured my attention from start to finish. It’s a perfect YA novel, dealing with teenagers struggling with very real issues that have been faced throughout history: identities, relationships, and emotions. It presents strong family dynamics, which strengthened its appeal, showcasing both supportive and unsupportive families, making the novel realistic and believable. Tyndall writes with beautiful imagery: poetry, jazz music, maps that the protagonist, Charlie, creates. These images and Tyndall’s descriptions of the setting makes the novel vivid, easily bringing words to life.

Despite its strengths, Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken was slightly too short for my liking. Not that short novels aren’t appealing, but in this case, it didn’t help with the progression. It was at times too fast paced, leaving me feeling breathless as I struggled to keep up with the unfolding events. The short length left little time for character development, or even introduction. Throughout reading, I wondered how the characters had come to know each other, and felt that their personalities weren’t conveyed very strongly. I didn’t feel as though I knew them by the end of the novel. I’d have traded the short length for a slower, more drawn-out story. Really, I’d have liked more time in this setting Tyndall so beautifully crafted.

A captivating YA novel that covers WWII in Germany, with queer characters and relationships, Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken is a great example of books we need more of. It’s perfect for fans of Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club, and for readers of all ages.

Danielle reviews Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress

the cover of Sirens and Muses

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Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress is a novel that follows four artists as they embark first on art school before conquering New York City. I loved everything about this novel. Everything. The characters are rich: Angress has done a phenomenal job of creating realistic characters who are not always likable—which, to me, makes them even more real. The four artists are flawed, have their own anxieties and grievances, and are at times self-conscious. Despite times throughout the novel when they are extremely unlikeable, by the end of the novel, two of the four characters, Karina and Louisa, have become some of my favourite fictional characters. It’s important to note that Angress seems to be a master of character development. Cruel at times, each character stumbles. I loved watching each character change direction and reach their potentials despite their earlier suffering and anxieties.

The dynamic between Karina and Louisa is what makes Sirens & Muses for me. Its 368 pages simply don’t have enough of them together. Karina is the character I found most difficult to like at the start of the novel, while Louisa is easy to love. By the time I finished reading, I’d fallen in love with both of them. Between the lines, they have a beautiful love story: obscured by the other two characters’ stories, Angress gave just enough to pull me into their relationship, and desperately hope for some sort of sequel to their story.

My heart hurt for the characters throughout Sirens & Muses. I found myself truly caring about them, and in that sense, Angress has created a masterpiece. The novel is part academic, part love story, part art discourse, and she weaves all of those themes together seamlessly. It is a smart, well-written book that I was immediately captivated by, and have remained captivated by weeks after reading it.

It was the perfect length, leaving you satisfied yet still wanting more, and with such realistic and detailed descriptions of the characters’ art, I felt as though I was walking through an art gallery of their creations: a fictional art gallery filled with the fictional art created by fictional characters. Angress has written a vivid and captivating novel that comes to life off the pages.

Danielle is a Lesbrary guest reviewer. If you would like to submit a review to be featured on the Lesbrary, check out the About page for more information.