Who is Laura?

Susannah Clapp

  • Olivia by Olivia
    Hogarth, 109 pp, £4.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 7012 0177 0

In February 1948 André Gide received an uncharacteristically triumphant letter from his English translator. Used to hearing about Gide’s exploits, she now had, girlishly, ‘a little adventure of my own’ to confess. The manuscript of a short story which she had written and sent to Gide 19 years earlier – ‘Oh how could I be so idiotic?’ – and which Gide had stuffed in his desk drawer, had at last been shown to friends in London. Rosamond Lehmann had praised it; Leonard Woolf wanted to publish it. The story was Olivia; the author, anonymous on publication in 1949, was Dorothy Strachey Bussy, Lytton Strachey’s sister.

Olivia is a piece of spirited homage, by a woman both spirited and prone to homage. Dorothy Strachey had some of her brother’s susceptibility to surroundings and dedication to the animating power of personality: charged by Dorothy’s husband to begin a great work, Strachey felt himself too ‘obsédé par les personnages’ to comply. But while his energy and imagination turned to anatomising his distaste for other people’s admirations, hers were devoted to the creation of new heroes. He was all Apostle; she all acolyte. Gide was one of these heroes; Olivia celebrates another. Brief and fervent, it tells of a year spent by a 16-year-old girl in a French school: a year in which the narrator develops a passionate attachment to one of the headmistresses. Her account has little of the traditional school-story about it: no pranks, no prefects, no smell of ink; the tone is confessional; the subject is first love. It is not difficult to see why Dorothy Strachey chose to publish anonymously. Events have been dramatised, but the main features of the story are autobiographical: the school was one she attended; the headmistress a woman she knew and admired; the home she leaves is recognisably that of the Strachey household.

Dorothy Strachey dedicated Olivia to ‘the beloved memory of V.W.’ – who twenty years earlier had published a study of ambiguous sexuality with an oddly echoing title. But the book has another, more oblique dedication: one which makes it a defiant declaration against her family as well as a hymn of praise to a particular woman. Olivia was the name of a Strachey sister who had died in infancy and who had prompted some peculiar lines from Lytton Strachey when he was nine:

To me Life is a burden
  But to thee         
The joyous pleasures of the world
  Are all a gaiety.                
But if thou did’st perceive my thoughts
Then thou would’st sigh and mourn,
  Olivia, like me.                  

Transfixed by what that sister had missed, Strachey examined his childhood home, Lancaster Gate, with a forensic fascination: finding dirt, clutter, ‘foggy distances’ and ‘brains crouched behind the piano’, he went on to diagnose an age characterised by an absence of nerves and a nation distinguished by its addiction to antimacassars, rhubarb and self-righteousness. Dorothy Strachey appears in his early diaries and autobiographical essays as an effusive elder sister: ‘Dorothy ... kissed me a hundred times, in a rapture of laughter and affection, counting her kisses, when I was six’; as a stiff little figure in white muslin and a black sash, in mourning for the German Emperor; as an efficient chaperon, bustling her small seasick brother up into bracing deck air. Her own description of Lancaster Gate in Olivia has the same critical tendency as her brother’s, but is less quizzical, more personal, directed with some vehemence against a mother who was unaware of her children’s preoccupations and – what is made to seem even more important – who chose food, clothes and furnishings ‘not without care but without taste’. Lady Strachey’s principled charmlessness seems to have extended to her way with words: Dorothy Strachey remembers a romance-shrivelling reading of Tom Jones and a lot of good talk which left the children edgy and bored. In recalling the infrequent interventions of her father, who ‘would let fall from time to time a grim and gnomic apophthegm, which we treasured as a household word’, she mirrors one of the more poignant of her brother’s diary entries: ‘In the evening we played on combs and Papa came.’

Though Dorothy and Lytton Strachey hung around their home long after adolescence, their writings were to celebrate sensibility rather than argument, character rather than topic. His archness and her earnestness had a similar syntax and vocabulary: both luxuriated in surprise; both on occasion wrote as if surprise were a sufficient condition for interest. Strachey’s delicious thrills of disgust (‘filthy little brackets – disgusting grasses – appalling vases!’ he was exclaiming at the age of 12) are only a shiver away from his sister’s raptures: ‘Ravishing, ravishing creatures!’ Both were encouraged in spryness, and in a scamper after the exquisite, by the woman who dominates Olivia – the woman Strachey called ‘cette grande femme’.

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