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’.

Marie Souvestre was a stylish and sceptical French schoolteacher, headmistress first of a school near Fontainebleau which Dorothy and her sister Elinor attended; later of a school in London where Dorothy taught. She was pro-Boer, anti-public school and eagerly atheistic; artistic, witty and given to intimacies. Her zeal, charm, and no doubt her connections, which ranged from Rodin to Mrs Humphry Ward, put the eminent on their mettle. Henry James thought her school at ‘high, breezy Wimbledon’ held ‘a very particular place ... The one shade of objection is that it is definitely “middle-class”. But all schools here are that.’ Beatrice Webb, who may have had some interest in defining the area in which humility was appropriate, complained that her ‘absence of humility ... narrowed her influence to those whom she happened to like and who happened to like her’. She had a point: there was something of the Jean Brodie about Marie Souvestre. Her schools were a long way from the world of purple knees and navy-blue knickers; she had favourites among her students – Eleanor Roosevelt, Beatrice Chamberlain, Dorothy Strachey – and these favourites were presented with a library full of flowers and paintings by Puvis de Chavannes, with select readings in the headmistress’s study and debate with professors at meals. The enthusiastic drilling of girlish sensibilities had some of the characteristics of a religious order – Marie Souvestre’s girls were encouraged to lie down for an hour after lunch and consider a single thought to be discussed, in French, at tea – but the goal was cultural rather than supranatural elevation. Eleanor Roosevelt’s schooling included a trip to Florence (where the pupil procured the hansoms and porters, the headmistress chose the desirable sights), the discouragement of nail-biting, and the sympathetic instruction that there were ‘more quiet and enviable joys’ than success at balls. Her notebooks show her neatly tabulating the merits of Richardson’s novels, diligently rapturous at the Comédie Française. She was commended by Marie Souvestre for ‘a fineness of feeling truly exquisite’.

Dorothy Strachey also applied herself to the pursuit of fine feeling, and in Olivia produced a book which is written in a continual tremor of excitement. It is a novel of meltings, glowings, softenings and glooms, which declares its delicacies boldly, and announces the author’s adherence to spontaneity and romance with some question-begging flourishes: ‘How can one ... write without laying bare one’s soul?’ Freud is called a poisoner of passion and made less dispiriting: ‘waiting and watching for the prowling beasts, the nocturnal vermin, to come creeping out of their lairs, to recognise this one and that, to give it its name’. Love is pronounced ‘too horrible to speak of ... and too delicious’ – and is the main subject of conversation.

Arriving at her school in France, Olivia enters a world which is entirely female and in many respects a feminist’s nightmare: a world busy with languishing and devoted tending, where competitiveness thrives but only the villainess has a clear ambition. The girls are divided into two camps, each pledging allegiance to one of the headmistresses, Mlle Cara and Mlle Julie (Marie Souvestre). Their long friendship is disintegrating, apparently through the machinations of an empire-building teacher, though the suspicion grows in the novel, if not in the narrator’s mind, that friendships so ambiguously sexual and so rarified are interestingly doomed. The school may be full of fragrant consolations – of sofas and eau-de-Cologne and dampened handkerchiefs, of sympathies exchanged in small rooms but – it is not free from the shades of Radclyffe Hall, or Mrs Radcliffe: there are ‘sulphurous fumes’ and ‘exhalations from some obscure depths’ and, at the end, an ill-explained death. There are tantrums and teasings, fret and flurry. Senior girls line the corridor as Mlle Julie leaves for Parisian parties – like a mother in a novel doomed to die young – with her cloak thrown back to show ‘the shimmer of bare neck and lace and satin’; small girls dismissed abruptly from Mlle Cara’s classes emerge furrowed, muttering: ‘The migraine!’ The trouble-making mistress is significantly isolated in this company by her marital status and by teaching a non-Romance language: ‘ “And just think!” said someone else, “the German mistress is a widow!” ’

The short scenes which make up Olivia are elegantly tailored to produce a sense of hectic dazzling. Olivia is wooed by Cara with chocolates, but won by the more exigent Julie, who reads her Racine, takes her to art galleries and the homes of Academicians, and occasionally presses her hand. And once won she is rapt: in the contemplation of her heroine’s virtues and connections, in the extensive elaboration of her own feelings and, more briefly, in the covert examination of her own ‘joli corps’. No one in Olivia, least of all the narrator, would support the view expressed by Lytton Strachey’s imaginary adolescent Ermyntrude that ‘being in love is merely a more polite way of saying that your pussy’s pouting.’ Yet, though sex is never mentioned, eroticism is on every page. It is present in the appearance of Olivia’s fellow students, who, more maidenly than the average batch of 16-year-olds, appear at a Fancy Dress Ball provocatively equipped with plunging necklines or decked out in top hat and whiskers. It is present in the language of Olivia’s ‘indefinite desire’, which has her aching, awakening and dissolving; it is present in Mlle Julie’s promise that, St Agnes-like, she will come to Olivia’s bedside and ‘bring you a sweet’.

The lure of this enclosed and fragile community is persuasively sketched; the large claims made for it are less convincing. The smallest murmur from Mlle Julie sets Olivia rhapsodising in a battery of imprecations, exclamations and rhetorical questions. Thrilling to the affirmative possibilities of the normally dull, she discovers transfiguring potential in her Latin grammar: the Comédie Française can hardly measure up to this – it offers, like a Dior garment, ‘the delicious satisfaction of perfect finish!’ The unfocused and disproportionate quality of Olivia’s passion may he part of the point, but Mlle Julie is in danger of disappearing under her admirer’s adulation: she is praised for epigrams and ironies which are unrecorded; credited with unproven nobility and unprovable charisma. And not all the language of this ecstasy is fresh. Paeans sing readily in hearts; frames turn quickly to water; creamy shoulders evoke the same inexplicably immediate throb achieved in heterosexual romances when sunlight glints on a man’s hairy wrist.

Dorothy Strachey was not incapable of astringency. Her early experience of a Wesleyan school – where, having vowed to resist the faith, she was condemned to climb to bed conspicuously prayerless – is charted in Olivia with acerbic economy. But when she admired she adored. Her adoration had little to do with self-sacrifice: she sought attention from her heroes and paid attention to her own feelings. In Olivia the narrator compares her own emotional imperiousness with the less demanding attitude of two other admirers of Mlle Julie. The tiny Italian mistress, Mlle Baietto, perches beside Julie on a stool as she reads, and ends up contentedly trimming her idol’s nails in Canada. Laura, an old favourite of Julie’s, returns to the school for a visit: she is candid and clumsy and intelligent; saintly but engaging, she amazes Olivia by managing to love Julie but retain her composure.

Both these figures, more substantial than Olivia’s graceful contemporaries, are clearly based on people Dorothy Strachey knew. Mlle Baietto is a close portrait of Mlle Samaia, Marie Souvestre’s small and constant companion, who taught at both her schools – and monitored the state of Eleanor Roosevelt’s fingernails. Laura is more enigmatic. Writing last year in Feminist Studies, Blanche Wiesen Cook explained that Laura is a ‘barely disguised’ picture of Eleanor Roosevelt: a plausible notion, given Eleanor Roosevelt’s success – both social and academic – at the Wimbledon school and the praise she attracted from Marie Souvestre for the ‘perfect quality of her soul’. But it is at least as likely that Laura, who is described in Olivia as being the daughter of ‘perhaps the most important man in England at the time’, was Beatrice, the eldest daughter of Joseph Chamberlain and half-sister of Neville. Beatrice Chamberlain was a friend of the Strachey family: one of Lytton’s earliest memories was of her ‘playing at having tea with me, with leaves and acorns, under a tree.’ She was older than Dorothy Strachey, as Laura is older than Olivia, and attended Marie Souvestre’s school in France – not the later Wimbledon version (where Eleanor Roosevelt was taught by Dorothy Strachey). Like Laura, who is praised in Olivia for her generosity in welcoming the authority of a new step-mother, Beatrice Chamberlain had coped with her father’s household between his marriages. And Dorothy Strachey’s Italian literary tendencies might well have inclined her to imagine that Dante’s Beatrice could be replaced by Petrarch’s Laura.

Blanche Wiesen Cook’s main theme is the ‘historical denial of lesbianism’. She sees Olivia as a contribution to candour in this area, which it is, but is hasty in representing the novel as a geriatric coming-out: ‘at 83, Dorothy Strachey Bussy fell ... the need to assail and stand up to those elements of her culture that had caused her to hide.’ Olivia may proclaim the ‘urgency of confession’, but the novel wasn’t exactly a final utterance. Gide’s desk had housed a manuscript of Olivia (along with a Noh play and other offerings from Dorothy Strachey) some fifteen years before the book was published – and Dorothy Strachey was nowhere near signing off in her sixties. Olivia was not her last word on love, and when she wrote about ‘a deep-rooted instinct, which all my life has kept me from any form of unveiling’, she was not merely making a coy reference to her sex life. The same instinct had, until then, kept her from ‘all literary expression’. It seems reasonable to suppose that this instinct had its origin in unsexy Lancaster Gate, whose public-spiritedness could make almost any expression of personal preference seem an indecent act.

Lytton Strachey may have delighted in shrilling his apostasy: his sister seems to have rebelled only when an alternative object for homage presented itself. She loved where it was difficult or dangerous to love, where her capacity for admiration could be excited by unattainability. Her marriage, at nearly forty, to the painter Simon Bussy was described by her brother as an act of ‘extraordinary courage’ which shook the Strachey household. Lady Strachey (who might perhaps have preferred the suitor who later became Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue) thought that the ‘terrible feature’ of the marriage was ‘the smallness of means’; her son, more idiosyncratically, complained of the Bussys’ affectionateness: ‘Couples in the road with their silly arms round their stupid waists irritate me in the same way.’

The charm and conviviality of the Bussys’ house in the South of France – where, Strachey wrote, ‘the pink of beauty reigns’ – no doubt fulfilled some of the expectations of exquisiteness aroused by Marie Souvestre and her school system. But there was still room for a hero, Dorothy Bussy met André Gide in 1918; she was 52 and he was 49. She helped to teach him English in Cambridge, became his main English translator, and conducted a correspondence with him which lasted until Gide’s death thirty years later. Some of these letters, edited (and in Gide’s case translated) by Richard Tedeschi, appeared in a recent edition of Salmagundi. Dorothy Strachey’s letters are strikingly similar to Olivia in language and attitudes: they show someone working, often on rather exiguous materials, to create a hero and, in doing so, a place for herself.

Gide valued her and the work she did for him. She was obsessed by him. She wrote to him about ‘the radiance of your presence’ and ‘your essential beauty’. In 1920, 12 years before she began to describe the ‘extraordinary nobility’ of Mlle Julie’s ‘austere’ face, thinking ‘she must have suffered ...,’ she was writing to Gide: ‘The things that make a face beautiful to me are the things that are pre-eminent in yours – thought and suffering and experience – knowledge of good and evil. Oh! How I like to look at your forehead and wonder and wonder what is working behind it, and your eyes which are so eager and so rarely tender, and your lips, your lips, sweet, austere, incredibly mysterious.’ Meanwhile Gide kept her up-to-date on his chills, his ‘terrible accumulation of work’, his fatigue and the demands on his time: ‘friends who claim attention, ask advice.’ She teased him as if they were lovers, redirecting a letter from Ottoline Morrell inside an envelope addressed in her own handwriting, hoping that he would be disappointed. Gide responded to all this with some tenderness and concern – anxious if he didn’t hear from her, and anxious that she shouldn’t worry about him – and with considerable astonishment: ‘your heart has resources that amaze me. I read you with a sort of dumb admiration: What! all this is written to me!’

There was some wiliness as well as self-satisfaction in his reactions: he managed to avoid saying that his feelings equalled hers, but insinuated that any discrepancy was due only to her greater emotional capacity, his shortcomings. This line seems to have suited Dorothy Strachey quite well. She constantly avowed her sense of his intellectual superiority – ‘Vous pouvez me comprendre mais moi – vous. Never. What a reversal of axioms it would be’ – and to some extent played the part of the supportive woman, always there, therefore always needed: ‘the infinite patience and conscientiousness and fidelity that is necessary in a translator is more often found among women. And moreover a man who is more gifted than a woman is less likely to devote himself to the subordinate task of translating.’

By presenting herself as an interpreter rather than an originator, she was able to hint at unexplored qualities and reserves of instinctive judgment: ‘But though I can’t understand, I can see beauty.’ She commented freely, though far from disinterestedly, on Gide’s life – as if it were a work she were translating. His announcement that he was the father of Elisabeth Van Rysselberghe’s child was greeted with a torrent of anguish: ’Do I hate her? Not really. I hope. I think not really. But it made me physically sick to look at her.’ She can hardly have expected to win Gide as a lover with these words; nor are they the phrases of a reliable chum – they are, rather, those of a woman determined to treat a major event in her correspondent’s life as an unpleasant episode disrupting the course of a steadier sentimental friendship. When Gide, who looked upon his insensitivities as acts of integrity, published his 1928 Journal, which contained a cool reference to her infatuation, Dorothy Strachey overlooked the self-righteous Empire talk in which he phrased the reference: ‘the fear of causing pain is a form of cowardice which my whole being rebels against.’ She howled – partly out of embarrassment, but partly because she was convinced that his diary was less true than her letters: ‘You and I know that it is not true.’

In the end, she may have brought Gide round. The man who in brushing aside Olivia had dismissed what may have been intended as a concealed love letter to him, and who had written with gratuitous candour, ‘the time will come, and soon – when your friendship can be a great support,’ grew more sentimental as he grew old. In the safety of his eighties, he was signing his letters: ‘With all my very tired heart, I love you.’