On the Origins of Queer Autofiction: A Review of Dorothy Strachey’s “Olivia”

"Olivia" cover

In the introduction to her short autobiographical novel Olivia, the newly rereleased lesbian classic published anonymously by the Bloomsbury Group in 1949, fifteen years after her friend André Gide’s polite dismissal of its merits, Dorothy Strachey writes:

This account of what happened to me during a year that I spent at school in France seems to me to fall into the shape of a story—a short, simple one, with two or three characters and very few episodes. It is informed with a single motive, tends to a single end, moves quickly and undeviatingly to a final catastrophe. Its truth has been filtered, transposed, and, maybe, superficially altered, as is inevitably the case with all autobiographies.

Strachey casts herself in her novel as the young and fiercely intelligent Olivia, the narrator of this blistering account of adolescent desire and first love who’s sent at the age of sixteen from her home in England to a finishing school just outside of Paris. Upon her arrival, Olivia becomes captivated by Mademoiselle Julie—who runs the school alongside another woman, Mademoiselle Cara—when she first recognizes her attraction during an evening gathering when Julie reads aloud from a Racine play. Olivia wonders later what part the actual text itself contributed to the sudden blooming of desire, or whether it was something else entirely: “If she hadn’t read just that play or if she hadn’t called me up by chance to sit so near her, in such immediate contact, would the inflammable stuff which I carried so unsuspectingly within me have remained perhaps outside the radius of the kindling spark and never caught fire at all?” 

But catch fire it quickly does. Olivia becomes a favorite student of Mlle Julie, and the tenderness between them escalates into a physical passion that’s revealed on the page by Strachey only in coded language, referents that must be carefully parsed, as though the reader is being asked to scratch at the words themselves so that some deeper, truer meaning can be unearthed. The two begin taking trips into Paris together, and Olivia’s sexual awakening thus occurs alongside her aesthetic awakening as she strolls through art museums and attends theater performances and visits the studios of famous painters with Julie—and also as she walks the streets of Paris itself, the various allures of the city described by Strachey with a deep fondness. Olivia comes to liken the experience of adolescence as that of being in “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.” Now that she understands desire, she can finally see the world for what it is.

Queer writers have long taken to the use of autofiction as a dominant storytelling mode, and Olivia serves as a very early example of this trend. This impulse is perhaps rooted in telling our stories like we’re often forced to live our lives, so many of our most fundamental traits disguised and outwardly reconfigured in order to meet certain expectations of form. Autofiction—fiction drawn from life, sometimes in almost photorealistic detail—allows for both obfuscation and exaggeration, but it also creates a kind of necessary distance, a way for a writer to give shape and structure to often painful lived experiences, and thus to reclaim control over them. No wonder, then, that these writers are often inclined to tell the stories of their first confrontations with their sexualities—Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and Edouard Louis’s more recent The End of Eddy—which is often a time of inner chaos infused with shame, a roiling sense of forbidden desire suddenly bursting forth from some dark and unfamiliar place.

Indeed, the onset of desire in Olivia ultimately leads to confusion, then to shame, when tensions arise between Julie and Cara that throw the future of the school into question. Olivia intuitively believes that she’s the root cause of the conflict, even before this is actually confirmed in what proves to be a final confrontation with Cara. “What would your mother say if she knew?” says Cara, referring to Julie’s nightly visits to Olivia’s bedside, which Olivia awaits with an almost uncontainable restlessness. “If she knew how you were being led astray, demoralized, depraved? How idle you have become, and for all I know, vicious!” In what throughout the 20th century will coalesce into an almost necessary condition of the queer coming-of-age novel, queerness once discovered must then be condemned. At her most tortured, Olivia describes desire as a place from which to escape, as if to free oneself of the loudness of the body’s needs would be to arrive somewhere stripped of shame, but stripped also of passion, the fire burning within being safely and yet tragically stamped out. 

In his own introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of Olivia, André Aciman—who openly admits that the novel was a direct inspiration for his similarly sexually charged Call Me By Your Name—writes of the book’s structure not as one rooted in incident and plot, but rather “a tapestry of tortured, introspective moments”:

When intractable feelings are the plot, and when doubt, shame, fear, desire, and hope are at the source of a kind of emotional paralysis rather than of action, what readers respond to is the invitation to recognize in themselves what they’ve always felt but never quite had the time to consider or the courage to confront.

The novel is thus also structured as queer—a dramatic staging of the psychological act of waiting, hoping, desperately yearning for something as yet unnamable. The novel’s action takes place almost entirely within its narrator’s vibrant imagination, her hopes and fears playing out simultaneously. When Strachey describes Olivia’s experience of the closet, which isn’t yet culturally understood as such, she writes that “I seemed to myself not to be really alive … to be somebody acting a part and pretending to be present, pretending to be myself, while all the while the real I was somewhere else.” The idea of hidden desires generating a separate, secret self would also become another tenet of queer fiction and memoir seeking to replicate on the page the experience of straddling two identities, one true and the other a mere fabrication. 

“There was something coming that I dreaded as much as I longed for it,” Olivia explains to the reader late in the novel, when the fact of her desires begins to have disastrous consequences in the real world. “I was approaching an abyss into which I was going to fall dizzy and shuddering. I averted my eyes, but I knew that it was there.” And with this potent sense of impending doom that infuses the novel’s final chapters with such breakneck urgency, Strachey has written a perfect distillation of the queer subject’s fear of the future—as well as the tragedy of self-discovery inherent to queerness, that first horrified recognition of an unwanted self.


by Dorothy Strachey
Penguin Classics; 100 p.

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