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?”