Olivia: Revisiting The Original Lesbian Boarding School Drama

 

The Covid-19 pandemic might have put the brakes on new lesbian romance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it in book form. And Penguin is breathing new life into a classic work of lesfic: Olivia. The original lesbian boarding school drama.

Sixteen-year-old Olivia comes from a posh Victorian family. To make her a lady, she is sent to a celebrated finishing school on the outskirts of Paris. Almost as soon as she arrives, Olivia falls for the school’s co-founder and literature teacher: the magnetic Mademoiselle Julie. Owing to her charisma and charm, Mademoiselle Julie is popular amongst the girls. Despite the competition, Olivia’s wit means that she quickly becomes a favorite.

But Olivia isn’t the only one caught up in a passion for Mademoiselle Julie. The school’s other founder, Mademoiselle Cara, is as much at the mercy of her hormones as any pupil. Cara and Julie were once “like a married couple”, “deeply attached, tenderly devoted, the gifts of each supplementing the deficiencies of the other.” Until the school’s German mistress Frau Riesener arrived and drove a wedge between them.

During the year in which Olivia takes place, the entire school is rocked by this explosive falling out. Olivia’s feelings for Mademoiselle Julie – and Mademoiselle Julie’s way of encouraging her attention – tips this delicate ecosystem out of balance.

Olivia was first printed in 1949 by Hogarth Press, the publishing venture of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Knowing that her frank depiction of lesbian desire would prove controversial, the author – Dorothy Bussy, aka Dorothy Strachey – chose to publish under a pseudonym: Olivia. The story was inspired by Bussy’s own experiences. At the time of publication, it caused a great scandal. But that did nothing to halt the novella’s success. Across Europe, the story was a hit.

Penguin isn’t the only one to retell Olivia. Author André Aciman credits Bussy’s story as the inspiration behind his own novel, Call Me By Your Name. Back in 2017, director Luca Guadagnino turned Call Me By Your Name into a coming-of-age film. It was a smash hit. Call Me By Your Name got a standing ovation at Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered. With glowing reviews and a string of awards, Guadagnino’s production is bound to become a classic piece of gay cinema.

But, one has to wonder, would Call Me By Your Name have had the same level of success without changing the main characters into young men? Would mainstream audiences have felt so warmly about a love story between two young women? With few notable exceptions (such as Carol), lesbian films rarely get the kind of love that Call Me By Your Name did.

When Olivia was adapted for the screen in 1951, the lesbian elements were downplayed. Bussy wrote that “sometimes I was possessed by longing, but I didn’t know for what – for some vague blessing, some unimaginable satisfaction, which seemed to be tantalizingly near… a blessing, which, if I could only grasp it, would quench my thirst.” This raw passion never quite translated (or rather, was never allowed to translate) onto the big screen.

Given the film industry’s failure to do Olivia justice, to amplify the lesbian desires voiced in this novella, it is welcome news that Penguin is reprinting it. This new edition – a Penguin Classic, no less – recognizes Olivia’s lasting significance as a work of literature. Bussy’s story will reach a new generation of readers: some looking for lesfic, others in search of literary fiction. And Olivia will satisfy both.