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riting as “Olivia” in the introduction to her novel of the same name, Dorothy Bussy (née Strachey) declares that love has always been the chief business of her life, the one thing she has felt to be supremely worthwhile. What she does not say from behind the screen of her pseudonym is that love suffused her work, as well as her personal life, that she gained a place in literary history for an extravagant, enduring love, and that love nearly killed the single novel that she wrote.
The third surviving child of Sir Richard and Lady Jane Strachey, Dorothy was born in 1865 into a family that represented all the vigor, self-mastery, and serene chauvinism of the British dream of empire. Jane Grant was the daughter of the lieutenant governor of Bengal, and Richard Strachey, twenty-three years her senior, was a military engineer and administrator of the Central Provinces who is said to have virtually created India’s canal and rail system. They married in Calcutta in 1859.
Although raised in England, Dorothy and her siblings grew up under the sequined canopy of their family’s achievements in India. Dinner talk was about the India Office; every fringed shawl in the cupboard, every portrait on the wall had an Indian provenance. Dorothy traveled to India as a young child (a brief echo of this trip arises near the end of
), and also witnessed her parents’ continual anxiety that the three elder Strachey boys make their mark in Anglo-Indian affairs. In the end, none of the boys could live up to the Strachey legacy in India—not only because they lacked their father’s scientific talents and zeal (Sir Richard held chairmanship of the East India Railway Company until he was almost ninety), but because by the close of the nineteenth century, empire was a faltering ideal.
By temperament and education, even by her bohemian taste in clothes, Dorothy was not allied with these older “Victorian” siblings, who lived smaller versions of their parent’s lives, but with her younger, forward-looking brothers and sisters: Lytton, the scourge of his ancestors’ sense of duty and decorum in
(1918), and a central figure in the iconoclastic Bloomsbury Group; Pippa, who manifested the family genius for administration as Secretary of the London Society of Women’s Suffrage; Pernel, who became Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge; Marjorie, a writer and French teacher famed among friends for her indecent renditions of nursery rhymes; and James, who translated the bulk of Freud’s writings into English.
For the first half of her life, Dorothy must have appeared the most demure member of this sparkling company. After attending girls’ schools in France and England headed by the charismatic Marie Souvestre, she taught languages at the last of these academies, Allenswood, in Wimbledon, leaving a lifelong influence on her most notable student, Eleanor Roosevelt. Her first adult love affair, with a married cousin named Sidney Foster, was mutual but chaste. While involved with Sidney, she passed up several eligible suitors. In her late thirties, she startled her family by falling in love with a penniless, physically unimpressive French artist, Simon Bussy, whom Pernel had befriended in Paris. “The obscurity of a foreign language is a great help to freedom of intercourse,” Dorothy wrote to Pippa, describing her early talks with Simon. “It is possible and even natural I find to say things in French that I would rather be dead than mention in English.”
Her parents objected to the match, but Dorothy’s persistence (and perhaps the unlikelihood of another suitor) won out, and she married in 1903. The Bussys bought a house, La Souco, in the south of France at Roquebrune. Their only child, a daughter named Janie, who became a painter, was born in 1906. Dorothy told a friend that after Janie’s birth she wrote to her former lover Sidney Foster to “ask his forgiveness,” only to learn that he had just died: “And Janie’s cradle was watered by a good many tears.”1
The Bussys were poor but sociable, entertaining Matisse and other friends while taking in boarders, giving
French lessons, heatedly debating Mallarmé or Greek drama, and economizing by serving teas so meager and unappetizing that English friends wrote home about them. On a trip to England in 1918, they met André Gide, who became a friend of both of them. Gide and Dorothy struck up a correspondence with the plan of improving his English, but she soon fell in love with him, and remained so until his death in 1951. She became the translator of most of Gide’s books. Their letters, later published in three volumes, make poignant reading: on her part, intellectual observations and family news giving way to bursts of passion—at one point, she offers a rapturous description of his lips, “sweet, austere, incredibly mysterious”—followed by embarrassed retractions, and on his part, fond but undeviating detachment, seasoned with a hint of vanity. Dorothy knew that Gide, though married, loved only boys, and that her feelings for him could never be fully reciprocated; nor, perhaps, did she wish for complete reciprocation.
Although she prided herself on her near-literal translations, on her self-effacing fidelity to the author’s vision, she did confess to Gide—in a postscript to a 1933 letter—that she had written a book. This was
Written in French, the novel is a tender elaboration of her schoolgirl infatuation with Mlle Souvestre at Les Ruches, her school in Fontainebleau—called “Les Avons” in the novel. Although the first few pages exactly describe Dorothy’s own family and upbringing, and the book as a whole captures the atmosphere of Mlle Souvestre’s schools, it is not
a memoir. None of Mlle Souvestre’s partners died while working with her; she taught for several years after Dorothy left Allenswood, and remained close to her former pupil, providing her with a small stipend after her marriage.
Dorothy had in mind a particular genre of books that explored a painful youth in emotionally intricate detail—among them, Goethe’s
The Sorrows of Young Werther,
Madame de Lafayette’s
The Princess of Cleves,
and Gide’s memoir
Straight is the Gate,
which she had translated. She corrected friends who assumed that her novel told her own story.
There is, however, emotional truth at the core of
—not only personal details, but a preoccupation with authenticity, with deeply feeling and observing, never relying on convention, that rises above the page like a set of dusted fingerprints. This may be why Dorothy invited association with herself by adding the first-person introduction as “Olivia.” (Olivia was the name of the much-loved infant girl born just before her in the Strachey family, who did not survive her first year.)
The theme of
a novel of awakening, is perfectly suggested in the epigraph by La Bruyère, “One loves well only once: the first time. Later loves are less involuntary,” and by the French and Italian works quoted in the original throughout. This is the only aspect of the book that dates it to the period before World War II, when few educated English readers would have lacked a passing knowledge of French. The tragic impossibilities of Racine’s
—the story of the hopeless love of Pyrrhus, the King of Epirus, for Hector’s widow, Andromache, and of the equally hopeless love that his own betrothed, Hermione, felt for him—would have been familiar to many of those encountering
in its early printings. The author could hardly have picked a more foreboding herald of new love.
is both sexually tame and profoundly erotic. The schoolgirl’s adoring, tireless observation of her beloved headmistress—and her minute study of her own reactions, the novelty of each caught breath, each flash of jealousy—bring the novel to a simmer by page 29, and keep it there until the climax. In her erotic thrall to an inaccessible other, Olivia establishes the scaffold on which her adult self can erect all her subsequent loves. Rejection, damnation, shame, rebellion: The preoccupations of gay writers of the early- and mid-twentieth century are alluded to in the novel, but pale beside the pure flame of Olivia’s passion. This is all the more possible for an author who didn’t identify as homosexual, whose ardent attractions to certain women—such as Mlle Souvestre and Dorothy’s sister-in-law Ray Strachey—weren’t tested by the world’s scorn.
Some months after she finishedOlivia,
Dorothy summoned her nerve and slipped the manuscript to Gide. He glanced at it, but found it “not very engaging.” Fifteen years passed before she could bring herself to reread the novel. To her surprise, she discovered that she liked it. She began to showOlivia
to female friends in London, who
responded enthusiastically. She also sent a copy to Leonard Woolf of the Hogarth Press. He offered a contract at once. A French friend, Roger Martin du Gard, helped with both the English translation and the novel’s later retranslation into French.2
appeared in London in April 1949, and was proclaimed a minor masterpiece—a critical evaluation undimmed by the passing half-century. TheNew York Times
found in it “the purity of classic tragedy.” As a final compliment, the Catholic Church banned it.
Dorothy shared Bloomsbury’s relaxed sexual attitudes, along with their unspoken separation of public from private life. Having grown up in the shadow of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, the gay and bisexual members of the group (Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, and others) were usually pragmatic rather than revolutionary in their loves—their affairs conducted behind closed doors, or spoken of (ecstatically and at length) only among a small circle of intimates. Aware of the risks, Dorothy admired Gide’s decision to publishCorydon
under his own name in France in 1924. She asked if he wanted to be a martyr. But whereOlivia,
was concerned, in dismissing Dorothy’s literary efforts, Gide played the role that Lytton Strachey had played in 1915 in dissuading E. M. Forster from publishingMaurice,
his gay novel. Finding the romance soggy and implausible, Lytton ignored the bravery of Forster’s subject matter. After his critique, the manuscript languished in a drawer until
after Forster’s death in 1970, when it was found with a note in Forster’s hand: “Publishable—but worth it?”
has become a classic of lesbian literature and, aside from Vanessa Bell’s mother-and-child images, the most emotionally accessible work that can be associated with the Bloomsbury Group. (Dorothy dedicated the novel to Virginia Woolf, though half-privately, using only her initials.) Colette wrote the screenplay for the homo-censored film version released in France in 1951. The sweetest praise came from an unexpected quarter: André Gide, who was astonished—and embarrassed—to discover his error. He wrote to Dorothy, “Freud alone could say what scales covered my eyes the first time I read it.”
Your Olivia seems to me an extraordinary tale, as accomplished and perfect as possible in its feeling, its decorum and tact, its secret lyricism, its restraint in indiscretion, its wisdom acquitted through reflection, in the moderation of its ardour (without the ardour being in any way diminished), in its quality at the same time of modesty and candour.
At last, when they were both in their eighties, Dorothy and her beloved had a moment of perfect rapprochement, of untroubled intimacy. While she was still basking in his admiration for
Gide wrote again to
tell Dorothy Bussy that he loved her: words she had waited thirty years to hear.
My source for many of the quotes in this introduction is Barbara Caine’s wonderful biography of the Strachey family,Bombay
(Oxford UP, 2004). I also recommend Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright’s sympathetic and detailed account of Dorothy Bussy’s relationship with André Gide inBloomsbury and France
(Oxford UP, 2000).
This edition went largely unnoticed by French critics, despite an introduction by the English novelist Rosamond Lehmann, not included in the English version; Dorothy Bussy’s association with André Gide was in fact so secure that many assumed that the work was either clandestinely written by Gide or was in imitation of his work.