Published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and dedicated ‘To the Beloved Memory of V.W.’, Dorothy Bussy’s Olivia (1949) celebrates a lesbianism that is as headily cultural as it is physical in its pleasures. Olivia’s adolescence involves puberty not only of the body but also of speech: her coquettishness is Colettish. At boarding school, she and her friend Lucy express their rebelliousness by reading and speaking, long before they fully understand quite what it is they are reading and talking about. Their central topic is beyond them: ‘that extraordinary, alluring, forbidden mystery that we sensed lying at the back of all grown-up minds, what was it? We knew dimly we should never understand anything till we understood that’. Although, for the time being, their curiosity brings them being, their curiosity brings them nowhere near the truth, they are aware that ‘our conversations were extremely perilous, to be indulged in only with the utmost precautions’.
Even in the officially sanctioned discourse of her academic life, Olivia keeps encountering revelatory materials, as when she begins to study Latin: ‘Every page of the Latin grammar seemed to hold some passionate secret which must be mine or I should die. Words! How astonishing they were!’ This awakening to a new emotional world, expressible in words even when not spelt out by them, is occasioned in the first place by the presence of a particular teacher, Mlle Julie. Not surprisingly, Olivia’s thrill at the subjects she is learning becomes indivisible from her feelings for the woman who is teaching those subjects. For example, it is when Mlle Julie is reading aloud from Racine that Julie first pays attention to her face in any detail, and from the intensity of theses observations she infers an intimacy with the unwitting teacher: ‘What a strange relationship exists between the reader and his listener. What an extraordinary breaking down of barriers!’ Only after she has experienced the intoxicating effect of informal conversation with Mlle Julie does Olivia find that she is not alone in having made this discovery: ‘Mlle Julie’s talk, I discovered later, was celebrated, and not only amongst us schoolgirls, but amongst famous men, whose names we whispered’. Listening to, and learning from, this teacher is an erotic experience even to the extent of imbuing listening and learning themselves with a pervasive eroticism.
As it happens, Mlle Julie is lesbian; but although she has her favourites among the girls and is aware of the passions and jealousies she arouses among them, she is actually involved in a mercurial long-term affair with her colleague and competitor Mlle Cara. At one point, Cara accuses Julie of corrupting Olivia, in the latter’s hearing; but this is less a serious accusation than the voicing of a breakdown in their own relationship, and soon afterwards, when Julie announces her intention of emigrating to Canada, Cara commits suicide with chloral. While Julie sits vigil all night beside the corpse, Olivia waits outside the door, grieving for the teacher’s grief but hoping for her love. In vain, as it turns out: for Mlle Julie does, indeed, leave the school and go to Canada. Her farewells to Olivia are all the cooler for being distantly spoken in that beloved voice.
Notwithstanding the intellectual successes of her teaching, perhaps the most significant lesson imparted to the girl by the older woman has been a physical self-consciousness. On the night of a fancy-dress ball, Mlle Julie is so unguarded as to say she thinks Olivia pretty. Later, lying in bed, waiting in vain for the teacher to carry out a lightly-given promise to visit her there, Olivia considers the implications of this momentous compliment: ‘Mine, a pretty body. I had never thought of my body till that minute. A body! I had a body- and it was pretty. What was it like? I must look at it’. She lights a candle, gets out of bed, takes off her chemise and goes across to the small mirror above the washstand.
I could only see my face and shoulders in it. I climbed on to a chair. Then I could see more. I looked at the figure in the glass, queerly lighted, without head or legs, strangely attractive, strangely repulsive. And then I slowly passed my hands down this queer creature’s body from neck to waist—Ah!—That was more than I could bear—that excruciating thrill I had never felt before. In a second my chemise was on again, I was back in bed.
This ambivalent self-appraisal gives her her first inkling of sexual complexity: the combined attraction and repulsion; the objectifying reduction of the body to its sexually necessary elements, dismembered of head and limbs; the sense of dislocation from the self (‘this queer creature’s body’); and, of most immediate practical value perhaps, the fact that the voice of the loved one may be embodied most thrillingly in the touch of one’s own hands. That all this is derived from Mlle Julie’s banal evocation of mere prettiness confirms the miraculous capability of her celebrated ‘talk’. To have listened to her is to have been transformed. This is the essence, surely, of the Socratic mode of education, the ‘leading out’ of the child into the self-awareness that is her or his own adulthood.