Thursday, April 18, 2013

EDITH OLIVIER, The Love-Child (1927)

Edith Olivier is perhaps my favorite of all of the truly obscure writers I’ve come across (truly obscure = not a single work in print and virtually unknown to most readers, which seems about as tragic to me as a literary oversight can be).  Since I’ve now read all of her novels and am working my way, with typical obsessiveness, through all her other works (in fact, thanks to Andy, I now have her memoir, Without Knowing Mr. Walkley [1938], on my bedside table ready to be dived into before bed tonight), I decided it was time to write about her here.

What I love about Olivier is something that’s true of most of the writers I’m passionate about.  She creates her own unique world.  She is quirky, eccentric, and downright odd, but always original.  Most of her novels are completely unpredictable—I never know what direction she will take, and for me that’s incredibly rare.  Predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and sometimes it’s exactly what one wants, but it’s rather exhilarating sometimes to realize you genuinely have no idea where a story is going.  (That's not quite so true, plot-wise, of this one novel, but it's still true in terms of how Olivier takes the story there, and believe me, it's true of all her other works.)

Olivier’s plots are extraordinary, and often border on the fantastic (or, in the present case, cross firmly into that realm), but they don’t even follow predictable fairy tale trajectories.  On the one hand, she was the daughter of a canon and granddaughter of a bishop, and there is a surface of strong traditional morality in her work.  However, I find that this morality is often subverted—by characters who are puritan to the point of madness, for example, or by situations in which a strict moral view only makes matters worse.

Olivier has the ability to espouse very traditional, even sentimental, views while pointing out minuscule but peculiar details that complicate and undercut those traditional views.  She accepts the peculiarities as if they were the norm, tossing them into her sentences in passing as if they were irrelevant, and somehow at times this produces an almost magical effect, as if there’s so much more meaning than lies on the surface.  In this respect, she sometimes reminds me of Barbara Comyns, another brilliantly odd writer who accepts the bizarre as a given.  Olivier is more subtle than Comyns, but if you look for the oddity, it’s certainly there.

Olivier with Cecil Beaton
Edith Olivier has very little web presence, and some of what there is comes from her connections with photographer Cecil Beaton and artist Rex Whistler. Daughter of a canon she may have been (not to mention cousin of Sir Laurence), but in her middle and older years she also surrounded herself with younger, mostly gay, male artists, and the circles in which she moved add an intriguing layer to her own story. 

In the past couple of years, several bloggers have written enthusiastically about The Love-Child (1927), her first novel and the only one of her works to have been reprinted at all in recent decades (by Virago in the 1980s—now long out of print again and increasingly hard to find), but sadly a roaring silence remains in regard to her other novels.  I love the fact that Olivier is getting any attention at all, but in future posts I hope to make my best case for her other novels.

Painting by Rex Whistler of Olivier outside her house

The Love-Child, written when Olivier was already 55, has a strong element of fantasy, a technique apparently in vogue with novelists in the 1910s and 1920s, including David Garnett, Stella Benson, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose Lolly Willowes is (apart from being my favorite novel of all time, as I’ve already mentioned ad nauseum…) a perfect companion piece for Olivier’s novel.  Both works focus on “spinsters,” though Olivier’s is only at the ripe old age of 32, and both feature exploits perhaps supernatural or perhaps hallucinatory. 

In fact, both novels leave open to interpretation just how many of the events described are “real” and how many are eccentric fantasies on the part of women whose grasp on reality may not be all that firm.  In that sense, both novels may have a claim to being “postmodern,” though it’s more important that both are highly enjoyable reads.  That they manage to hide serious commentaries on the position of unmarried women between the wars within entertaining and beautiful tales is the icing on the cake.

As The Love-Child opens, Agatha Bodenham, has just lost her mother, with whom she lived in mutual reserve:

Strange that she should feel it so, for she had always been solitary—a solitary child, a solitary girl, and now, at thirty-two, a still more solitary woman.

She and her mother were women of peculiarly reserved natures, finding it hard to make friends, and holding their country neighbours at a distance. So reserved, too, that they had been barely intimate with each other, living through their days side by side without real mingling of experiences or sharing of confidences. Indeed, they had neither experiences nor confidences to share.

Agatha realizes that this loneliness is not so much new as forgotten, and recalls that in her childhood she had faced a similar (or perhaps even more important) loss of companionship, when her governess, Miss Marks, had smothered Agatha’s imaginary friend, Clarissa—“the caustic drops of Miss Marks’ common sense fell like a weed killer upon the one blossom of Agatha’s imagination.”

Agatha’s analysis of this loss, now that the memory of it has returned, is striking and sad:

And as the old memory came back, it seemed to Agatha that in losing Clarissa, she had not only lost a real playmate, but she had also lost the only being who had ever awoken her own personality, and made it responsive—she had lost something without which she had grown as futile as a racquet idly striking the air, against no ball.

I think this passage is important, and on my first reading I missed the way that it’s echoed poignantly in the novel’s closing scene.

“The one blossom.”  “The only being who had ever awoken her own personality, and made it responsive.”  These are achingly sad realizations to have about one’s past, and it seems that not only did the loss of Clarissa result in loneliness, but it may also have smothered Agatha’s ability to relate to other people at all.

Although the novel initially seems playful and light, there is no doubt how real Agatha’s sadness and loneliness is.  There is a genuinely heartbreaking undercurrent to the novel, though it is done with enough subtlety that I felt the novel was a comedy when I first read it.

Somehow, Agatha’s loneliness gradually brings Clarissa back.  She first appears only in Agatha’s dreams, then in her waking hours—though still visible only to Agatha, so that Agatha is driven to go on an extended trip to the coast so that her servants won’t think she’s gone mad—and finally Clarissa becomes a fully visible, “living” little girl.

This phenomenon is given a sort of “scientific” basis by a passage Clarissa reads from “Sturm’s Reflections” (which, it turns out, is a real book, Christoph Sturm’s Reflections on the Works of God, first published in the 1770s):

We often see two bodies approach each other without being impelled by any external force. The cause which produces this effect is called Attraction, or that principle whereby the minuter particles of matter tend towards each other…By this is most satisfactorily explained the motions of the Heavenly Bodies…These spheres, separated from each other by immense intervals, are united by some secret bond…This power of attraction is in some degree the cause of the juices circulating in the capillary vessels of plants and animals…The Supreme Wisdom manifests itself in the government of the Celestial bodies, and is equally apparent in that of Rational Beings.

Um, sure.

But anyway, Agatha and Clarissa speculate on what would happen if the heavenly bodies got too far apart, and Clarissa loves playing games about what would happen if she got too far from Agatha and she blinked out like a light.  (This seems to nearly happen for real in one scene when Agatha faints and Clarissa sees the world go dark while herself vanishing from sight.)

Edith Olivier in 1927, the year The Love-Child was published

At first, Agatha’s relationship with Clarissa is perfectly narcissistic—Clarissa shares Agatha’s games of fantasy, shares her likes and dislikes, and shies away from any show of affection from others:

But she hated being kissed by the manageress and the chambermaid when they said goodbye, and she ducked her head and turned away her face with unconcealed distaste, holding on to Agathaʹs hand with a return of her old shyness. Agatha was sorry that these kind women should be snubbed in this way, and their affection for Clarissa gratified her, but, nevertheless, she was inwardly delighted by the childʹs fastidiousness. Clarissa was her own. Hers only.

But Clarissa soon begins to “age,” from being the eleven-year-old she was when Agatha first “created” her, to being a teenager and then a pretty young girl.  She meets a superficial neighbor girl, Kitty, and then a boy, David, who brings his automobile into their lives.  The fact that it is the advent of the automobile into Clarissa’s life, as much as the advent of David himself, that provides the first hint of discord between and Agatha, is interesting, both in its portrayal of life in a small village where a local man’s taxi is the only car, and in its highlighting of the fact that Clarissa’s very modern love of automobiles is in conflict with Agatha’s old-fashioned terror of them.  A generation gap with a twist.  (And I suppose David was hardly the only man of the period to be liked first and foremost for his car!)

After David takes both Agatha and Clarissa to a concert, Clarissa is exhilarated and becomes discontented with the world of fantasy she shares with Agatha:

Clarissa, on the other hand, had found in [their fantasies] her nearest point of contact with the real world of adventure. She had thrown herself into them perhaps more completely than Agatha, and they had satisfied her because she almost believed they were true; but now at one touch of the outer world, she had understood that what she wanted was life itself.

But Agatha’s own response to the concert remains primarily self-absorbed:

It was a new thing to her to listen to music, to follow the intertwining melodies, and to feel the completeness of the chords as they fell upon her untrained ear, and she seemed to have found something she was waiting for. It was as though a very delicate little instrument had been slowly and exquisitely created, chased, and polished, the strings wound round the carved ivory keys, and then tuned, tuned, tuned in some silent workshop by a spirit worker: and now, all of a sudden, a bow was laid across the strings, and the first low tone drawn from them.

ʺShe is my instrument,ʺ thought Agatha. ʺThe music within her is mine. And now it is being called out, articulated: and she and I hear it together.ʺ

Although I find Agatha a quite sympathetic character in her loneliness and missed opportunities, even I have to acknowledge that this passage is creepy.  And from this point on, the playful fantasy takes a turn into the Gothic—even to the point of bringing to mind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at times.  Agatha’s (rather belated) realization of David’s interest in Clarissa doesn’t make things any better:

She was immediately aware of an emotion in David which was akin to her own. He, too, wanted to possess Clarissa. Agatha hated him.

Soon after this, the group goes to a nearby lake.  Agatha, anxious not to allow Clarissa to go rowing with David alone, mendaciously asserts a passion for rowing despite her fear of it, and is then surprised when Clarissa declines to go rowing at all.  Agatha and David end up on a surly boat ride together, not speaking but only listening to Clarissa and Kitty talking on the shore, and it is in this scene where there seems to be an odd and revealing shift in perspective (or else I’m reading too much into it, which could also be the case).  The passage goes like thus:

David could not follow the talk, but he took such a course that, while Agatha in the stern of the boat had her back to the girls most of the time, he could watch Clarissa as he rowed. She was lying full length on the grass, leaning on her elbows, and holding up the little rush basket on a level with her eyes. Her white hands caught the light as she rapidly twisted the rushes, passing them in and out of each other with a sure touch. Then she swung herself round to see what Kitty was doing, and both the girls laughed at the muddle she had made.

What seems interesting here is that, eighty percent or so of the way through a novel that has almost entirely followed Agatha’s point of view, we are now told that Agatha has her back to the girls, that it is David who is watching Clarissa during the boat ride.  And yet we are told exactly what the girls are doing—from David’s point of view.  I don’t claim to have any radical, brilliant interpretation of this, but I wonder if it could be revealing.  Does it symbolize that Clarissa now truly has a life of her own and is not reliant on Agatha?  Does it suggest that she has now become merely a part of David’s fantasy life instead of Agatha’s?  Or is this some intuition on Olivier’s part about women as objects in our culture—objects of narcissism for their mothers, objects of desire for men? 

On the other hand, I have to point out also that Clarissa in this passage seems thoroughly oblivious to both Agatha and David, so perhaps if there is a feminist message in the scene, we should look for it in that fact?  Perhaps she’s not interested in being anybody’s object at all?


The ending of the novel is foreshadowed throughout, so I’m not sure it’s even a spoiler (and this is absolutely the only one of Oliver’s novels where one could say that the main event of the ending—though not the details surrounding it—are foreseeable), but the ending is so important to the book that I couldn’t think how to really discuss the novel without revealing it.  If you really don’t want to know, however, consider this fair warning.

David invites Clarissa to a dance, but on the night of the dance Agatha is sick with a headache and Clarissa refuses to leave her side.  David comes to get her, and she comes to the window of Agatha’s room.  She refuses to speak:

ʹSomething has happened,ʹ he thought. ʹThat woman is a vampire. She has put some spell upon Clarissa. Thereʹs something uncanny in her power,ʹ

In short, she goes to the dance with him, they return to the garden, he tries to kiss her, and at that moment, Agatha cries out from her window, seeing them together, and Clarissa disappears:

And as that cry was heard, Clarissa went. In one moment she had been beside him, slim and silver, like a ray of the moon; and in the next, she was lost. The shadows had swallowed her.

The loss of Clarissa seems to be a permanent one (though Olivier’s publisher, in a note to her about the novel, refused to believe it and asserted his belief that she would return), and causes Agatha to sink back into the numbness in which she has lived much of her life:

Whatever had happened to Clarissa, it seemed to be something which had stunned Agathaʹs will into a deadly acquiescence and her mind into oblivion.

David imagines that Agatha has murdered Clarissa out of possessive jealousy, but at the same time he flirts with his earlier notion of her as a vampire:

She was revolting—terrible, and yet there was something of grandeur about her, a grandeur which she had never before possessed. She had grown thin, and the bones of her face had almost the dignity of death. The skin was drawn over them with an unnatural whiteness, so that the face looked almost like a mask, and in this mask were set eyes which seemed to have been torn from a living face and maddened by the torture of their tearing. He had never observed Agathaʹs eyes before. They had been merely episodes in a face that was practically featureless. If he had thought of them at all, he would have said that they were pale and without colour. Now they suddenly appeared much darker than he remembered, but in their darkness were flecks of light, which in a horrible way recalled the serene dappling of Clarissaʹs fawn-like eyes.

Is it that Agatha has actually re-absorbed Clarissa?  Clarissa’s personality is perhaps now just flecks in Agatha’s personality like the flecks of Clarissa’s eye color in Agatha’s eyes?

I’ve never been sure exactly what to make of the novel’s crucial final scene (and that’s why I’m doing this “spoiler” at all).  But on this reading of the novel, the passage I quoted earlier—about Agatha being “as futile as a racquet idly striking the air, against no ball”—stood out for me.  Some time has passed, and a servant observes Agatha in the garden:

She evidently fancied that the girl was still with her, and with her as a little child again.

Now, in the garden, Helen saw Miss Bodenham playing at ball with someone who was not there. She ran about gaily, calling to the other player, throwing the ball, clapping her hands, and laughing.

Then she flung out her arms, and taking an imaginary child by her two hands, she danced her round and round.

Helenʹs eyes were full of tears.

But when she looked at Agathaʹs mindless face, she saw that it was quite happy.

This—particularly the fact that Clarissa seems to be “with her as a little child again”—seems to suggest that Agatha has now gone mad—something she already feared she might be when she first began seeing Clarissa.  Or perhaps she has been mad all along?

But such an ending makes me wonder about what Olivier herself thought of the relationship between Agatha and Clarissa.  It certainly calls into question whether Clarissa is outgrowing Agatha, as at first seems to be the case, or whether it might be more accurate to suggest that Agatha is “ingrowing” Clarissareturning her to her role as a purely narcissistic figure of comfort and companionship.  Imaginary friends can perhaps be less trying than real ones, who have an annoying tendency to think for themselves. 

In part, Olivier may have taken inspiration from the death of her beloved sister a year or so before she began writing the novel.  Close in age, both unmarried and living happily together as spinsters since the death of their father, Mildred had formed an enormous large part of Edith’s life, and the loss was a tremendous one.  It was only when writing an introduction for a memorial volume dedicated to Mildred that Edith discovered a knack for writing, and suddenly found herself, in her fifties, writing a novel.

So perhaps Olivier is exploring the imaginary, emotional relationship she might have been experiencing in her memories of Mildred and her loneliness without her—in the way that those in mourning may still hear the voices of their loved one, or wake up forgetting that they are gone?  

Yet, the Oliviers’ lives were nothing like Agatha’s.  They had many friends and entertained frequently.  So Olivier must have been sympathetically imagining how her devastation at the loss of Mildred might have affected a protagonist who had led a more isolated, socially deprived life.

Rather surprisingly gothic the novel may turn out to be, but there is no doubt also a profound empathy for Agatha, and for me this provides the novel with a depth far beyond its fairy tale quality.  She may be a kind of Dr. Frankenstein.  She is certainly selfish and possessive and emotionally stunted, but still, we can see how she became those things.  We can sense the fundamental desperation and sorrow of her life. 

And for me, it was difficult not to be touched that final scene, as she joyfully plays with the loved one she has lost—“The only being who had ever awoken her own personality, and made it responsive.”


  1. Just waiting for "Love Child" to arrive from England, can't wait to read it. I also love discovering lesser known British women writers, though it can be quite difficult living in a non-English speaking country. I'm very glad I found your blog, I just ordered Lolly Willowes, never heard of this book before. Thank you!

  2. I would add Hope Mirrlees as a writer of the '20s who dabbled in the fantastic ... Her novel LUD-IN-THE-MIST is spectacular.

    I had never heard of Emily Olivier! Fascinating sounding odd novel!

    As to her publisher's comment, I would say, based only on your discussion of the book, that the ending would not work nearly as well were Clarissa to "come back".

    1. Thanks Rich. Olivier is a quite interesting author and also an interesting figure in herself. In addition to this book, I particularly recommend her memoir, Without Knowing Mr Walkley, and her later novel, The Seraphim Room.


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