She had saved her. But at what a cost! Her position, her name, her character – she had given them all, but Clarissa was hers. Upon the death of her mother, Agatha Bodenham finds herself alone for the first time in her life. Solitary and socially awkward by nature, she starts to dream about her imaginary childhood friend – the only friend she ever had. Much to her surprise, Clarissa starts to appear, fleetingly at first, and engage with her, and eventually becomes visible to everyone else. Agatha, a 32-year- old spinster, must explain the child’s ‘sudden’ appearance. In a moment of panic, she pretends that Clarissa is her own daughter, her love child. Olivier constructs a mother/daughter relationship which is both poignant and playful. As the years roll by and Clarissa grows into a beautiful young woman, Agatha’s love becomes increasingly obsessive as she senses Clarissa slipping away, attracted by new interests and people her own age.
Edith Olivier (1872–1948) Biography
Edith Olivier’s life encompassed the conservative and the bohemian in quite an extraordinary way: the circles she moved in later in life could not have been predicted from her upbringing. Born on the last day of 1872, Olivier was one of ten children of the Canon of Wilton and the granddaughter of a bishop. Though she had no formal schooling, or even a governess for much of her childhood, Olivier won a scholarship to St Hugh’s College (then St Hugh’s Hall) at Oxford University (see page 163). While there, she got to know Charles Dodgson – also known as Lewis Carroll. She had to leave after four terms, due to severe asthma.
In 1916, Olivier helped form the Women’s Land Army in Wiltshire, which became a model for a national scheme (see page 177). In 1920, she was awarded an MBE for this work. Wilton and Wiltshire remained important to Olivier throughout her life, and she was mayor of Wilton in 1938–41.
It wasn’t until Olivier was in her fifties that she turned to writing, after the death of her dearest sister, Mildred. The Love Child was her first novel in 1927, started when the idea came to her in the middle of the night: ‘Before morning I had finished two chapters,’ she relates in her autobiography (see page 141). The novel reflects Olivier’s keen belief in the supernatural, or what she called ‘things past explaining’ – for instance, she believed herself to have witnessed a pre-1800 fair at Avebury stone circles (see page 145), and to have seen the lost city of Lyonesse off the coast of Cornwall, a legendary kingdom that was supposedly submerged in the eleventh century (see page 157).
After The Love Child, four other novels followed by 1932, after which she turned her attention to non- fiction, including biographies of Alexander Cruden (who wrote a concordance to the Bible) and Mary Magdalene.
From childhood, she had aspired to a more creative life – the title of her autobiography, Without Knowing Mr. Walkley, is a lament on never having become an actor and thus not knowing Mr Walkley, the dramatic critic of the Times. But Olivier’s late career as a writer brought her to a new social circle, and she got to know many of the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the period. The artist and illustrator Rex Whistler was a particularly close friend, and others included Cecil Beaton, Siegfried Sassoon, William Walton and the Sitwell family. When Olivier died in 1948, Cecil Beaton noted that she was mourned by ‘young and old, those who had shared in her widely different interests’, recognised both as a bohemian creative and as a celebrator of Wiltshire.
About this Series
A curated collection of forgotten works by early to mid-century women writers. The best middlebrow fiction from the 1910s to the 1960s, offering escapism, popular appeal and plenty of period detail to amuse, surprise and inform. Stories about women’s lives, often written, performed and directed by women, are becoming more and more popular among audiences of film and TV series. The Women Writers series taps into this growing trend.
My thoughts: this is an interesting little story about loneliness and wish fulfilment. Agatha is alone after her mother’s death and remembers her childhood imaginary friend – another girl like herself, called Clarissa. My imaginary friends were penguins and rabbits, I think I wanted to be a zookeeper! But for an only child, it makes sense to imagine a playmate.
In this case however, Agatha is now in her 30s, unmarried, possibly as a “surplus woman” following the First World War, and childless. This version of Clarissa is as much a daughter as a companion. But she slowly becomes more real, appearing to others, eating, drinking and growing up. Gradually Agatha’s hold on her becomes weakened and Agatha fears she might lose her.
There’s a terrible sadness at the heart of this story, it reminded me of The Little Prince a bit – this magical creature from the stars, who leaves behind a sadness at their parting. The afterword compares its genesis (as per the author’s own recollection) to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a story born from a dream. Much like Agatha’s imagining into being of Clarissa.
The author herself seems to be have been an incredible and fascinating woman, studying at Oxford where she knew Lewis Carroll, then helping found the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War. The extracts from her autobiography included in this edition were almost more compelling a read than the story.
It’s why the British Library’s work in bringing these women writers and their books back into print is so important. When I studied Literature at university, even in a module called Women Writers, the focus was on ones we all know – Brontes, Austen, Eliot, Woolf, etc. Not these equally fascinating, but somehow forgotten writers. I have enjoyed everyone I’ve read so far and am pleased more are to come.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own.