Thursday, March 10, 2005

Initial thoughts on Olivia

"I do seem to detect in Edwardian Society... a certain strain of melancholy, common enough among over-exerted lovers of pleasure. Oh yes, it's a wonderful party - but the band sounds tired, the women and champagne are losing their sparkle, the latest cigar smokes badly, boredom and satiety are creeping in, and the night is waiting outside to put its dark old questions." ("The Edwardians" - J.B. Priestley)

Olivia has been caught up in this "wonderful party" from the moment she was born. Treated as a rare jewel by her devoted father, as a young girl she was the centre of attention at his grand weekend parties, cooed over and admired by a succession of notables. Aged 18, she came out as a debutante and was presented to the King in London, who (gossip says) was much taken with her. She was taken round Europe on the Grand Tour, to expand her mind, and she attended the season in London - going to receptions, dinners, dances and the theatre, and breaking the hearts of a number of eligible bachelors whose advances she rejected. She would only rarely return to Illyria, which increasingly appeared to her as a sleepy backwater in comparison with her gay life in London.

The deaths of her father and brother bring her back to Illyria. Distraught, bereft, she suddenly finds herself as mistress of the house, and it is the weight of that responsibility - as well as her genuine grief - that makes her take her vow to "abjure the sight and company of men". Grief in Edwardian times was marked with very strict rituals - one mourned for a parent for 12 months, plain black being worn all the time; for a brother, the mourning period was 6 months, with "half mourning" (dull greys or mauves) being worn in the last month. But it was also common for people to take their mourning to extremes - the prime example being the late Queen Victoria, who wore black for her beloved Albert for the rest of her life. This was seen as the romantic thing to do - and Olivia, being the sort of girl who reads too many romantic novels, is motivated by this sense of the grand gesture in the face of tragedy, and vows to mourn for seven years. She wants to honour her dead father and brother by excessive and ostentatious mourning.

But is that the only reason for Olivia abjuring "the sight and company of men"? Could it be also a symptom of an underlying discontent with her position as a woman within a male-dominated society?

"Eventually wearied and discontented in luxury, the Edwardian society hostess was tired of expending so much energy on useless activities and rituals of dress and etiquette. She longed for freedom from the repression of a male orientated society where life was geared to satiate male needs." (

If this is so, perhaps this sheds some light on why Olivia is so instantly attracted to Cesario - for he represents a new kind of "man", one who is not the military, huntin' fishin' shootin' chap of her previous experience. Perhaps it is Cesario's very femininity with which Olivia falls in love?


Blogger Angelo said...

Olivia may be the only charecter who dosen't use Andrew. Maybe she uses him as an example of everything she despises in men. I don't believe she has anything to gain by his presence except maybe being showered with pearls of flattery, which probably dosent come ot as well as Andrew would like to think.

12 March 2005 at 18:14  
Blogger Gemma said...

She probably thinks of him as this terribly vulgar American - the way he splashes his money around just isn't gentlemanly. Cesario, on the other hand, is a gentleman in her eyes and therefore gains her respect, admiration and love.

22 March 2005 at 12:21  
Blogger Angelo said...

In her eyes (and probably every other person who witnesses his debauchery and foolishness) "...terribly vulgar" I like it. Unfortunately he doesn’t know any better, and no one would ever tell him otherwise.

24 March 2005 at 12:44  

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