Wicked, vicious and enchanting – girl power in France, circa 1900
A major effect of my sequential twentieth century challenge is that reading in this way will inevitably take me outside the book itself as an isolated reading experience, and focus some attention on the time, culture and geography of its arising – and, I suspect, I shall happily be drawn into ‘biographical fallacy’ as there is always a life being lived (the author’s) in that time, culture and geography. And sat within the twenty-first century, it will no doubt be interesting to see how much we consider to be modern and new is of course, merely a spiral: specific manifestations may change, but the form remains the same
So, turning to Colette’s first novel, Claudine at School, the story of a racy minx of a fifteen year old in a perhaps unusual school in Burgundy, which was published in 1900 purporting to be written by Monsieur Willy, the nom-de-plume of Colette’s husband, it’s necessary to take a look at the author, and also at the person whose name originally appeared as author.
Colette, born in 1873 as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, was by 1893 married to Henry Gauthier-Villars, a man some 14 years older than she was. His pen-name was amusingly apt, as far as Anglo Saxon speakers are concerned, because he was a libertine, with serial mistresses. Monsieur Willy was an ‘author’ – except he wasn’t exactly. He was a man of wealth whose family business was a publishing house. Although he was a music critic and writer who wrote under several nom-de-plumes, he also persuaded impoverished writers to write books which he then published under his own name, gaining some reputation as a man of letters. Although the authors did get some recompense, and had the satisfaction of getting published, they did not get the financial rewards, or the kudos, which might have accrued had they got published elsewhere, under their own names. This seems like a different version, perhaps, of our modern vanity publication – in reverse! Willy encouraged Colette, clearly a woman of generous sexual tastes, to have affairs with women whilst he continued his own affairs, which marriage did not interrupt. Curiously, it did not seem that he encouraged her to also have affairs with other men!
In the end Colette married three times, as well as having relationships with other women. It is not always clear how much of her writing is fictional, and how much merely an embroidery of fact.
The story behind the Claudine series of four books puts it about that that this is a thinly disguised fiction, based on Colette’s own experiences at school. Colette recounted some amusing, not to mention salacious, tales of life at a school, where the headmistress and second mistress were lesbians, and the central character and narrator, Claudine, was more interested in girls and young women than she was in boys and young men, at that time. Willy suggested she wrote ‘her’ escapades into a story, and he would see if he could publish them. By all accounts, he didn’t initially think much of them and slung them, forgotten, into a drawer. A few years later, discovering them, he realised they were gold, and published them under his name. To be honest, the themes of hot-house gymslip pashes, crushes and overt lesbian sex, plus a fair smattering of dominatrix behaviour, perhaps become more alluring if they are presented as being more fact than fiction, as his wife’s stories, written by him. Certainly Colette had a rather unconstrained, definitely unconventional sexual history, and the reader might assume Claudine IS Colette, though the story certainly has major departures from her own known life – Claudine is the only child of a widower who is an academic specialising in the study of slugs – this latter the source of much humour. Colette was the daughter of a tax collector and her much loved mother, Sido did not die in the author’s childhood! Nonetheless, the way Colette describes the definitely vampy Claudine, down to that amazing hair and the shadowed, smudged eyes, does seem as if she has described herself!
Colette’s life did show her to be a highly sexy and alluring woman, with a remarkably, one would think, for the time, relaxed, light-hearted and playful attitude to sex. Certainly what might be thought of as ‘Victorian morality’ was not the case across the Channel, if Colette, and her book’s reception are anything to go by. Claudine at School (and the three later volumes in the series) became a runaway success, inspiring merchandising mayhem, and generating income for ‘Monsieur Willy’
By 1906 the marriage was over. Willy owned the copyright to the books and the merchandise, and Colette was unable to profit from her own works. To support herself, she went on the stage, had a scandalous relationship with another woman, married twice more, and in her late 40’s embarked on an affair with her 16 year old stepson, the child of her second husband. In a case of art imitating life, one of her most famous books, Chéri (and The Last of Chéri ) charts the relationship between a woman in her 50s and a much younger man/boy. Her third husband, with whom she lived happily until she died, was also a much younger man.
Probably her most famous book was Gigi, which became a stage musical and a film
Her writing was hugely appreciated and praised in her native country – as indeed it deserved to be – her life and her art explored female sexuality, marriage, and the struggles of women for independence. She had a great gift for describing the world of the senses and physicality. Even in this first book there is clear delight in her descriptions of the natural world, the colours, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of reality. She was at one time regarded as France’s greatest woman writer, was a recipient of several literary honours, in both France and Belgium, President of the Academie Goncourt, a recipient of the Legion of Honour, nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, and was the first French female writer to receive a full State funeral.
Reading a brief account of her life and works, though I had read the Claudine books, and Cheri, many years ago, I had not at that time taken on board how extraordinary the subject matter was, given the time of publication. Never mind the sexual revolution of the sixties, certainly across the Channel from England this Frenchwoman was openly exploring her sexuality as the twentieth century dawned – and doing so in her writing with wit, verve, delicious openness and freedom. England and France were clearly worlds apart. It is impossible to think of an English writer at this time, at the tail end of Victoria’s reign, writing a book like this which is so frank and bold about young girls’ passions, and it also becoming a run-away best seller. What is remarkably different from, for example English writing on ‘inversion’ (as the term went in the UK) – such as Radclyffe Hall’s admittedly a generation later ‘Well of Loneliness’ or E.M. Forster’s 1913/14 written Maurice – which was in fact not published till after the author’s death – is that there is no sense of shame or guilt in ‘Claudine’ – there is gossip, there are whisperings and delight in scandal, but there is a kind of ‘so what?’ shrug being expressed about it all. A film of the book Claudine a L’École, directed by Serge de Poligny, and starring Blanchette Brunoy, was released in 1937, here showing just some clips
What looks like a rather more knowing TV version followed later, with Marie-Hélène Breillat in the title role, directed by Édouard Molinaro and there is certainly a lot more ‘sass’ and a sense of in your face provocation in the clip from this.
Claudine herself is intelligent, witty, vicious, prone to sadism, rebellious, an utter minx, fearsome and sparklingly entertaining – and no relation at all to some of the troubled, angsty teens who become icons later in the century – Holden Caulfield, for example. Claudine runs rings around everyone, she oozes sexuality and female power and is no man’s – or woman’s – pushover. The book fizzes with vivacity, and the girls are remarkably odd – the intelligent ones are all wickedly ill-behaved, and the adults to a man and woman easily manipulated by the charming and scary Claudine and her close chum and nemesis ‘the lanky Anaïs’ This is young girl power, like a firework display.
Who would have thought that weird eating habits – a predilection for eating snow, pencils, crayons, cigarette papers and drinking vinegar could produce such an example of girls with not only attitude, but high intelligence and wit (you’ll have to read the book!)
We still had ten minutes to go before the end of class; how could we use them? I asked permission to leave the room so that I could surreptitiously gather up a handful of the still-falling snow. I made a snowball and bit into it: it was cold and delicious. It always smells a little of dust, this first fall. I hid it in my pocket and returned to the classroom. Everyone round me made signs to me and I passed the snowball round. Each of them, with the exception of the virtuous twins, bit into it with expressions of rapture. Then that ninny of a Marie Belhomme had to go and drop the last bit and Mademoiselle Sergent saw it.
“Claudine! Have you gone and brought in snow again? This is really getting beyond the limit!”
She rolled her eyes so furiously that I bit back the retort “It’s the first time since last year
Finally, during the hilarious examination scene, and in the lessons where the teachers vainly try to keep order, the standard of education, and particularly maths, is fearsomely high. No calculators either.
For me personally, the story dragged a little once the examination scene was over, and the final big set-piece and wrap up happened, with the visit of the Minister of Agriculture and a big ‘town celebration’ , though it did give the chance to open into the wider world.
The version I found was published in 1968, translated by Antonia White – she of Frost In May fame. You can rather tell that the translator is someone who is able to do much more than just ‘literal word for word’, and is someone who has the feel for the shape of a sentence, and the flavour of writing and different writers. I had no sense of ‘in translation’ just of immediate connection with what I was reading. The Kindle Version appears to be of the Vintage Classics republication of this, with White’s translation