In the young Claudine, the author Colette (who we met in my earlier post An Introduction to Colette), introduces us to a tomboyish, nature loving, confident girl raised without a mother, cared for in some respects by a maid, just as she had turned fifteen and is finishing her last year in school, with external exams approaching.
“Two months ago, when I turned fifteen and let down my skirts to my ankles, they demolished the old school and changed the headmistress. The long skirts were necessitated by my calves; they attracted glances and were already making me look too much like a young lady.”
Her father is an eccentric, slug loving academic, with his head in his manuscript on the Malacology of the Region of Fresnois, who seems barely to notice that there is a girl turning into a young woman in his midst.
“He is entirely wrapped up in his work and it never occurs to him that I might be more suitably brought up in a convent or in some Lycée or other. There’s no danger of my opening his eyes!”
While she excels at school with little effort, she is rebellious, provocative, manipulative and despite the trouble she causes and schemes she comes up with, there is no other place, except perhaps the woods, that she would rather be. School excites her, not for its lessons, but for the human drama that there is an endless supply of, and the chance for her imagination to stretch its bounds.
“Those French compositions, how I loathe them! Such stupid and disgusting subjects: “Write, so as to draw to your own physical and moral portrait, to a brother whom you have not seen for ten years;” (I have no fraternal bonds, I am an only child.) No one will ever know the efforts I have to make to restrain myself from writing pure spoof or highly subversive opinions! But, for all that, my companions – all except Anais – make such a hash of it that, in spite of myself I am the ‘outstanding pupil in literary composition’.”
Claudine develops an attachment to one of the Assistant teachers, nineteen year old Aimée and in order to spend more time with her exclusively, organises private English lessons at home. This seems to turn the new Headmistress against her even more so than was initially apparent, revealing a complex female tension within the school, tolerated only because of the Headmistress’s special relationship to the District Superintendent of Schools.
Her closest companion might be her beautiful intelligent cat Fanchette, who loves her disinterestedly, despite the miseries she inflicts on her.
“You amused me from the moment you came into the world; you’d only got one eye open when you were already attempting warlike steps in your basket, though you were still incapable of standing up on your four matchsticks. Ever since, you’ve lived joyously, making me laugh with your belly dances in honour of cockchafers and butterflies, your clumsy calls to the birds you’re stalking, your way of quarrelling with me and giving me sharp taps re-echo on my hands. Your behaviour is quite disgraceful: two or three times a year I catch you on the garden walls, wearing a crazy, ridiculous expression, with a swarm of tomcats around you.”
The year passes with the continued dramas between the students, Claudine reconciles herself to friendship with Luce, the younger sister of Aimée, who complains incessantly of mistreatment by her older sister, whose sole attentions are for the Headmistress.
The girls take the train to go and sit their exams, requiring an overnight stay in another town and the daily stress of being called to present for the oral part of the exams, waiting for the night-time listing of who has been called back to present and at the end who has passed.
Never one to conform, Claudine refuses to take part in some of the collective activities and amuses herself by sneaking out and finding her way unaided to friends of the family, who are both shocked and delighted to receive her. Her somewhat privileged life, bereft of expectation, serve to make her school days full of opportunity to exercise her wit, charm, cunning and mild cruelty against her teachers and with her fellow pupils, as she proves herself more than a match for them all.
Her carefree days are about to come to an end however, as her father makes plans for them to move to Paris, the subject of the second novel in this volume The Complete Claudine, Claudine in Paris where she learns she may not have quite the same freedom to roam, as she has had in the countryside, for reasons her father appears mildly reluctant to expand on.