After her abrupt departure from Paris back to her father’s home in Montigny, to the village home where she grew up, I was curious to know what was to come of our troubled Claudine and her errant husband.
It was something of a surprise to realise that in this fourth book, we are back in Paris, but in the home and seeing through the eyes of a weeping Annie who is the narrator of this fourth book in The Complete Claudine series.
Annie is weeping because her husband of four years Alain, whom she known since she a child and rarely left his side, is about to depart on a boat for Brazil, due to notice of a recent inheritance which necessitates his going there to relinquish assets, prize bulls or something or other!
“Before I had turned thirteen, he was already the master of my life. Such a handsome master! A red-haired boy, with a skin whiter than an egg and blue eyes that dazzled me.”
Annie writes in beautiful notebook he gave her for the purpose of keeping her ‘Diary of his journey’. She reads the list of duties he drew up for her, with his usual solicitous firmness, in which we see reference to Claudine among those she has permission to call on and with which frequency:
“Only one call on Claudine and her husband. Too fantastically unconventional a couple for a young woman to frequent while her husband is away on a long journey.”
However he is more than happy that she spend time with his sister Marthe, about whom he writes:
“My dear Annie will give me much pleasure if she frequently consults my sister Marthe and goes out with her. Marthe has a great deal of good sense and even common-sense under her rather unconventional exterior.”
Annie’s perception of herself at the beginning is defined only in terms of her husband, and her husband’s interests are solely related to himself and how he wishes her to be.
“I don’t know anything…except how to obey. He has taught me that and I achieve obedience as the sole task of my existence…assiduously…joyfully.”
She even goes so far to refer to herself, as if it were a term of endearment as his ‘little slave girl’, a term her husband often called her, of course he says it without malice, with only a faint contempt for my dark-skinned race.
This passive, domestic Annie, grieving for her
master husband is something of a disappointment, after the more confident, sensuous and outspoken Claudine, but I’m thankful there is at least an acquaintance, which promises Annie’s potential awakening.
In fact, Annie’s awakening and change in perception begins, soon after, when her sister-in-law makes an unkind comment on a portrait of her brother, likening him to a cockerel, an image thereafter Annie finds hard to remove from her mind, it serves to lift a little the blinkers from her view of this husband.
Parisian friends depart for the summer, to a thermal spa for the cure, to the annual opera festival in Germany, and it is here we see glimpses of Claudine and her husband, showing her grown in confidence within her marriage, having negotiated a way to curb their potentially destructive impulses.
Marthe’s husband is a novelist she continuously pushes to write faster, to hurry deadlines to meet the many financial commitments required to keep their lifestyle in the lavish manner she is accustomed to.
While Annie is able to confide in Claudine, the behaviour of her sister-in-law is too much for her and she decides to return to Paris to consider and prepare for the return of her husband, to make sense of how his absence has changed her.
“To free myself from the obsession – was it really to free myself?…I jumped out of bed and ran to look for Alain’s latest photograph that I had hidden between two sachets.
Whatever had happened? Was I actually dreaming? I could not recognise that handsome young man there. Those harsh eyebrows, that arrogant stance like a cock! No, surely I was mistaken or perhaps the photographer had absurdly overdone the re-touching?
But no, that man there was my husband who is far away at sea. I trembled before his picture as I tremble before myself. A slavish creature, conscious of its chains – that is what he has made of me ..Shattered, I searched obstinately for one memory of our past as a young married couple that could delude me again, that could give me back the husband I believed I had. Nothing, I could find nothing – only my whipped child’s submissiveness, only his cold condescending smile.”
Claudine and Annie is very different to the first three books and while I don’t know why Colette turned to an alternative narrator and wrote about such a submissive character, it makes me ponder a corollary with her own life, as she was a free-spirited child, close to nature, who married young to an older man, who put her to work on these novels.
It is said she was no great writer initially, but that he turned her into one, locking her in her room until she turned out something, which he faithfully edited and published in his own name. After thirteen years of such an apprenticeship, she was undoubtedly disillusioned, divorced him and then fought to be recognised for the work she had produced. She was also determined not to be financially dependent on a man.
Claudine and Annie strikes me as a novel of resistance, but using a character that is almost unrecognisable, the alter-ego of Colette perhaps, that aspect of her that was suppressed and oppressed all those years, whose slow awakening allowed her to see that man before her for who he really was, her slave master.
I was asked which of the series had been my favourite and I find I am really unable to choose as they go together so well and should be read as one.
Clearly, as this review suggests, the first three have a particular harmony as they are all narrated by Claudine and more centred around her life and growth, this fourth book is less about Claudine and we see her only from afar, as a confidante of the troubled Annie, however it deserves its place as I suspect there is more to Annie than the character on the page, for me it was read with a question hanging over it in relation to the life Colette was living at the time.
I loved Claudine at School for her exuberant overconfidence and love of nature, Claudine in Paris for her naivety and prudence, realising there was much about life she had still to learn and Claudine Married for the melancholy of marriage, of the realisation of her false ideals and indulgence of strong emotional impulses.
And where to from here? Well, I will be continuing to read a few more women in translation during August, but will also be looking out for La Maison de Claudine (My Mother’s House), a memoir of Sido (her mother) and her own provincial childhood.