Claudine at School (Book 1) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

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.

Further Reading

An Introduction to Colette

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris 

 

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The Complete Claudine, by Colette – An Introduction by Judith Thurman tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

Every summer I choose to read one chunkster, a big fat book, and this year knowing August would be the month that many others are reading books by women in translation, I decided to combine the two things and so chose to read a book translated from French to English, a classic, by the renowned author and personality Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, referred to by her surname and pen name Colette.

The book I chose The Complete Claudine, is in fact four books combined in one volume, however I’ve written them up separately, including this first post, which is an introduction to the extraordinary personality behind the writer.

Introducing Colette

The book begins with an intriguing introduction by Judith Thurman, which I found helpful as I really knew little about Colette which she used as her writing pen-name.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette by Leopold Reutlinger

She was a colourful, eccentric, driven character, a woman way ahead of her time, who wanted it all and seems to have pretty much lived her life, pursuing that goal, ignoring societal stereotypes and rejecting all labels about who, what and where a woman’s place should be,  attracting as many admiring fans as scathing critics. She detested labels, and while her attitude may be thought of as feminist, she was far from abiding by political correctness or aligning herself with any kind of women’s group.

“Me, a feminist?” she scoffed in a 1910 interview. “I’ll tell you what the suffragettes deserve: the whip and the harem.” She saw no contradiction between supporting conservative positions and living her life as an “erotic militant” in revolt against them. Better worlds and just rewards were of no more consequence to her than the prospect of an afterlife. – Judith Thurman, Introduction

She was born in the Burgundy village of Saint-Saveur-en- Puisaye on January 28, 1873, a countryside upbringing that informs the autobiographical Claudine at School; the first volume in this book. Her own school years were likely more conservative that those expressed in her novel, which was influenced by her husband Willy, the pen name she would use when these books were first published, as it was he who introduced her to avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles while engaging in sexual affairs and encouraging her to do the same. It was he who suggested the idea of  “the secondary myth of Sappho…the girls’ school or convent ruled by a seductive female teacher” (Ladimer, p. 53)

Her mother, “Mme Colette – the splendid earth mother known to Colette’s readers as Sido” came from a family of mixed African and Creole descent from the colonies (Martinique) and:

had boundless ambitions for her youngest daughter and “second self,” Gabrielle, and these never included domestic – or sentimental – drudgery. Sido called marriage, only half-ironically, a “heinous crime,” and would rejoice in Colette’s liaison from 1905 to 1911 with a cultivated and melancholy lesbian transvestite, the Marquise de Morny, largely because “Missy’s” generosity and solicitude were so wholesome for Colette’s fiction. Nor was Sido’s “precious jewel,” childless until forty, ever encouraged by her mother to procreate.

She published nearly 80 volumes of fiction, memoir, drama, essays, criticism, and reportage, Gigi the best known to readers in the English language, though unfortunately so according to Judith Thurman as its promise of happiness so misrepresents Colette’s view of love.

The character Claudine was Colette’s invention of the century’s first teenage girl, one who was rebellious, secretive, erotically restless and disturbed, free-spirited and determined to carve her own path. Her rebellion was against convention not family, she had free rein at home, her single parent father poring over his slug manuscript left her to her own devices, though somewhat constrained by the maid who took care of her basic needs.

 

“It is not a bad thing that children

should occasionally, and politely,

put parents in their place.” Colette

Colette married at twenty(1893) and moved to Paris, separating from Willy in 1906 though with no access to royalties for her books as she had penned them in his name, leading her to a stage career in the music halls of Paris, her experience of that way of life informing her novel The Vagabond (1910).

“a novel that anticipates by ninety years, the contemporary fashion for wry, first-person narratives by single, thirty something career women. Its heroine examines her addictions to men with amused detachment, and flirts, alternately, with abstinence and temptation. Is there love without complete submission and loss of identity? Is freedom really worth the loneliness that pays for it? These are Colette’s abiding questions.”

Her move to Paris heralded the beginning of a public personality, as she would go on to become one of the most notorious and exuberant personalities of fin-de-siècle Paris. Her subsequent divorce and the years working on the stage exposed her to a poverty consciousness she’d not until then experienced and induced in her a steely determination to be independent and earn her own living at all times. After his death, she sued to have his name removed from her earlier books.

“The frugality of Virginia Woolf’s five hundred a year and a room of one’s own had as much allure for her as the ideals of Woolf’s feminism, which is to say, none at all. Colette’s models were never the gentlewomen of letters living on their allowances but the courtesans and artistes she had frequented in her youth, whose notion of a bottom line was fifty thousand a year and a villa of one’s own – with a big garden, a great chef, and a pretty boy.”

She would have a child (a daughter) at forty, though her maternal instinct never developed sufficiently for her to spend much time in the role of mother, allowing her to be raised by a nanny, though she marry the baby’s father Baron Henry de Jouvenel, an influential, flamboyant political journalist in Paris.

Below is a summary of Lessons We Can Learn From Colette, written by Holly Isard on the anniversary of her death, 3 August, do click on the link to read the lessons, they provide an interesting insight into the individualist character Colette was and lived according to. Each lesson has a wonderful anecdote connected to it.

Famous for her free spirit as much her style of writing, Colette was a chronicler of female existence, a precursory feminist who pushed against the bounds of sexuality for women in Paris. To the abhorrence of Parisian society, Colette experimented with androgyny on and off stage. She also frequented the spaces where marginal sexualities were beginning to find some visibility, in the cabarets and pantomimes. Even 142 years after her birth, Colette remains an icon and an indisputably formidable woman. Here, we consider five key lessons we can learn from the great lady herself.

1. Continue on in the face of controversy 

2. Stick with your gut instinct

3. Don’t underestimate a woman’s influence 

4. “Perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.”

 Next Up:
Book 3: Claudine Married
Book 4:Claudine and Annie