Among the most successful series of books in French publishing history are the Claudine novels, five mildly salacious volumes from the turn of the century, recounting the sentimental education of a young girl from the provinces who makes the fabled journey to the big city—in this case, Paris. The first four novels bore the name “Willy,” pen name of Henry Gauthier-Villars, a tireless self-promoter and man-about-town, but had been written almost entirely by his attractive young wife, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. She was but the latest in his stable of lovers and ghost- writers, categories that frequently overlapped.
Willy’s wife was, of course, the famous French writer now known simply as Colette. As Judith Thurman makes clear in this new biography, the Claudine novels are a record of Colette’s early years, true in many respects to the actual facts of her life and in most respects to her sexual and emotional development. Even the novels’ titles—Claudine à l’école (1900; Claudine at School, 1956), Claudine à Paris (1901; Claudine in Paris, 1958), Claudine en ménage (1902; Claudine Married, 1935), Claudine s’en va (1903; Claudine and Annie, 1934), and La retraite sentimentale (1907; Retreat from Love, 1974)—suggest the archetypal progression of events that went into making Colette the forthright, self-reliant figure familiar to countless readers. Although Colette’s subsequent novels and stories might be less obviously autobiographical, her life and works continued to be inextricably entwined.
Colette grew up in a village not far in objective distance from Paris, yet distant in social terms. Her mother (“Sido”), whom she would subsequently revere but seldom visit, offered her lessons in a kind of tough-minded love, while her father (“the Captain”) treated her with genial neglect. The Captain composed verse on subjects of popular interest in his tiny community, and was discovered after his death to have prepared notebook after notebook for an account of his eventful life. Yet he never got any further in this autobiographical project than a handful of titles and a series of heartfelt dedications to his wife; otherwise the volumes remained blank. Although she seems to have cherished few illusions about provincial life, Colette idealized nature, and retained an empathy for plants and animals unmatched in French literature.
One of Thurman’s theses in Secrets of the Flesh is that the first two men in Colette’s life failed her: “Willy’s obsessive philandering and Jules Colette’s single-minded fidelity were two sides of the same coin, which left her, in both cases, feeling abandoned and desexed.” (In his own way, each man was a failed writer as well.) Yet Colette’s life and works would turn out to be so varied and expansive that no single theory can actually explain them, and Thurman allows her subject that freedom.
Retreat from Love was the first Claudine novel to bear Colette’s name, and appropriately enough, at the time of its publication she and Willy were separating preparatory to a divorce. Yet the two remained linked—and not just platonically—for several years after their divorce became final. It is one of Thurman’s accomplishments to restore to Willy a measure of dignity, if not of respectability. In the many biographies of Colette that have appeared in English, Willy has come across as a stock character, a womanizer far older than Colette who seized upon her young body and her burgeoning talent for his own ends. As Thurman makes clear, Willy and Colette seem to have loved each other deeply, even if the former lacked the emotional wherewithal to sustain the match and the latter finally tired of that lack.
One of the methods Willy chose to distance his wife from himself was to introduce her pointedly to his many mistresses and to yet other women who had no interest in men whatsoever. It was to the resulting relationships that Colette turned after her divorce, to the world that Thurman calls “Lesbos.” In one of several miniessays Thurman inserts at key points of her narrative, she explores the thriving underground of Parisian homosexuality and lesbianism, describing it as a natural result of the debilitating strictures of contemporary French social life. Colette would identify increasingly with this world, and for several years was the lover of Mathilde de Morny, a prominent and wealthy marquise who cropped her hair and dressed as a man....
(The entire section is 1851 words.)