(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

When Colette wrote her captivating fairy tale Gigi, she was nearly seventy years old. It was 1944, and Europe had been conquered and destroyed by Hitler’s Nazis. Colette’s own husband, Maurice Goudeket, a Jew, had been arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1941. By the time that Colette published Gigi, both the author and the reader were in great need of a lovely story that took them to another place and time. The world of Gigi takes one back to the belle époque of Paris, when the world was optimistic and fun—a “once upon a time” for people surrounded by devastation.

Colette’s attention to the small pleasures of daily French life—a warm cup of tea, a hearty plate of cassoulet—are intended to feed the reader’s spirit at a time when food was hard to come by. Little candies and the gentle tug of a bead-embroidered bellpull are tiny memories that ring and echo in the memories of the Frenchmen during their most trying times. The fact that Colette chose sugar as the commodity controlled by the Lachaille family is indicative of her wish to spin her fairy tale with sweetness and light.

So many of the luxuries adored by the French are focused on in Gigi as symbols of the beauty and elegance that once surrounded them. Gaston brings Madame Alvarez bottles of champagne and pâté de foie gras. When Gigi is fitted for her feminine clothing, the seven and a half yards of rustling fabric, the wide flounced skirt of blue and white silk, recall the crisp, outdoor Impressionist paintings that captured only a moment before the subject moved on. Time moves on, warns Colette, and although the past seems even more desirable when the present cannot be endured, there must always be hope for a brighter future. Aunt Alicia, still living in the past, is described as having “fastidious taste.” Elegance never goes out of style, good taste is timeless, and barbarians cannot remove beauty from the world. Aunt Alicia’s apartment sparkles and shimmers: her tea set, the silver...

(The entire section is 833 words.)