Colette holds a very special place in my heart. To the extent that it makes any sense to love someone you will never meet and never know, I love her. There has always been a particular quality to her work that makes it more than just clever storytelling, something that means her books give the reader an experience of warmth and strength that is almost tangible. It’s been years since I’ve reread her, but just recently I’ve gone back to two of her most famous novels, Chéri and The Last of Chéri, and it has been interesting to read these books as a woman nearing middle-age, rather than a young woman just starting out, a much better age, in fact, to relate to her admirable main character, the wealthy courtesan, Léa de Lonval.
Chéri begins with an iconic scene: in the rosy light of a boudoir one late morning in high summer, the young, handsome, sardonic toy boy, Chéri, is trying on the pearl necklace of his mistress, Léa de Lonval. Chéri is a bit of a brat, in all honesty, pouty, sulky, demanding, impetuous, but he is exquisitely handsome in a very feminine way, all beautiful lines and silky freshness. And he is Léa’s pet project; when he was embarking on a life of teenage dissipation, Léa decided to take him in hand. She travelled to Normandy with him and fed him up on frothy cream and roast chicken. She engaged an old boyfriend to give him boxing lessons, and she became his mistress. The relationship between them is a passionate one, but it has strong overtones of mother and child. Léa is careful to keep her side of it light and playful; she knows that she will have to give him up to a bride one day, and she knows that as she nears fifty, the relationship is bound to come to a natural end. In the meantime, she scolds him tenderly, fusses over him, invests emotionally in his beauty as if it were her possession.
Knowing she will have to give him up is one thing. When it transpires that Chéri’s wedding has been arranged – to a delicately beautiful but insipid young woman – Léa suffers more than she had anticipated. She lets him go with good grace, acting as if she weren’t troubled in the least by the turn of events. But alone she feels physically ill and realises, sensible woman that she is, that she will have to get away from Paris for a while. That night she packs her bags and leaves for a lengthy tour of the South of France. And then Chéri also begins to suffer from a disconcerting malaise, an inability to be alone with his new wife and a nostalgia so intense and overwhelming that he cannot even trace its contours and name it. One evening he goes out with an old friend of his, Desmond, and simply finds himself unable to go home.
I won’t say any more about how the situation develops. In any case, what makes this book is the way that Léa behaves when faced with this double body blow – the loss of a profound emotional attachment, and the end of her time as an attractive and desirable woman. We are never in doubt of the depth of Léa’s suffering, but we watch her do everything in her power to find recompenses, to make her life as comfortable as it can be, to deal pragmatically and justly with the changes she has to face, and with wit and humour, too. Colette’s women all know that good food, a comfortable, well-kept home, stylish clothes, new people and new places can boost the morale, at least until the worst of the emotions has passed. Léa is a magnificent character – no guilt, no blame, no self-recriminations here. Her pragmatic soul would be outraged by such self sabotage, in a world where there is no lack of people wanting to bring you down. Chéri’s mother, the rather ghastly Charlotte Peroux has long been Léa’s frenemy, and Léa knows that her every expression will be scrutinized as Charlotte tries to beadily spot any indication of her suffering. Léa uses this as a source of energy, and excellent motivation to present a carefree face to the world. It quite cheers her up to take on her old adversary and win. A woman character in a difficult situation showing great kindness and wisdom and unshakeable courage – why aren’t there more of these?
Colette, who had traded off her looks and her vitality for most of her career, had long been preparing herself mentally for middle-age. ‘Don’t cry,’ she wrote. ‘don’t clasp your hands in prayer, don’t rebel; you have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure.’ When she wrote this, she had spent the entirety of her life as a cherished child-woman. Her mother was the blueprint for a powerful kind of love that chided and scolded and worried relentlessly, and then Colette had had two relationships in which she was the baby who had to be looked after – first with the publishing impresario, Willy, who looked after her very badly, and then, after an ugly, messy divorce, with an aristocratic older woman. When she wrote Chéri, she was married again, to a rich journalist Henry de Jouvenal, and she felt that for the first time in her life, she had produced a book that was not drawn directly from her own experience.
‘It often happens in Colette’s life that what she writes comes to pass,’ says her biographer, Judith Thurman (in a brilliant biography, Secrets of the Flesh). And what happened next was that Colette embarked on a rather disturbing affair with her stepson, Henry’s son from another liaison, the teenage Bertrand de Jouvenal. He became her Chéri; she fattened him up and bullied him and fussed over him, whilst providing him with a sentimental education that would last for the next five years. Léa-like she didn’t tell him she loved him, either, until it was almost the end.
The Last of Chéri, the companion novel to Chéri, she wrote once her own affair was over. In Chéri it looks as if Léa comes off worse from their encounter, but in The Last of Chéri the situation is turned around, and now it’s Léa who has moved on, to a fat and sexless and utterly content old age, and Chéri who can’t find a place in life without his beloved mother figure. What a way to write a relationship out of your life and gain the upper hand! But did Colette heed her own writing and, at 55, settle down to a gentle retirement with her garden and her cats? Of course she didn’t – she married for the third time, and finally found a relationship that seemed to work for her.
It’s such an intriguing relationship between literature and life, the one we find underlying Colette’s novels. What looks marvellous on the page doesn’t always look so great when acted out in reality. Plus those admirable qualities in her female characters, resilience, tenacity, a chameleon-like ability to re-invent the self, are portrayed sympathetically in her novels, when in life they can equally well be put to the service of what look like mistakes and wrong turnings. Or maybe Colette was such a natural born writer, that she could not help but embellish reality in her mind until it looked like a novel, and the powerful storylines in her novels made her compulsively curious to experience them in real life. Or maybe Colette was just deeply tuned in to the torments that afflict women in their love relationships, partly because she lived them and partly because she wrote about them. She was certainly greedy for it all, was Colette, for all the richness of meaning and sensation that experience could bring her, whether good or bad, and that, at heart, is the message of all her novels: make the very best of what you’ve got and live with all your senses. At 79, when she first tried to keep a diary, she wrote:
‘I should indeed like:
1) To begin again…
2) To begin again…
3) To begin again…’