The Landscape of Colette

Colette's FranceI have been a very bad blogger of reviews lately, choosing far too often to witter on about life (because it is shamefully easy to do) rather than make the small amount of effort it takes to write something coherent about a book. For this reason, I finished Colette’s France; her lives, her loves by Jane Gilmour several days before Christmas and am only just now getting around to assessing it.

This is a sumptuously beautiful book. A hardback with a floral border on all its pages, it is packed full of glorious photos of Colette and the places she lived, some from the time she lived in them, some from the present day when the author undertook her pilgrimage around the sites of Colette’s life. Really, it’s gorgeous, and the idea of illustrating the life of one of the twentieth century’s most gifted writers on nature and landscape is an excellent one. One of the great pleasures of Colette’s prose is her ability to conjure up places, sensations and vistas; she was a very visual and sensual writer who openly gorged herself on beauty. The way this book has been designed does great justice, I think, to that side of her work.

Author, Jane Gilmour, was a Colette scholar in her youth. But having finished her dissertation on Colette at the Sorbonne in Paris – in the late 60s, early 70s when the Left Bank was the pulsing hub of intellectualism – she left for Australia with her husband and a very different sort of life. The years passed and that first marriage ended. But gradually the idea returned to her to journey in the footsteps of Colette, and as she undertook a series of trips to France with a new partner, sharing her Francophile enthusiasms with him and revisiting the salient locations in Colette’s life, so the idea of a book became a reality.

I began to see Colette’s life emerging through the prism of the different places in which she had lived – the places of her heart – each representing a particular period in her life and particular relationships, each profoundly influencing her writing, and each so vividly evoked in the shapes, colours, perfumes and sounds of her prose.’

What follows is a memoir shaped by the houses of Colette’s life, which do seem naturally to mark out quite different eras. From the Burgundy of her childhood, steeped in vineyards and the crippling demands of respectability (demands which her family singularly failed to meet), Colette moved with first husband, Willy, to the centre of artistic Belle-Époque Paris. Whilst a great deal of her career would necessarily take place here, Colette was essentially a country woman who needed her rural retreats. Husbands and lovers were more than willing to provide them for her. Willy bought her a little house (not so little by today’s standards) in the Franche-Comté region east of Paris, a lushly forested area bordered by mountains. Missy, the lesbian lover she left him for, built her a seaside house in Brittany, which Colette refused to give back when they eventually split. Her next husband, the wealthy and aristocratic Henry de Jouvenel opened the doors of Castel-Novel to her, his family seat – complete with ivy-covered turrets and rows of ornate balconies – in the lush heat of the Limousin. Her third husband introduced her to the pleasures of Province, where she bought for herself La Treille Muscat, a pretty gorgeous villa in the shade of pine forests that overlook the Mediterranean. Old age and the second world war found her fixed in Paris, refusing to move away from the source of her work and finding comfort in the community of apartment dwellers in the Palais Royale.

The first thing that struck me was what a lucky woman Colette was to live is a series of amazing houses in lovely locations. The second was how many different lives Colette had managed to cram into her eighty-odd years. I confess I knew that about Colette already; what I hadn’t realised was how she changed the theatrical backdrop to her life with each reincarnation of herself, and how that must have helped her with the chameleon grace that she felt was so essential to female survival in the world. Colette was proud of her pragmatic peasant mentality, as she called it, and fascinated by the immediate. You might describe her as living in the moment, which undoubtedly facilitated her abilty to slip out from under the guilt she really ought to have felt about the way she treated people. Like most memoirs, this is a sympathetic portrait of Colette, but Jane Gilmour does admit in her conclusion that Colette surprises the avid reader of her work by turning out to be, at her worst, hard-headed, grasping and selfish. But stubbornly following her own star certainly gave Colette the best life she could have dreamed of, and by graft and determination, she certainly had plenty of rooms of her own to write in – while poor old Virginia Woolf pondered how difficult that was for a woman in polite and convention-bound England.

The biographical part of the book is a good, accurate and satisfying account of Colette’s complex and varied life. I have to admit that the prose is a bit pedestrian and the writer doesn’t always delve as deeply as I might have liked into the links between writing and life. The translations of Colette seem a tad stilted, too. But this is a book that sort of hovers around the coffee-table genre, and as such you get plenty of fascinating information to go with its gloriously decorative function. For an easy and enjoyable introduction to Colette’s life, and plenty of location-lust, you couldn’t do better.



15 thoughts on “The Landscape of Colette

    • I will come and visit you! Sorry to be slow – I seem to have begun the year behind, somehow. I can certainly endorse Colette, though, she is a wonderful writer.

  1. Lovely review, and you’ve confirmed what I suspected – that this is a beautiful to look at book that won’t necessarily add anything to my knowledge of her from the biogs I’ve read, but nevertheless will let me see clearly her locations in her life – and that’s quite important with someone like Colette who was so rooted in her landscapes. And also that it will be a book as much about the author as about Colette! Thank you!

    • Yes, if you’ve read the Judith Thurman biography (which is fantastic) then you won’t find any surprises here. In fact, the author is rather quiet about herself – she describes her arrival at the locations and brackets each chapter with her impressions, but the vast majority of the book is centred on Colette. The pictures are wonderful, though, and I had never had the chance to see her different houses before.

      • I *have* read the Thurman and agree – it’s excellent. I think I might well add this book to the wishlist for the pictures, though!

  2. I only read Colette within the last few years and certainly don’t know as much about her as I would like. This sounds like a perfect way of exploring her life. I also think I might by it for my goddaughter who lives in France. She could have the fun of going round and visiting all the sites.

    • I must say I felt mildly jealous of the author’s pilgrimage around Colette’s great landmarks – the pictures are wonderful! Do your idea for your goddaughter strikes me as an excellent one. It’s a very accessible biography, with the added attraction of looking enticing too.

  3. Sounds like a lovely book that could never have its equal in digital! And it sounds like an interesting approach to a writer who has had a lot written about her too.

    • It’s a really beautiful book, and a good introduction to Colette. When you’re reading for information, you don’t always need masses of literary style. I would love to know what you think of it!

  4. Oh, I want this! I have read just a bit of Colette’s work and think she is a really remarkable writer. I have Judith Thurman’s bio of her but must admit to being a little in awe of the size–maybe this would be a better place to ease into Colette’s life. I am reading Antonia White’s Frost in May at the moment and it has been compared to Colette’s Claudine novels (as well as to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist), and I am tempted to pick up Colette again (finally)–though I am trying to resist for now and finish a few other books I have on the go first. Not to sound utterly shallow, but why can’t all books be so pretty? 🙂

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