It’s not unusual for a writer who has lived through a powerful or perplexing event to then turn it into the stuff of fiction. But it is extraordinary for a writer who has written about such events to take the plot line and turn it into the stuff of life. This is what happened to Colette.
In 1920, at the age of 47, she had finally published a book that lifted her above the various scandals that dominated her early career. Not that the novel was exactly a moral tract. It concerned the relationship between a devilishly beautiful and dissipated young man, and his much older lover, a courtesan who believed herself to be beyond the treacherous forces of love and who, of course, is not. The novel was hailed as ‘a modern masterpiece’, by a literary establishment that had been pretty snooty in the past about Colette, although it was her lifestyle, involving a high profile acrimonious divorce and a public love affair with a woman aristocrat to which they really took exception. Colette was thrilled that ‘for the first time in my life I felt morally certain of having written a novel for which I need neither blush nor doubt.’ She now had a chance to become respectable in the eyes of her society.
But before the ink had dried on the first edition, Colette was embarking on a torrid love affair with her stepson from her second marriage; the 16-year-old Bertrand de Jouvenal. It was a love affair that saw her through the menopause, and Bertrand through adolescence. When it finished, awkwardly and uncomfortably, Colette felt herself to be ‘irredeemably alone’ and done with the dreadful business of love. In fact, this would prove to be a pivotal point in her life, a humiliation from which she would rise replenished and renewed in unexpected ways.
A very different Colette emerged from the wreckage; one who would form a lasting romantic attachment for the first time. What had happened when she had tried to live as one of her own heroines, in a story of her own making? Colette was by no means an analytical woman, nor was she self-aware. But the process of writing gave her a way to live in a far more astute and meaningful manner. The voice of Colette-who-narrates is always wise and insightful, whereas Colette in the flesh was capricious and often naïve. Something happened in the transposition of life into art that gave her an entirely different perspective. And so something must equally have happened when she measured her own life and its ordinary messiness against the clear, meaningful outline of a story in which she had an important emotional investment.
In former times, stories were believed to work magic. The anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss recounted the classic example of a woman stuck in the middle of a painful, difficult labour. The local shaman came and told her the story of the ‘good warriors’ freeing a prisoner trapped in a cave by monsters, and on hearing its conclusion the woman was able to give birth to her child. The story had unblocked her mentally and physically. The novels Colette wrote over this turbulent period in her life, Chéri, which ushered in her own affair, and La fin de Chéri, which she wrote when it was over, unblocked Colette in their own way. Something old and troublesome to her was worked through and worked out, and its roots were to be found in her first, disastrous marriage.
Coming to Writing
Colette’s first husband, Henri Gaultier-Villars, commonly known as Willy, was a man of contradictions. He came from a well-off, respectable family, but was profligate with money and proud of being a fraud and a cad. He began things well but ended them badly; petty jealousies and vengeances got in the way of his journalism; greed got in the way of his entrepreneurial projects; indifference marred his many love affairs. But for all that his life was organised almost exactly the way he wanted it, which is to say in chaos, he was not a happy man. The tyranny of being worthless for the fun of it often left him enervated and depressed. All in all, he was not the sort of man that any sensible woman would want to marry. But when she met him, Colette was young, romantic and desperate to escape the provinces. She saw the good half, the witty Parisian media man with an exciting life at the centre of things. He was at least a one-way ticket for her out of rural obscurity.
When Willy turned out to be more frog than prince, it was a rude shock for Colette. ‘They are numerous,’ she wrote forty years after the marriage had ended, ‘those barely nubile girls who dream of being the spectacle, the plaything, the erotic masterpiece of an older man. It’s an ugly desire that they expiate by fulfilling.’ The expiation began pretty much as soon as they settled in Paris, for Colette would later confess the first year of her marriage was one of the unhappiest of her life. She had been a cherished daughter, and life with a much older man might have looked like an extension of nurturing care, with added thrills. But Willy was feckless and neglectful, and only in Paris could Colette realise what an eccentric couple they made. Willy was an ambitious music critic at that time and they had their share of salons and receptions to attend. She was soon made aware of the curious spectacle she presented: Willy’s child bride with a kittenish, triangular face and two long whipcord braids of hair that reached to her feet; pretty enough, but the whispers went round that she had no dowry, status or talents to recommend her. She was ‘to some people worthless and invisible, to others too conspicuous and vaguely dishonoured.’ Colette played her role and suffered in silence, her eyes downcast as the best way to suggest submission whilst hiding her rage.
Willy’s behaviour did not make her feel any better about the situation she’d got herself into. He was a paradox to his young wife, indulgent and tender at times, callous and indifferent at others. He expected a great deal of her socially but gave her very little encouragement or support in return. And his life was frantic, filled with journalistic deadlines, hard work, hard play, nights being seen at the theatre, networking opportunities and angry creditors. Colette was left alone for much of the day, hiding out from the many people to whom they owed money. About a year into this existence, she received an anonymous note. Taking a cab, Colette travelled to the address indicated and found her husband, not in flagrante delicto, but in the far more damning process of going through the household accounts with his mistress. Charlotte Kinceler predated their marriage by several years and was a steady fixture in Willy’s life. There would be many, many other mistresses, some just passing through, some lingering, but this was the first Colette knew about. She played it cool, whilst Kinceler snatched up a pair of kitchen scissors and Willy wiped a pink and sweaty brow. ‘You’ve come for me?’ he asked, to which Colette replied ‘Of course I have,’ and they left in awkward haste.
Colette’s real feelings about Willy’s chronic infidelity were nowhere near as composed as she pretended. In the middle of sitting for her portrait with the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, she heard carriage wheels at her door and spotted Willy bidding a loving farewell to the woman who dropped him off. Out of sight of her husband, she was unable to keep her emotions in check. ‘She had real convulsions,’ the painter wrote, ‘hysterical crying fits, one had to lay her on a sofa and bathe her temples with cologne because she believed herself abandoned forever.’ In later life Colette would talk about her propensity for jealousy, ‘the only suffering we endure without ever becoming used to it.’ An old-fashioned stoic, her response was always to put up a good front, but how many good fronts could she juggle at any one time? Between the public disdain and the private betrayal, there was too much for a proud country girl to choke down.
Colette’s youthful restraint cost her more than she cared to admit, and not long after this shock, she fell ill. ‘There is always a moment in the life of young people,’ she wrote, ‘when dying is just as normal and seductive to them as living, and I hesitated.’ The likeliest interpretation of her symptoms was that Willy had infected her with gonorrhoea, but Colette in hindsight treated it like a breakdown, the result of all that dreadful marital and social indifference and her own bitter disillusionment. Her mother was summoned and for 60 days she coaxed Colette back to life, in all probability letting her son-in-law know what she thought of his care of her precious daughter. Maybe Willy was finally a little chastened. The convalescent holiday in Brittany that he took Colette on afterwards certainly seemed to herald an improved understanding between them. But this was also the start of a new period in Colette’s life, and with her returning health she discovered her ‘taste for survival and self-defence’ and the role her hard-won ability to dissimulate would play in it.
About this time, Willy opened his novel-writing factory. Having long been fascinated by the power of self-publicity and aware that his talent for it far outweighed his gifts for creativity and hard work, Willy set up a stable of writers who produced novels according to outlines he gave them. He edited their work and slapped his own name on the cover, then assured good reviews by means of his network of contacts in the press. This was a great way to flood the market with work produced at a speed no single man could match. Willy was one of the earliest kings of marketing and it rapidly brought him the notoriety he desired, but he needed to keep churning the material out. It was probably no more than a sensible use of his resources to encourage Colette to jot down reminiscences of her school days, spiced up with some lesbian interest (he suggested) in case he could make something out of them. Colette set to with ‘application and indifference’, producing a 600-page manuscript. Once she’d handed it over, her husband barely flicked through it before shutting it away in a drawer, disappointed.
‘In my youth, I had never, never desired to write,’ Colette would declare towards the end of her life. ‘For I felt more fiercely with each passing day, that I was made precisely in order not to write.’ What the young Colette wanted was raw and vibrant life, and her natural inclination was to respond sensually to it, to breath it in, to feel its contours, to observe it attentively. Nature was Colette’s playground, love her other, profoundly sensual obsession. At that age she insisted that writing looked like a pale and pointless substitute. And yet, write she did; those six hundred pages were hardly the work of someone with no interest in literary endeavour. So we have to consider that writing became a way for her to live more intensely, to record sensations in such a way as to experience them twice over, or perhaps to experience them at all.
Some time later, Willy rediscovered the manuscript languishing in its drawer. As Colette recounts it, he started to read, kept on reading, called himself a ‘stupid ass’ and, shuffling the notebooks together, clapped on his hat and rushed out to a publisher. The process was probably not as neat and tidy as the legend Colette made out of it, but that just shows her talent for turning reality into piquant stories. She used to claim that Willy locked her in her room to write, and would only release her when the requisite number of pages slid under the door; that made a good story, too.
Claudine At School was a jaunty little piece of literary history. It became the first novel that France could call a modern bestseller, with 40,000 copies sold in the first two months after publication, 350,000 over the course of the next few years. Willy’s decision to marry Colette, which had so often looked like a dreadful and capricious mistake, finally turned out to be his most prescient act. Colette’s sharp intelligence, her insight, her gift for mimicry, her sense of humour, her sensitivity and eventually, her taste for perversion were all about to become precious to him in the way that he most valued: as a source of serious money. And Colette finally won some of her husband’s attention and admiration, as they collaborated over a work of fresh, charming eroticism, their voices united between the sheets, even if they were only of paper.
Willy knew a good thing when he saw it. Claudine at School was followed swiftly by Claudine in Paris and by Claudine Married… Between 1901 and 1906 Colette wrote Willy at least a book a year and the Claudine frenzy grew. With his genius for marketing, Willy moved into product spin-offs. There were Claudine postcards, Claudine cigarettes, Claudine perfumes and lotions, Claudine ice-cream and sweets. The novels were adapted for the stage, and a Colette lookalike, the actress Polaire, was cast in the main role. Willy took the two women on tour, parading about with one on each arm, hinting broadly at a special relationship between the three of them, as one of the cheekiest features of the novels was Claudine’s lascivious taste for both men and women. Willy knew that personality mattered, and that selling the people behind the stories appealed to a voyeuristic desire in the audience to see the ‘real’ versions of the characters they read about. There was, after all, plenty of truth in this: Colette was ransacking her life with Willy for plot, transposing their marriage into print almost as fast as she lived it. It must have been notably unclear to her creator where she left off and Claudine began.
The Claudine novels are not Colette’s finest work, but they are still pretty good. What’s immensely appealing about them is their exuberance. They are sparkly books, shimmering with vitality and the erotic and a glorious taste for transgression. In her main protagonist and alter ego, Colette pulled off the feat of creating a whole new genre of identity: the teenager with attitude. Claudine weathered similar storms to those that beset Colette, the longing to leave a provincial village, a lively sensuality and a quick tongue, a marriage that has painful flaws, the eventual recognition that it must end. But Claudine was armour-plated with attitude, she bit back and she bounced. She always knew what to say.
As an apprenticeship in art, they are an ambivalent memorial to a confusing, often humiliating, but hugely productive period in Colette’s life. Out of the darkness of her marriage to Willy, Colette forged a shiny-bright narrative in which Claudine displays nothing but bravura courage and resilience in the pursuit of her pleasures. In this way, Colette learned that being someone in fiction was a wonderful way to hide in full view. She began to see that she could process experience through storytelling and iron out its hitches and flaws. It was possible to produce something richer, truer, maybe even better than life out of it.
But her vivacious novels never made her Willy’s object of desire. As Willy got older, so his libido flagged and he needed ever more perverse scenarios to revive it. The steady stream of schoolgirl Claudine-alikes that were drawn to him by his celebrity proved useful for this particular task. Colette witnessed it all with amused contempt: ‘Hanging on him, cooing to him, they write, “Darling, you’ll marry me when she dies, yes?” You’d better believe it! He’s marrying them already, one after another. He could cull but he prefers to collect.’ But her witty voice does not recount how Willy required her to warm them up socially, and sometimes sexually, before he received them.
Willy taught Colette a lot about the use value of scandal, in a Belle-Epoque Paris that panted for it. He taught her that sensationalism sells and that it creates such a big, flashy picture that the audience is too dazzled to care about details. Entranced by the image, others could be put off the scent of her real feelings. And so, behind her celebrity façade, Colette quietly consolidated her strengths and her skills and nursed her wounded vanity. At 30, she was able to say of herself ‘I was far from invulnerable, but I no longer dreamed of dying.’ But the pain of loving and not being loved in return, the fierce battle to preserve a good front in the face of public humiliation, and the terror that menaces women of never being beautiful enough to hold their man, were themes that would haunt her fiction for years to come.
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, really, pouty, sulky, demanding, impetuous, but he is exquisitely handsome in a very feminine way, all beautiful lines and silky freshness. He is Léa’s pet project, hence the sweet and spoiled nickname, Chéri – her darling. 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, attends to his diet and his dress and 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 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 or give it a name. One evening he goes out with an old friend of his, Desmond, and simply finds himself unable to go home.
A long, slow winter meanders past in this way, and Chéri begins to mount a vigil outside Léa’s house, waiting to see the lights that will mean she is back. Finally, in spring she returns and Chéri’s happiness is such that he can return home serenely, making no attempt to see her. But the false peace doesn’t last. Late one night he calls on Léa unexpectedly and despite an attempt to marshal her defences, Léa has missed him so badly that she gives into him, permitting herself to be unusually reckless. She declares ‘What a fool I was not to understand that you were my love, the love, the great love that comes only once!’ The ecstasy is short-lived. When the morning comes, Chéri watches her studying the train timetable, looking for a train that will take them away together, and sees only her wrinkled neck, her untidy hair, the undeniable signs of ageing. It is a brutal scene that awakens in Chéri the realisation that mothers and lovers should not mix, and provokes the inevitable reaction
‘Being with you, Nounoune, is likely to keep me twelve for half a century,’ he accuses, making sure she understands that his dependence is all her fault. Léa is wounded and upset, but Chéri’s plea that she should remain the idealised figure he has loved for so long leaves her no room to express her own turbulent emotions. She pulls herself together and lets him go with her blessing, tender, nurturing and self-sacrificing to the last. ‘Had I really been the finest, I should have made a man of you, and not thought only of the pleasures of your body, and my own happiness,’ Lea tells him, in a gesture of noble release. ‘I’ve been carrying you next to my heart for too long… I am to blame for everything you lack…’
What makes this book is the way that Léa behaves when faced with a double body blow – the loss of a profound emotional attachment, and the end of her time as an attractive and desirable woman. After Chéri’s marriage, 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. It was a feature of many of Colette’s fictional women to 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 have passed. Léa is a magnificent character – no guilt, no blame, no self-recriminations for her. 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 bucks her up to take on her old adversary and win. It bucks the reader, too. A woman character in a difficult situation showing great kindness and wisdom and unshakeable courage – why aren’t there more of these?
Quite possibly, of course, because it is so very difficult to do in real life. Colette had written the prescription, but found it more challenging that she had imagined to be Léa. It was spring 1920 and Chéri was halfway through its serialisation in La Vie parisienne when Colette first met her stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenal. He had stayed with his mother since the divorce and now Claire Boas, former Baroness de Jouvenal had sent him to Colette as a bouc émissaire, part way between a messenger boy and a scapegoat. Claire was involved in political charity work and found the aristocratic title that belonged to her old marriage useful in opening doors. She wanted Colette’s permission to carry on using it. Colette had known for a while this request might be forthcoming and was in no mind to accede to it. There had been an embarrassing incident in Rome a while back, when Colette checked into a hotel only to find herself regarded with deep suspicion and refused a room. It turned out that Claire had recently stayed there, using her old title as if the divorce had never happened. This rankled no end, and Colette’s nature was not a forgiving one.
In fact, young Bertrand, a mere 16 and studying for his baccalaureat, had heard such tales of his stepmother’s formidable temperament that he was terrified of meeting her. He admitted that when she walked in the room, ‘Colette’s natural aura was extraordinarily imposing.’ But their exchange was more than encouraging: ‘I do believe I surrendered to that protective influence that Colette promised me with her first glance,’ he wrote, although he wrote it many years in retrospect. Still, his mission was a resounding success. Claire would get Colette’s permission, Colette would get a new disciple, and Bertrand would get a great deal more than he bargained for.
In the intervening years since the long and acrimonious divorce from Willy, Colette had grown up a great deal, and gained in gravitas. Some of it was literal – she had grown stout – some of it was metaphorical – she had grown fierce. She had married again in 1912 and Henry de Jouvenal was a kind of upmarket version of Willy, better connected, better financed, better looking. He was one of the editors of the popular newspaper, Le Matin, and soon Colette was engaged to write a story a week, and then theatre reviews, too, in a grander version of the old writing factory. The same subversive streak that had attracted her so in her first husband was also apparent. ‘What he liked about journalism,’ wrote his old friend, Anatole de Monzie, ‘was the daily opportunity to squander his nobility.’ More problematically, he was another irredeemable womaniser, but of a far more focussed and successful type than Willy. Jouvenal chased his women down with dedicated courtship, one after another. Colette was soon left behind in his wake, and the relationship would probably have fizzled out, had it not been for two surprise factors: Colette’s unexpected pregnancy, and the advent of the First World War, which took Jouvenal into battle and out of temptation for a while. But the war had long been over when Colette met his son, Bertrand, and Henry’s interest in her was waning once again. One of their friends, Paul Léautaud described in his journal how ‘He still has great admiration for her writing, but the passion is spent, and he doesn’t hesitate to distract himself elsewhere.’ As for Colette, ‘she emanates love, passion, sensuality, sexual power, along with a depth of sadness.’
Henry persuaded his ex-wife, Claire, to allow Bertrand to join their summer holiday party at Colette’s seaside villa at Rozven in Brittany, under the guise of wanting his son ‘by his side’. It was par for the course that he lasted a mere few days before returning to Paris and his mistress, abandoning Bertrand to a group of women: Colette, two of her closest friends who were staying at the villa, and his six-year-old half-sister. Colette decided to take the young man in hand. She gave him books to read, taught him to swim, began to fatten him up on lobster and took him shopping with her in the flea markets around St Malo. Bertrand was grateful, captivated, emotionally aroused and not a little anxious. For good reason, it transpired, as Colette determined to finish his education. Bertrand was aware of her whispering in corners with her friends and casting glances his way, and one evening she asked him which of the three women at the villa he preferred. Bertrand did not understand what she meant, but Colette had no difficulty in being blunt. ‘It’s time for you to become a man,’ she told him.
Bertrand knew about Chéri – it was one of the books Colette had given him to read, and it may have looked like a training manual. Years later, in his memoirs he would suggest that ‘Perhaps she wanted to live what she had written.’ On that evening in Brittany, Colette packed him off with Germaine Beaumont, the youngest of the women there. When he emerged from Germaine’s room in the middle of the night, miserable and unsatisfied, he found his stepmother waiting for him on the landing. It took ‘all of her skills to complete his initiation,’ but Colette was ‘demanding, voracious, expert and rewarding.’ By the end of the summer he was deeply in love with her.
What could a sixteen-year-old boy want with a 47-year-old, overweight, domineering authoress? When Willy clapped eyes on her several years after their separation, he wrote gleefully to a friend ‘She’s got – and it must dismay her but it delights me – an ass like the rear of a stagecoach…which doesn’t tempt me to take a ride in it.’ But Colette still had a powerful personality and a great deal of sex appeal. Plus there was more of Chéri about Bertrand than may have been obvious at first. His friends would describe him as a ‘faux faible’, a false weakling, who made out that he was pushed around by others but who never really did anything he didn’t want to. Like his literary counterpart, Bertrand had had a disrupted and neglected childhood, with a brilliant father who paid him scant attention and a vain, self-centred mother who had thrown him at Colette when it suited her. Whether there lurked a desire in his actions to revenge his parents or gain their attention, there was a lack of nurturing care in his life, and Colette brought her own frustrated passion to that task, even if it manifested itself in her weighing him every day and taking his temperature morning and night.
Colette’s motivation was more ambivalent. Despite Henry’s infidelity and the fact they spent so little time together, she was still very much in love with him. That autumn, she wrote in a letter ‘If only you knew how much I love you and how much I’ve suffered from the fear of losing you this year… You know my desire. I have only one. It has your face and your form and the term of my life.’ The tender entreaty failed to bring Henry home more regularly, and Colette must have been deeply wounded in her vanity, memories of the dreadful years with Willy mingling with anxiety about her fading beauty. She had been preparing herself mentally for middle-age for many years. ‘Don’t cry,’ she had written in one of her earlier collections of short stories, ‘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.’ At the time she had been 36. In January of 1921, aged 48, she submitted to the crude procedure of a face-lift and the harsh treatment of a perm, not yet willing to accept the departure from youth. Bertrand must have been a welcome ego boost and a chance for Colette to assuage her notorious jealousy over Henry’s lovers. But it must also have made her even more alarmed at the prospect of ageing, and of losing the husband she really loved.
When his mother, Claire, picked him up after the holiday she was aware that something had happened and that the boy had been ‘corrupted’. It seems unlikely she guessed the whole story, but she was suitably horrified and felt convinced Colette was a bad influence. For the next few years she and Colette would wage a subterranean war over the boy, using whatever temptations were at their disposal. Claire would urge Henry to find work experience for Bertrand, and Henry, changing career into politics and elected that year to the Senate, would be happy to oblige. Bertrand would be sent on internships across Europe, out of harm’s way. Colette, meanwhile, would tempt him back to Brittany as many summers as she could; she would take him on a two-week trip to Algeria with her, and as they became bolder in their affair, she would see him whenever he was in Paris. When his parents arranged for him to move to Prague for work, Colette put her foot down and told Henry that the boy was not going. In the ensuing row, the truth of her relationship to Bertrand emerged.
The crisis did not bring out the best in any of the main players. Despite being in the middle of a heavy affair with a woman to whom he had already promised marriage, Henry acted like the injured party and wanted a divorce. Bertrand, horrified by his own defiance, nevertheless moved in with Colette. ‘I was so accustomed to living in Colette’s shadow,’ wrote the faux faible, ‘that I couldn’t detach myself from her.’ And Colette wrote a dreadfully disingenuous letter to her friend Germaine Beaumont (to whom she had first offered Bertrand for his sexual initiation), saying, ‘If one must be punished for loving, for loving too simply and too diversely at the same time, I will be thus punished. Nothing remains to me except to be someone who has never acted in her own best interest, and who has never known a greedy passion except one: to cherish.’
Claire, meanwhile, was biding her time. She may well have realised that the situation was too volatile to stay the same, and that she and Henry controlled access to the things Bertrand really wanted for his future. In the end, Bertrand did go to Prague, and Colette was furious. When Henry’s brother died suddenly and Bertrand was called home for the funeral, he found he had been set up with a beautiful young girl, while Colette was not invited to attend. It was the beginning of the end for them. Claire persisted in setting Bertrand up, and Henry sent him all over Europe, and as far away as the States. Eventually he acquiesced to marriage with a young heiress Claire had found. The wedding was set for December 1924.
Colette was still seeing him, in an uncanny repetition of Chéri, but she knew the situation was desperate for her. Unlike Léa, she did not wave her youthful lover goodbye with a fond blessing. When he called to see her on the day of his engagement party, she asked him to stay. When he left, she sent a piece of paper fluttering down to him as he was walking away. On it was written ‘I love you’, the first time she had ever said the words. Bertrand went back up to her.
But because life is messy, unlike stories, this was not a happy ending, nor even a tidy and significant unhappy one. Claire persisted some more and another marriage was arranged for Bertrand. And Colette tried all over again, inveigling Bertrand down to the South of France and inviting him to spend one last night with her. At the beginning of that night, Colette asked Bertrand if he was ready to commit to living with her once more, and he said he was. But by morning, they had agreed it was impossible. This time, it really was the end. Colette had faithfully followed in the footsteps of her heroine, Léa, in that she had taken a young innocent boy and made him into a pampered, cosseted man. And now he had left her for marriage and a bright career, whilst she was alone and alienated from Henry and his family, with only the prospect of old age ahead of her. The end of this turbulent period in her life left Colette suffering more acutely than she had ever done before. The question was: what would she do now?
The Loving Mother
If Colette wrote about lovers as though they were mother and child, and then acted out that exact relation in her own life, it was because she had been profoundly marked by her own relationship to her mother, Sido. Sidonie Landoy Colette had been in her younger days the Madame Bovary of her village. She had been married off by her brothers to a drunken brute of a man, Jules Robineau-Duclos, because they knew he had a considerable fortune but were in ignorance of his character. Sidonie had been brought up in the enlightened, liberal atmosphere of Brussels and found rural France, and a rural husband, hard to take. ‘I came into the world three hundred years too early,’ she declared, ‘and I’m not understood here, not even by my children.’ Two of those children were born to Robineau, the next was most likely the product of an adulterous liaison with a soldier recently retired to the area, Captain Colette. Sido and Captain Colette turned a blind eye while Robineau drank himself to death, and then they married. Colette was the child born to them in respectable matrimony.
The marriage was happy; indeed, the Captain was so passionately obsessed with his wife that he had very little time or interest to spare for his children. But he was the sort of man who made a hash of everything he did. ‘Everything you touch shrinks,’ Sido reproached him, and nothing shrunk more than her inheritance from her first marriage. There may well have been debts they needed to pay off after Robineau’s death, but then the estate was mismanaged, and crippling loans taken out. While Colette grew up, the money was whittled away until they were poor.
Sido had always felt herself to be superior to her circumstances and nothing changed now. She tried to install in her children her unflinching sense of self-worth, her unconventional philosophy and her pride. As a mother she was a tough disciplinarian. She disapproved of cuddling as much as she disapproved of displays of temper, and was obsessed with cleanliness and continence in her children. She experienced ugliness as a kind of moral fault, and would take great pride in Colette’s strength and beauty. And whilst this sounds almost admirable, there was something excessive and intrusive and possessive about her mothering that would damage all four of her children. Their bodies were her bodies, and out of this confusion, coloured by her fierce maternal pride, grew the insistence on their happiness at the expense of their true feelings. Later, Colette would write that the greatest compliment her family paid one another was to say that they ‘looked happy’. Colette had an early initiation into the joys and the perils of the false self, the façade of dissimulation that kept other people away from her tender places. She would be obliged to put it to good use with both Willy and Henry de Jouvenal, when perhaps it might have been much better for her to say how she really felt.
In any case, Colette came away from her childhood with an understanding of love fixed in her mind and her heart; one that knew there was only dominance or submission when it came to relationships. With Willy she was the child bride, in actuality at first, given the big age difference between them. But Willy was not the sort of man to play mothering games. Their unhappy marriage might have taught Colette a different approach, but events suggest otherwise. When the relationship broke down, Colette moved onto an alternative protector, an aristocratic lesbian, the Marquise de Belboeuf, or Missy as she was known. Once again there was a big age gap, and this time Colette was able to play the child to her heart’s content; Missy welcomed it. Plus, this relation was reinforced by her mother, whose letters persistently imposed on her daughter an image forged in childhood that Colette was more than half in love with. ‘Really, Missy is just too good to take care of you like that. She makes the distance that separates us less painful for me,’ Sido wrote. ‘You’re so used to being spoiled that I wonder what would become of you if it ceased.’ She was wholly accepting of the unorthodox relationship, partly because she loved her daughter unreservedly, but partly also because it was a situation that reproduced the mother-child dyad that she so validated. Almost palpable in her letters is the warm relief that Colette has chosen another mother, for it allows her to sneak into the relationship imaginatively, and see herself as a key player within it.
From 1906, after the split with Willy, Colette had chosen herself an alternative career. Writing, then as now, didn’t really pay enough and Colette would worry about her finances for the rest of her life. Although the Claudine novels had made a fortune, Willy had proved more than capable of losing one, so Colette needed a ready income and quickly. She chose to go on the stage, initially as a mime dancer for the music hall; as she grew in confidence she would take on more speaking roles. She could capitalise on her celebrity status, and Willy did what he could to ensure a few good reviews. She needed them, for the critics were far more ruthless with her acting abilities than her authorial ones. One review stated with merciless wit ‘If Colette already had her spiritual wings, she did not succeed in attaching them to her body on the stage.’ Another critic from Le Temps wrote that ‘her bearing is stiff, her face inexpressive.’ To which her mother, equally unconvinced by her daughter’s new career replied, ‘But isn’t that just what I told you when you announced that you wanted to be an actress?’ For all Sido’s narcissistic enjoyment of her daughter’s talent, and her somewhat hopeful insistence that ‘we resemble each other in many ways, just as we look alike’, she never failed to speak as she found. Writing was the path she felt Colette should commit to, and she never lost the opportunity to say so. ‘You really don’t have enough time to devote yourself to a full-scale work and that is a real pity, but I don’t despair, provided that you don’t let yourself be taken over by the theatre,’ she cautioned, as if it were her place to decide such things.
Colette’s response to all this was to up the ante. She persuaded Missy to take part in a pantomime with her at Le Moulin Rouge, an event that ended in a riot. It was hard to know whether the spectacle of a member of the aristocracy debasing herself on the common stage, or the spectacle of self-proclaimed lesbians kissing was the greater incendiary factor. Either way, Willy and his new girlfriend, Meg, ended up in a fight with some of the audience and the police were called to break it up. This should all have gone according to the laws of Willy, which proposed that the greater the ignominy, the greater the commercial success. But in this instance Willy fell foul of his own reasoning, as he lost his well-paid journalist’s job because of the scandal. From this moment on, his divorce with Colette would become increasingly acrimonious. Colette bounced back and toured France with a new diversion; another pantomime entitled La Chair (The Flesh). The heralded flesh was naturally Colette’s, for at the climactic moment in the action, her co-star ripped her dress from top to bottom, displaying her naked breast. Unsurprisingly, it did well, well enough to pay the rent for the next four years in any case.
None of this was respectable, not living with a woman, not appearing half naked on stage, not the fuss Willy kicked up over the divorce. But Colette appeared impervious to it all. Harder to withstand was her mother’s anxiety. ‘You don’t write to me. I can’t go on like this… Do you think all these stories leave me cold?’ Sido reproached. It was a common refrain. ‘You hide so much from me, so many things in your life, even the big events’. ‘I wanted so much to know what you are doing, what you’re thinking, but that’s more difficult, because you’ve always hidden all your pains and troubles from me. I don’t worry the less because of it; on the contrary.’ If Colette kept some troubles to herself, it seems quite understandable, given what a morbid worrier her mother was, continually fretting over the small discomforts of the travelling actor’s life, and every cold, boil or toothache that Colette suffered. She was a loving mother, a supportive one, sometimes witty and insightful, but she was an emotional blackmailer, too. ‘If I’m not going to see you any more, I’d just as soon die,’ she wrote, and on another occasion, ‘my repose depends on yours, as my health does.’
Sido’s health was worsening, and as she grew older and sadder and nearer to death, her daughter’s absence pained her all the more. Colette wrote regularly, but she kept her distance. It was true that she was extremely busy, touring France with her act, and managing to keep up her writing as well. It couldn’t have been easy to find the time to visit her mother, although it was not impossible, either. Not that her mother was making it look so very inviting. ‘You couldn’t have received the letter in which I told you how sick I am… or else I don’t know you any more’ she wrote, accusingly. But there was another reason by now why she was unavailable; she had met Henry de Jouvenal and the beginning of their affair was passionate. Tempestuous, too, as they nearly split up and it was in the middle of their reconciliation that Colette felt she really had to get home. She went to Châtillon ‘where my sainted mother is unbearable – not that she is more seriously ill, but she is having a crisis of “I want my daughter”.’ Colette misjudged the situation. She did visit, and her mother died a few weeks later. A lifelong hater of funerals, Colette refused to attend, but she honoured her mother in a very different way, by falling pregnant. Nine months after her mother’s death, her own daughter was born.
It seems likely that Colette, the adored child, must have become sick to death of being an adored child. The years spent in Missy’s company, where she referred to herself as ‘your insufferable fake child’, and longed ‘to take refuge in Missy, to be bawled out, cared for and warmed’, seemed to fizzle away into boredom. Colette felt guilty, but she couldn’t help but chase more exciting and unreliable lovers. To have mothers in stereo longing for her company, Missy on one hand, and her own mother on the other, must have felt oppressive and draining. In Colette’s concept of relationships, as she lived them and as she wrote about them, there were two roles: master and slave, mother and child. If she could no longer face being the child, then there was only one other way to go. But Colette as a real mother was appalling. Much as it was common practice for well-off families to hire nannies for their children, and much as the advent of the first world war meant it was safer for her daughter to stay in Brittany rather than Paris, Colette spent a negligible amount of time with her own child, often allowing six months to elapse between visits. The reality of motherhood was something she saw as a dreadful imposition and a threat to her artistic talents. She wrote with some pride that ‘My strain of virility saved me from the danger which threatens the writer, elevated to a happy and tender parent, of becoming a mediocre author…’ Not that she was ever a tender parent; she was a fierce disciplinarian, just as her own mother had been.
The writerly part of her came alive to a different kind of parenting, the kind that she gave to Bertrand de Jouvenal, the kind that she created in the story of Léa de Lonval and her Chéri. But that came to a natural end, too. There is only so much time that a woman can play the older woman lover, and only so many opportunities for it. So it was no wonder that Colette was in a particularly dark place after exhausting all these relationships. Colette had given her all to love, and yet ‘Love – so I thought – had already served me ill in monopolizing me for twenty years in its exclusive servitude’, she wrote. But for all the despair she was experiencing, Colette was also thinking things through with her creative intelligence, and recognising that it was certain kinds of love, the violent passion, the powerfully erotic dominance, the clinging, demanding dependency, that were inherently self-destructive.
We know she was thinking about it, because at this point in her life she sat down and wrote a novel with the kind of focus and determination she had not expended since the early Claudine works, and that novel took as its theme the destructive nature of those master-slave love relationships. She called this novel La Fin de Chéri, or The Last of Chéri. ‘It won’t be a fun sort of book, maybe no one will like it,’ she wrote to a friend, ‘but I promise you it won’t be emotionless.’ The novel picks up six years after the end of Chéri, during which time the First World War has intervened to change the characters’ lives. Chéri has fought and survived with a distinguished record, but it is peacetime he is finding difficult. The world has altered; his wife and his mother are now busy running a hospital, his friend, Desmond, has a nightclub. All around him are displaying enterprise and initiative, but Chéri is still his indolent self, with no plans in his head except for pleasure. Only there is no one to tend to his needs anymore, no one with whom he can while away the hours over elaborate lunches and dinners. The old days have gone, and Chéri cannot adapt to the new. Realising that his sense of dislocation is heightened by the absence of Léa, Chéri tracks her down. He lives to regret this: Léa has let herself go and is a fat, sexless old woman, perfectly content with her lot. She teases Chéri and discomforts him, but there are just enough flaws in her performance to make the reader feel that she is not entirely unmoved by their hapless reunion. Chéri, desperate now, and unable to master his own distress, falls in with an old friend of Léa’s whom he meets in a bar. Together they relive the good old days together, and the Pal takes him home to her apartment whose walls are decorated with photographs of Léa in her prime. It is here, bleakly accepting that the world has nothing of value to offer him, and he has no place within it, that Chéri shoots himself.
It’s possible to read this book as Colette’s revenge on Bertrand de Jouvenal, a novelistic prediction for his future, in which he would never recover from the loss of Colette (in fact he recovered entirely). But such a petty motivation would make for a petty book, and The Last of Chéri is a far more devastating novel than that. Instead we may see how this particular situation contains a universal truth; that excessively-loved children never get over their mothers, and that the child-adult has no place in the modern world. Growing up, leaving childhood and tender, protective mothers behind, is an essential part of the life story, no matter how difficult that separation may be to both concerned. Colette wrote this mother-child love story as a tragedy, but it was also a bullet she was finally learning how to dodge, a passionate form of attachment that she could write about from the perspective of its destructiveness, now that it no longer held any hypnotic attraction for her.
Perhaps Colette was also offering herself another truth; that a woman who had traded on her beauty and vitality, who had lived for love, could cross the divide into old age without losing her appetite for life. Since the early bad days with Willy, Colette had aligned herself with a belief in her capacity for survival. Her worldview was Darwinian; it was the fittest that survived – and if that meant mental and imaginative agility as much as physical sturdiness, she would have those resources at her command. Across Colette’s works there is a belief that women have more ready access to the forces of reinvention than men do. They are more pragmatic, more skilled, more determined, more flexible. By creating her women protagonists and their chameleon grace, Colette put herself in touch with that quality; at the same time, she could use the space of writing to explore dead ends and disasters that she did not want to live through herself. Whenever she put herself into a story, Colette gave herself a better deal than life had done; she exploited her perspective as narrator to gain an understanding of what seemed chaotic and confused in reality, and she moulded events with the shapeliness of fiction into more pleasing patterns. She could rarely act with as much dignity and restraint as her protagonists, but the way they behaved showed her how things ought to be.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that Colette did not sink into a Léa-like old age, content to be alone. She married one last time, to another younger man, Maurice Goudeket, with whom she lived happily until the end of her life. Whilst the Colette of her books was always wise, Colette in the real world was a determined opportunist. Life and fiction, always so closely related for her, were nevertheless not the same thing. Although wisdom might have cautioned an elegant renunciation for mature women from the messiness of passion, Colette was happy to pay wisdom no heed. She had teetered on the brink of abandoning her desire for love, sickened by the betrayals she had been obliged to endure, but in the end, she let Léa carry out that solution for her. The power of reinvention that Colette believed in so firmly was also the recognition that life keeps giving a person the opportunities to get things right, even when – perhaps especially when – it looks as if they are getting things horribly wrong. Fiction, for Colette, could be healing and transformative. But living, the greedy desire she had always had for life in the raw, for devastating experience, for all pleasures and sorrows, was a place where the possibility of different stories arose every day.
Colette never gave up wanting all the richness of meaning and sensation that experience could bring her, whether good or bad, and it was here that her life and fiction met. The underlying message of all her novels is: make the very best of what you’ve got, live with all your senses engaged, let nothing pass you by. At 79, trying for the first time to keep a diary, she managed only one, heartfelt entry:
‘I should indeed like:
1) To begin again…
2) To begin again…
3) To begin again…’