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"Biographers generally believe that it is easy to be a 'monster.' It is even harder than being
"Everything in art is monstrous, and Madame
If anyone can qualify as an authority on monsters, it is Judith Thurman, who wrote what is generally considered the principal English-language biography of Isak Dinesen. But in taking on the subject of Colette in her biography Secrets of the Flesh, the doughty Thurman seems to have bitten off more than even she can swallow. Much as she might admire the monstre sacre-and it is impossible not to admire Colette, however instinctively one might recoil from her-Thurman just can't, in the end, quite approve of her subject. And neither will many readers. "In the prize ring of life few of us would have lasted ten rounds with Colette," John Updike once remarked, and it's the God's truth.
Thurman's biography of Colette comes hard on the heels of a two-volume treatment by two Frenchwomen, Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier. Francis and Gontier's take on Colette is rather different from Thurman's. Without making her out to be less of the bitch she was, they seem to like her in spite of it all; their tone is on balance one of amusement rather than outrage. Their study is marred and handicapped, though, by the central thesis that clearly inspired it: that Colette's mother Sidonie ("Sido") was a lifelong disciple of the philosophy of Charles Fourier, and that her Fourierist beliefs permeated her daughter's being to the point that "it is impossible to understand Colette ... without an understanding of the ultraradical background of her maternal family."
The two volumes that follow, though, fail to persuade the reader that it is impossible to understand Colette without seeing her through the lens of Fourierism or connecting her with radical politics. Colette was above all a force of nature, and while her maternal family's politics might have provided her with a theoretical justification for the moral liberties she took throughout her life, one strongly suspects that she would have taken them anyway. In fact she despised theory, always defining herself as pagan sensualist rather than intellectual; as Thurman wryly observes, "there was not an ideal that was capable of carrying Colette away, or a sensation that couldn't." Late in life, when it was suggested that she produce a version of her thoughts along the lines of Pascal's Pensées, she was scornful: "I have no pensées. As a matter of fact thanks be to God, perhaps the most praiseworthy thing about me is that I have known how to write like a woman, without anything moralistic or theoretical, without promulgating."
The subject of Fourier's influence on Colette is worthy of a scholarly article or perhaps a slim volume, but as the driving force for a popular two-volume biography it begins to be merely annoying, for it makes up only a minor strand, at best, in her extraordinary story. More than the product of a time or place, Colette was a self-invention, as Francis and Gontier know very well.
Colette's first transformation occurred during World War II, when the Vichy government presented military defeat as a retribution for sins and held the corruption of urban high society responsible. Colette went from high-society corrupt darling to rustic madonna, and in spite of her own assertions that her grandfather was "a quadroon," she downplayed her African ancestry and became pure Burgundian. The stereotype of Colette as a country girl was in place.
After the war, de Gaulle stressed the grandeur of France, while André Malraux, minister of culture, stressed that the greatness of France was best reflected in the greatness of her writers. Colette became an icon. She embodied all the French values: deep country roots, love in its sensuous splendor, a taste for naughtiness, a discriminating knowledge of wine and gourmet cuisine.
They are right about everything except in contending that World War II marked her first transformation, for there had been several before that. What about her decision, as a married woman in her thirties, to go on the music hall stage, dancing in pieces that were both avant-garde and scandalously risqué, and even baring a breast in public? At that time becoming an actress was tantamount to taking up prostitution, and at the very least an act of blatant class betrayal. What about her years as a visible member of Parisian lesbos: her high-profile affairs with notorious lesbians like Georgie Raoul-Duval and Natalie Barney, and above all her long-term, almost marital liaison with Mathilde, Marquise de Morny? When in 1912 she married the haut bourgeois left-wing politician Henry de Jouvenel she began to obliterate this period of her past as best she could: Jouvenel was widely thought to be a contender for the presidency, but "could anyone," ask Francis and Gontier, "imagine Colette at the Elysée?" Her image makeover succeeded largely but not entirely, and even as late as the 1930s there were objections to her membership in the Legion of Honor: a member of the Grande Chancellerie remarked that he could remember a time "when Colette wore around her neck not the red cravate of the Legion but a choker, where one could clearly read, 'I belong to Madame de Morny.'"
In the end the self-invented Colette prevailed, with a panache one can only envy. After a youth spent flouting not only every unreasonable convention but every reasonable taboo as well, she ended her life so thoroughly rehabilitated as to become a national monument. The woman who had scorned the ways and means of feminism-suffragettes, she memorably declared, deserved the whip and the harem-became, in her old age and in the years since her death, a goddess for late-twentieth-century feminism. The passive collaborationist who had published her work in many of the most pernicious and anti-Semitic organs of the Vichy government was finally perceived as the quintessence of everything the French love best about themselves. The woman who refused to visit her dying mother and left her little daughter to be brought up by servants and friends transformed herself, as she aged, "into an image of Mother Earth.... She presented her past as the misfortune of a misguided adolescent, candid and gullible," write Francis and Gontier. "Colette's life," her longtime friend Cocteau commented, amused: "One scandal after another-then everything changes and she becomes an idol. She ends her life of music halls, beauty parlors, old lesbians in an apotheosis of respectability."
The story of Colette's early life is famous: the pastoral childhood; the innocent young girl taken from the country to Paris by her much older husband, a debauched satyr; the husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (known as Willy), locking her into a room and forcing her to write stories that he published under his own name; his infidelities; his final desertion, leaving the rejected girl to support herself as a music hall actress.
This is the tale that Colette invented and polished in the autobiographical works she wrote in middle age, Sido, My Mother's House, and My Apprenticeships. These narratives contain a series of shady half-truths, drastically edited events, and downright lies, as both biographies discussed here reveal.
Colette was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette on January 28, 1873, in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in the area known as "the poor Burgundy." She was the fourth child of her mother, Sidonie. "Sido" was the daughter of Henri Marie Landois, a provincial businessman, son of a wealthy mulatto from Martinique. As a young girl with a genteel background and good education but not much money (her father's fortunes were in constant flux), Sido was brought to Saint-Sauveur to be married off to a mentally deficient, alcoholic landowner, Jules Robineau. Robineau was far from appealing, but Sido, to whom marriage had brought money and local influence, was not dissatisfied. She was rumored to have had several lovers, the most serious of whom was a veteran of Napoleon III's wars, Jules Colette, who had lost a leg at Melignano. Colette had been awarded a sinecure as tax collector for Saint-Sauveur, and he arrived in the village as a romantic outsider. Sido's second child during her marriage to Robineau, Achille, is assumed to have been Colette's son, and eleven months after Robineau's providential death in 1865 Sido and Colette were married.
They had two more children: Leo, born in 1866, and Sidonie-Gabrielle, known as Gabri. Gabri's childhood was in many ways a privileged one. The Colettes passed for aristocracy in Saint-Sauveur, and certainly considered themselves to be of the gratin: "Sido insisted that she came from a very distinguished family and instilled in her children the belief that they were different from the common people of Saint-Sauveur," write Francis and Gontier. The Colettes sent Gabri to the local lay school, a new and progressive institution brought into being after the Third Republic broke the church's monopoly on elementary education. Claudine at School, her first novel, would quite faithfully reflect her experiences there. She received most of her education, though, at home; the Colettes were enthusiastic naturalists and amateur scientists, and as for literature and history they believed in letting the children have the run of the library, even allowing Gabri to read the scandalous Zola. ("After all," Sido said, consideringly, "maybe there are no bad books.") Gabri was clearly born with a powerful ego, and Sido reinforced her daughter's sense of exceptionalism, applauding everything she did that made her stand out from the village and its mediocre inhabitants. Gabri's school report shows that the daughter followed the mother's lead: "She is very imaginative but there is a deliberate will to be different."
Gabri's formal education ended when she was sixteen. Willy later hinted that she eloped with her music teacher, a fugue that made her hard to marry off, but her biographers have not been able to verify this allegation. In any case, it was about this time that she first met Willy, who came to the village as a guest of her brother Achille. Willy was the renegade son of France's foremost scientific publisher. The Gauthier-Villars family was part of the Parisian bourgeoisie absolue, rich, right-wing, and ultra-Catholic. Willy was a rebel by nature, louche, improvident, risk-loving; at the time he met Gabri he was about thirty and already one of the foremost journalists and critics in France.
It appears that Willy thought Gabri an appealing child but was not much interested in her. He was in love with Germaine Servat, by whom he fathered a child, Jacques; the mother died soon after the son's birth, and the grieving Willy asked the Colettes to find the child a wet nurse in their village.
Both Thurman and the Francis-Gontier team believe that it was Gabri and her family who forced the match upon a passive Willy, still laid low after Germaine's death. The brilliant and cosmopolitan Willy was definitely a catch, while for him a union with a dowerless girl, daughter of a provincial and vaguely scandalous family, amounted to a definite mésalliance. Willy's parents expressed their disapproval by reducing his inheritance.
Francis and Gontier contend that Sido and Gabri between them more or less trapped Willy. It is hard to be certain of the facts, but a letter Willy wrote to a friend at the time of his marriage displays his lukewarm attitude toward the whole enterprise: "[Y]ou say I marry without great joy. You are right. It is true. I can do nothing about it. Everyone thinks I have forgotten the wound I suffered, it is wrong. Farewell. There will be some hard times ahead."
By his own admission Willy had always been attracted to very young girls, and it is perhaps for this reason that Gahri, from the beginning of their marriage, acted the gamine so energetically. At the time of their marriage she was twenty, he thirty-three; the age gap, in fact, was more the norm than the exception, and at twenty Gabri was hardly-or should not have been-the "child" she later described. But as Thurman says, the age difference "was essential to their scenario as a couple, an exchange to which she brought the vitality and he the prestige. Sporting button boots, large muslin collars and a braid down to her knees, Gabri took pains to appear younger than she was, and Willy, as she noted, went to a good deal of trouble to appear old." His many fictional serf-portraits, the most characteristic of which is Maugis, who first appears in Claudine in Paris, contrast "Willy's high culture with his low appetites, and his sexual charisma with his unprepossessing and, as he aged, gross appearance." Two lifelong exhibitionists, at this stage they very consciously acted out the roles of Beauty and the Beast.
At the time of the marriage Willy, aside from his flourishing career as a journalist and critic, was starting to write novels. In this endeavor he pioneered a production-line technique, using a bevy of minions in a manner eerily prescient of Andy Warhol's Factory. He had a definite formula: "The storyline," say Francis and Gontier, "would be loosely naughty to appeal to a large public and the characters would be thinly veiled portraits of contemporaries; the infratext would be a social satire." Gabrielle was just one of any number of gifted ghostwriters. One of them, Ernest Lajeunesse, said that "Like everyone else, I made my literary debut by calling myself Willy." (During the Dreyfus affair the refusal of Willy, who inherited his family's conservative notions, to sign a petition urging that Dreyfus was innocent inspired his friend Pierre Veber to quip that "it's the first time Willy has refused to sign something he didn't write.")
According to Colette's version of her life, Willy casually suggested that she try writing about her schooldays, being sure not to leave out the spicy bits. She complied; when he read it, though, he decided there was nothing much there, and relegated the manuscript to a cupboard where it languished until, taking it out years later, he declared himself a fool for not having recognized its potential and hustled it off at once to an eager publisher. The reality is different. For one thing, Willy put a great deal of effort into turning his wife into a writer, as did his friends: "no woman writer," point out Francis and Gontier, "had so many talented godfathers monitoring her debut."
Excerpted from TWENTIETH-CENTURY ATTITUDES by Brooke Allen Copyright © 2003 by Brooke Allen. Excerpted by permission.
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