Read an Excerpt
THE DEATH OF A MOTHER
Sido's health was failing. She was seventy-six years old in 1911; she had had a double mastectomy and she was afraid to die without seeing Colette. She felt that her daughter was so taken up by her life that she no longer needed Sido's advice, her support, that she had nothing to share with her anymore. She felt betrayed. For over a year in almost every letter she begged Colette to come to Châtillon. Colette would promise to come, then change her plans. Sido felt that someone was upsetting Colette's life. For the first time she did not get straight answers to her direct questions. Delays were followed by excuses and promises were not kept. Sido showed some impatience: "So you are putting me off until April and then only to grant me a few hours!" What was happening to Missy? Quoting Voltaire, she suggested that she and Missy should "cultivate their garden," because that was the only way to live in peace.
April went by and Colette did not come. Sido asked ironically if she had postponed her visit indefinitely. She waited patiently through May, convincing herself that a letter announcing Colette's visit was on the way. It never came. In June she hoped to receive a letter announcing Colette's arrival. She did not come. Sido was now so deeply hurt that she asked her if she had decided never to come to Châtillon again. She wrote that she was very sad and that if she were to see Colette no more, she would rather die. Colette promised to come. By June she had not yet appeared; she was in Geneva with whom? Sido was soanxious to know what was going on that she would sit in her small drawing room all morning, watching for the postman from the window. She received a postcard; Colette was not coming. The news upset her so much that she went into her garden and pulled up weeds to stop thinking exercise keeps the imagination from spinning. She had learned at last why her daughter had no time for her, for Colette had written about her sudden and absorbing love affair with Henry de Jouvenel and sent her a letter from Jouvenel himself. "He writes penetrating letters, if I may say so" commented Sido, but what about Auguste Hériot? Was he in Geneva also?
Now that the secret was out, she hoped that Colette would show up. Sido was relieved to know the truth, and decided to go to Paris since her daughter would not come to her. She stayed three days. Colette was taken aback to see her so thin, so frail, and so cheerful, for her cheerfulness seemed feverish. Sido bought some pansy seeds to plant back in Châtillon; she went to the Opéra Comique and visited a special collection at the Louvre Museum. She had brought a gift for her daughter, rosebuds wrapped in a damp cloth. She eagerly asked about Colette's work what was she writing? What was she planning to write? Colette took Sido to the station and put her on the train, which returned her to Achille less than two hours later. After leaving her, Colette felt the need to sit at her table, pick up her pen, and resume her work as a writer.
On July 22, Sido begged Colette to come for a few days, even a few hours. She needed to have a serious discussion with her because she felt things were falling apart. What about Missy? What about her beautiful manor, Rozven? What about Hériot, so rich, so devoted? So Colette was going to the Corrèze with Jouvenel? As she wrote these words Sido felt a sudden rush of fever, "God, how hot the weather is! Come my treasure, come, as soon as you can!" Her anguish became pathetic. What could prevent Colette from coming? From writing to her? She feared an accident or sickness. She complained about a strange sadness that had seized her the previous morning and would not let go. Was it a foreboding of something unfortunate? She was so worried that she asked Colette to answer by telegram, reminding her of her promise to come at the end of July.
The last day of July came and went. This time Sido unloaded her heart. Why did Colette not stay at Rozven? Rozven where all was so nice, so secure, so supportive? And Sido deplored, "You have given yourself a master!! Poor thing." A master! All her life Sido had remained as free as she could; her first husband rich, sick, and drunk was anything but a master; Captain Colette, who loved her so passionately and who depended on her, was never her master. Now Colette, who had made a life of her own, had chosen to give up the privilege Sido cherished above all, her freedom. As if that were not enough to upset her, Sido had learned piece by piece that Jouvenel had left an angry mistress, Countess de Comminges, who was seeking revenge. She urged Colette to tell her if she had received death threats. But even that did not seem enough to explain Colette's stubborn absence and her ambiguous letters. Was she pregnant or sick? Sido was ready for all the turmoil of Colette's life; however, she could not say that all this left her indifferent.
In August Colette countered by sending Sido a picture of the medieval castle belonging to the Jouvenels, counting on the impressive turrets to charm her mother. Sido agreed that it looked like a castle from a fairy tale, but could not help asking if Rozven, which had been described as such a dream house by Colette, had now been discarded as a useless toy.
In an attempt to win Sido's approval, Colette sent her Jouvenel's photograph. Sido remarked that he looked extremely healthy and added nastily that she hoped the journalists of Le Matin were not going to ask Colette to extend the same magic cure to them. Sido was not won over; she was afraid that Colette would be the loser, and repeated her pathetic request: when would Colette come for a while? She wondered how one could care so much for sensuous delights. She remembered a time when she, too, was fatally attracted to a man but, quoting Molière, she bantered: "The sinfulness was wiped out by marriage" This was precisely Colette's secret goal. She wanted the aristocratic title and the standing it would give her in society. She wanted to be baronne de Jouvenel, comtesse des Ursins. She had been shunned by some of Missy's titled friends for whom she was only a courtesan and had felt humiliated.
Colette knew Sido's weakness for chess. Jouvenel was eager to challenge her to a game of chess. Finally Sido expressed some interest. In November Colette asked her mother if she would come to Rue Cortambert; Sido told her to set a date as soon as possible before the weather turned too cold. She discreetly mentioned that she was old. The same stubborn question came up like a ticking clock, "When are you going to tell me when I can come to see you? When?" Colette was impervious to her mother's ill health. At last she asked Sido to take the train and come to Paris. Very gently, Sido told her that she had not left her room for two weeks and would not be able to travel all winter.
Jouvenel sent her a charming letter asking her to call him by his nickname Sidi, so Sido wrote to "Sidi" that Willy, who preceded him, had been a terrible fool, since he had been unable to keep Colette wonderful Colette, who could speak when she was eight months old, could sing when she was one year old. And again the pathetic request came at the end of the letter intended for Jouvenel, but mailed to Colette, "Do at least write!"
A few days later Sido received a letter; before opening it she felt tears on her cheeks. She knew what she was about to read; Colette was not coming. And so it was. This time Colette had bronchitis. It was a threadbare excuse. Colette was totally engulfed in her incandescent love affair with Jouvenel. Sido could only answer that she should stay in bed, insisting that show business was too much for her and so was her "husband," who was too young for her.
After Christmas Sido complained that Colette was ignoring her illness and her fits of suffocation, so terrible that sometimes she would rather die than suffer another. She knew Colette would not come, since she had signed a contract to dance in Brussels. Achille was upset by his sister's attitude; he wrote that their mother could live provided she was spared emotional turmoil. He insisted, "Do come, you may bring your dog." On January 12, 1912, Sido was hopeful: "At last! You are coming! I will see you!" but it was March before Colette came for a few hours and left in a hurry. An unexpected parcel arrived for Sido, a framed picture; it was an enlarged photograph of Colette at age five, sitting gingerly on a chair. Sido had given the photograph to Willy many years ago. Willy, who had learned that Sido was seriously ill, had it mailed by the photographer without a word. It was an anonymous, discreet gift. Sido was touched.
At the end of August Colette came for a day and two nights, which she spent writing letters to friends; she told Christiane Mendelys that Jouvenel thought forty-eight hours at Châtillon was plenty, which made her exceedingly happy because it proved he needed her. As for Sido, Colette wrote that "she could last," and that was all she needed from her mother. To Wague she wrote that her "dear saintly mother" was "insufferable," that she was not gravely ill, but having a fit of "I want to see my daughter"; again she rejoiced that Jouvenel had granted her only a three-day leave. It occurred to her that Wague might disapprove. "I don't want you to look at me with your penetrating, critical, and disillusioned gaze ... I know better than you do that I am a fbitch."
Sido had urged her once again to marry Hériot, since with him she would be financially free to write great works; if not, her talent would be squandered on journalistic endeavours. On the twenty-fifth of September Sido died in Châtillon. Two days later Colette wrote to Léon Hamel that her mother had died and she was not going to the funeral. She would tell no one and wear no mourning. The only thing that annoyed her was that she could no longer write to Sido and felt sorry for Achille. She went on playing in L'Oiseau de Nuit and living as usual. Colette would write in My Mother's House (La Maison de Claudine) that, years before she died, Sido had forbidden her to wear mourning because she liked Gabri only in pink or in certain shades of blue.
On October 7 Colette and Jouvenel drove to Castel Novel, having been formally invited by Madame de Jouvenel, Henry's mother, whom he already called "your mother-in-law." Mamita was not an ordinary woman; she smoked cigars and drank brandy by the full glass. After a flamboyant love affair with Monsieur Chevandier de Valdrome and an illegitimate daughter, she came back with her daughter to resume her life with Baron Léon de Jouvenel. Edith was in her teens when Colette visited that autumn.
Henry de Jouvenel's younger brother Robert, a political journalist, was putting the final touches to his book La République des Camarades. The Republic's heroic times were over; now politics were governed by special-interest groups, which he summed up in a popular phrase: "Give me your rhubarb, I'll give you my senna." His analysis of the changing tides of French politics was widely read. Colette felt a true friendship for Robert; she admired this man, who was said to be even more brilliant than his flashy brother. He had just bought "an old ruin of a castle, Curemonte, which needed one hundred thousand francs for basic repair." It was a happy time for Colette. She took long walks in the early morning while Mamita was playing tennis and Henry and Robert were supervising the farm.
October 22 Colette and Jouvenel drove back to Paris. When she boarded the train on October 28 to go to Geneva, where she was to perform L'Oiseau de Nuit at the Apollo theater with Wague and Kerf, Colette knew she was pregnant. In a letter to Hamel dated October 30 she told him she was curtailing a visit to "an incandescent Swiss woman" giving "the child as an excuse." Instead of the visit, she boarded The Bolivar to tour the lake in "leisurely" fashion, which for Colette meant writing letters and constructing scenes in her mind for her next novel, Recaptured (L'Entrave). Georges Wague recalled that after lunch on board, Colette fell asleep. A few days later, she wrote the most vivid account of the trip, "full of funny and very precise details that she had caught ... without even looking." The boat trip on Lake Leman is part of Recaptured.
During that week in Switzerland Colette corrected the proofs of Prou, Poucette et Quelques Autres brought by Paul Barlet, who came for twenty-four hours. She agreed to give a private show for Hamel's friend, Madame Dangenne, who was to be charged a stiff five hundred francs plus the orchestra fee.
A week before Christmas, at 4:30 in the afternoon, Colette and Jouvenel were married in Paris. Hamel was Colette's witness. For a week they celebrated the event: "We bounced from lunch to dinner, from dinner to supper, to a Christmas party which lasted until 7 AM and topped a week of excesses." In a few days the new baronne de Jouvenel would turn forty.
Table of Contents
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
(This is a two volume biography but I'm going to review them together.) Colette was one of my heroines when I was in my 20s. I read The Vagabond, her autobiographical novel of music hall life, and identified with it, which was mostly wishful thinking. I even started an embroidery of a quote from it: "Two habits have taught me to hold back my tears: that of concealing my thoughts, and of darkening my lashes with mascara." Anybody who knows me well will laugh and laugh at the idea of me concealing my thoughts.This biography of Colette claims that it's the first to reexamine her life and clear up the facts behind the image she created of herself. It's a sea of details. In May she rented an apartment at 15 Rue Fronchy Something (now Rue de Charles De Gaulle) for 6,000 francs, but she only stayed there for three months. Then she went to Deauville for two weeks, and then returned to Paris for a week. After that she left for Tangier to stay with the Marquis de Something for six weeks. Etc., etc., etc.However, the authors don't step back to analyze much of this. Here and there, they make a statement or two, but mainly it's a ton of facts. As new people enter, they get brief biographies, which are interesting, but they feel like snapshots, not part of the whole.Colette and her brothers were raised by a mother along the principles of François Fourier, a 19th century French utopian socialist and philosopher who believed society would be improved with cooperation and sexual freedom. He advocated what we'd call polyamory. The siblings had few rules and heard their mother disparage religion and marriage. Her parents had affairs (but they don't say when Colette became aware of that and how she felt about it.) There's brief discussion of her school days, which may or may not be the basis for Claudine at School, her first novel. It's not made clear if the lesbian affairs depicted there really happened or if she invented them. She marries a Parisian critic, a friend of her brother, and moves to Paris, where she enters a sophisticated milieu of artists, actors, and writers, many of them homosexual or unconventional in different ways. She makes friends and has flirtations, and find out her husband has a mistress. She falls in love with a lesbian socialite, and has an affair with her, the first of many affairs with women.Okay, I'm naive, but since it hadn't been made clear if the Claudine stuff was autobiographical, I think it needed discussion. Was it a big deal for her to break her marriage vows? Or is this what her Fourierist upbringing prepared her for? How did she see herself - gay, bi, a married woman who just happens to have affairs with women? Transgressive? Lesbian until graduation? This is the kind of stuff I think a biography is supposed to address. They finally talk about this halfway through the second volume which seems a little late in the day. (And yes, she apparently didn't have any desire to have a conventional marriage, then or later.)So in her 60s she created an image of herself as a simple country girl who came to the big city, and was locked up by her mean old husband and forced to write the "Claudine" books, for which he took credit. They show pretty convincingly that this wasn't the way it happened, so the book succeeds on that level.She's fascinating, but after reading this biography I'm not even sure I like her any more. She comes off as an egotistical monster who did as she pleased even when it hurt people. I'll say this for her, she was true to herself.