Anonymous was often a woman, noted Virginia Woolf in her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own. In some cases she wasn’t anonymous but let a man take credit for her talent. And in one instance, the man and woman happened to be married to each other. The man was Henry- Gauthier-Villars who was more popularly known by his nom de plume “Willy” and the woman, Sidonie- Gabrielle Colette, one of the most eminent early 20thcentury French writers whose accomplishments are manifold. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. She was also a grand officer of La Légion d’honneur, she was the first female member and eventually President of the prestigious Académie Goncourt and the first woman to receive a State funeral in France. However her most important contribution was that she was a trailblazer in the world of letters and in the world at large in issues of gender identity and sexuality.
Colette’s colorful and controversial life would be great material for a novel of its own and no wonder it provided plenty of fodder for a newly released eponymous biopic depicting her career during the Belle Époque and starring the enormously talented Dominic West as Willy and the stunning Keira Knightley who simply sizzles as Colette. Willy ,the bohemian libertine, springs a marriage proposal on the young and innocent Colette and whisks her away from her sleepy village in Burgundy to the Parisian world of scintillating salons and soirées. She is upset initially by his philandering lifestyle but gradually comes to terms with it and becomes a woman of the world herself engaging in lesbian liasons sometimes with the same woman her husband sleeps with. To say the couple led an unconventional married life would indeed be an understatement!
Willy is a mediocre writer who has a factory of ghostwriters who work for him but he realizes that he has a gifted one right at home whom he can enlist for free. He encourages Colette to write a novel about her school days and she comes up with the semi-autobiographical Claudine à l’École ( Claudine at School) recounting the delightful escapades of a 15 year old school girl and providing an insight into fin de siècle life in provincial France. The book, for a story about schoolgirls, contains a few shocking scenes which can be explained by the fact that Colette wrote the book in her early twenties looking back on her school days through the lens of a slightly older woman. But here and there one can also detect Willy’s masculine influence in the writing especially in the salacious details.
The book published in 1900 under Willy’s name becomes a resounding success. Willy forces her to produce sequels going as far as locking her in her room so she can do nothing but write. Although she has the proverbial room of her own, of what use is it if you are someone’s literary slave writing in captivity?
Claudine becomes a household name and takes Paris by storm inspiring the fashion style of young women. Colette, in turn, on the urging of Willy, imitates her creation and cuts her hair and dresses like the theatrical adaptation of Claudine. Claudine becomes Colette and Colette becomes Claudine with art imitating life and life imitating art. When novel after novel becomes a sensation, Colette argues for the right to be published under her own name and eventually separates from Willy. The movie apart from exploring the early career and marriage of Colette, depicts a woman who defies societal expectations and comes into her own be it in the form of her sexual awakening or finding her literary voice and independence.
The movie made me nostalgic and I abandoned the book I was reading at the time to re-read the funny and delightful Claudine à l’École, a book I had read in my teens. I was enamored from the first line: “Je m’appelle Claudine, j’habite Montigny; j’y suis née en 1884; probablement je n’y mourrai pas.”(“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.).
Claudine is an intelligent, pretty and precocious 15 year old motherless girl who lives alone with her father in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. He is an indifferent parent who means well but is more interested in studying slugs than bothering with his growing girl. Her father has an extensive library at home and Claudine spends a lot of time reading. She also loves spending time in the woods immersed in nature, either alone or with her communion sister Clare. She is in the last year of school and hangs out with her friends Anaïs, Marie, Luce and the Joubert twins who don’t seem to share her intelligence or spirit. The girls are preparing for their board exams and looking forward to the end of the year school celebrations.
There is no dearth of words to describe our captivating Claudine -plucky, saucy, mischievous, mean, manipulative, bold, bossy, willful, outspoken, wicked, spunky, rebellious, over-confident are some of the adjectives to describe this spitfire of a gamine but yet she is adorable and you can overlook her flaws as she is comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t take herself or others too seriously. All the students and teachers think she is crazy. She talks to the teachers on an equal footing and at times is even disrespectful and impertinent. She gets away with her behavior as she is the star student who would bring prestige to their village school by doing well in the final exams. There’s no doubt that her parents would have been called to school for her bullying in today’s environment. But one can’t help admiring how self-assured she is for her age when she peremptorily declares: “…on ne peut pas contenter tout le monde et soi-même. J’aime mieux me contenter d’abord… (… you can’t please everyone and yourself as well. I prefer to please myself first of all…’’).
I first read Claudine à l’École as a teenager and enjoyed the antics of the 15 year old just as I had enjoyed reading about other school series like Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and the Twins at St. Clare’s. I didn’t quite pay attention to the homoerotic subtext. Claudine has a crush on Aimée Lanthenay, the new assistant teacher who appears to reciprocate her feelings but the school head mistress, Miss Sergent wants Aimée for herself and comes in the way of their budding relationship. Aimée drops Claudine like a hot brick and shifts her attention to her superior. Aimée’s sister Luce has a crush on Claudine but the latter tortures the poor lamb and only bribes her with candy or lets her copy from her exercise book to extract information from her. The foolish girl still dotes on her. Oh, what a tangled web we weave!
Maybe I was naïve or I didn’t think too much of how often the girls “s’embrassent’ and dismissed their kisses as chaste kisses or perhaps I considered the school girl crushes as a natural part of growing up and adolescent development when it is not uncommon to idolize someone of the same gender older to you. Now re-reading it as an adult, the homoeroticism is very apparent. In fact the text is unapologetically Sapphic. The crushes the girls have for each other or for their teachers are treated as the most natural thing on earth and are innocently portrayed without judgement, guilt or shame. Today the book would be listed under LGBQT or feminist studies genres. It was written before the time when such labels were de rigueur and it is remarkable that there is no awkwardness or euphemistic language in describing the feelings the girls have for each other. No one has to stay in the closet. To me this is such a refreshing aspect of the story and so quintessentially and unrepentantly French unlike Forster’s Maurice across the pond published a few years later which was also a coming of age school story dealing with same sex love but one fraught with tension and anxiety.
However there is a disturbing scene in the book which would be considered highly inappropriate behavior in our times. The superintendent of the school district is a lascivious creep who constantly eyes the young women of the school. He has a soft spot for Claudine and forcibly tries to kiss her when she is alone with him in a room. She manages to thwart his advances but not before he has planted a little kiss near the corner of her mouth. Although she is upset with him, she regains her composure and can’t help being flattered that he finds her pretty. And they quietly move on with their lives.
Colette beautifully captures the confusion and awkwardness of girls at the threshold of womanhood. On the one hand, they are typical schoolgirls who giggle, blush, make faces, spill ink pots, chew pencils and even taste snowballs. They play games and pinch and punch each other, have pillow fights, cheat during exams, attach ribbons on their dresses, try to get ‘curl clouds’ in their hair and flout the dress code when possible. On the other hand, they are budding women oozing with sensuality. They check out boys from their dorm windows and make sure they are being checked out in turn. They flirt with both boys and other girls and with adults. They put on coquettish airs and use their beauty to get what they want. There is a lot of sexual tension between the girls, between the teachers and between the teachers and the girls.
I can’t help getting sentimental about Colette. I spent a lot of time in my teens and twenties devouring her books. Moreover the sensual lyricism in her descriptions of both nature and human nature has inspired my own style of writing. I also found the book endearingly amusing. Whether Claudine is describing teachers making out in front of the students, or the state of her beloved cat Fanchette in heat, or boys from the neighboring school examining their lingerie display during a needlework exhibition, or Miss Sergent’s humiliation at the hands of her mother, her cynical and wry quips made me chuckle on practically every page. Claudine à l’École, the first of the Claudine novels was a nostalgic read for me. And it has left me hungry for more. And now I move on to Claudine à Paris to continue delighting in the antics of this irreverent but charming teenager!