La Maison de Claudine

The fifteen year old Colette with her long braids…”long enough to lower a bucket down a well.”

It is believed that much of the nostalgia that a book evokes in us is due to the memory of reading it during our childhood or youth- that innocent or seemingly innocent stage of life. When I look back upon my college days, one of my cherished memories is reading Colette and especially her ‘Claudine’ books. My lackluster life is a far cry from the colorful and scandalous life the writer led. Yet I have felt a kinship with her and something about the lyrical and lush sensuousness of her writing has always resonated with me. I seized the opportunity during the pandemic to re-read a comforting Colette from my early years.

La Maison de Claudine published in 1922 and translated as My Mother’s House is not about the fictitious Claudine. Claudine doesn’t even make an appearance in the book despite the French title but as the protagonist- author duo of Claudine-Colette are virtually the same, even their names, interestingly, have become interchangeable. La Maison de Claudine is an autobiographical book about Colette’s childhood in the countryside with a warm and loving family that consisted of her mother and father, her brother, a half brother and a half sister and a host of cats and dogs who are as much a part of the family as the two legged creatures. Colette herself was Minet- Chéri or ‘Little Darling’,the youngest of the brood. 

There is no story as such. The book is a series of vignettes in the form of sentimental musings of Colette’s childhood and picturesque evocations of provincial life in Burgundy. The episodes are not in chronological order. Some are very short episodes and are barely a page or two long. Some of the chapters describe a later stage in her life when she was living in Paris with her second husband and daughter Bel- Gazou.

But most of the episodes are a charming and sensuous depiction of an idyllic childhood in a house overflowing with pets and books. Her father, the captain who lost a leg during the war, is an absent-minded and amusing man who adores his wife and flirts harmlessly with his neighbor saying that he would teach her the meaning of love for six pence and a packet of tobacco. Then there is Juliette, her recluse of a sister lost in her books and daydreams and her quirky and fun loving brothers- Achille the older brother who loves puttering with pieces of cloth and wire and glass tubes and who eventually becomes a doctor, and Leo, the amazing musician who plays by ear the tunes he hears on the street and has a morbid fascination with creating epitaphs for fun. This eccentric domestic domain is presided over imperiously by a formidable woman- – tender and kind yet resolute, strong willed and assertive- her beloved mother Sido. The entire book can be said to be a tribute to this strong and compassionate lady.

Sido is unconventional in many ways. She is far from religious and her irreverence is charming. She insists that the dog attend mass where she herself reads plays of Corneille hidden in the prayer book and dies of boredom if the sermon lasts longer than ten minutes. She retains her maid who is pregnant out of wedlock, ignoring the gossip of her neighbors. Above all she is this nurturing maternal figure, who, on hearing stories of kidnapping in the news, fears that her little Minet- Chéri will be a victim and sneaks her out of her bedroom at night and brings her close to her own bed, prompting the confused little one to shriek in the morning,” Maman! Come quick! I’ve been abducted.” When her estranged daughter Juliette goes into labor next door, she literally feels the pangs of pain as she hears her wail in agony. Even when age takes a toll on her, she is stubbornly independent and is caught chopping wood on a frosty morning in the backyard dressed only in a nightgown or moving a heavy walnut cupboard from the upper story to the ground floor.

I was amused by all the stories of Sido brushing her daughters’ long hair. Both girls had hair that nearly fell to their feet. Minet Chéri had to be woken up half an hour earlier than her schoolmates every morning just to get her hair ready for school. Her two long plaits were like horse whips. And Juliette needs four plaits – two springing from her temples and two from above the nape of her neck. It’s hilarious how Sido complains that her legs hurt just by standing to comb Juliette’s hair. Ah, braiding a daughter’s hair or getting a hair braided by a mother is one of those quotidian activities filled with pain and pleasure at the same time!  

The animals are part of the daily domestic dramas and their feline and canine adventures are as delightful as their names- Toutouque, Pati-Pati, Bâ-tou, Bellaude and Kamaralzaman aka Moumou. Their stories cracked me up although I suspect Colette may have slightly embellished the details for effect. A cat relishes the best strawberries in the garden with all the good taste of a gourmet, and a spider descends from the ceiling in the middle of the night, dangling from a thread to take sips of Sido’s hot chocolate simmering over a little oil lamp on the bedside table. Nonoche, the cat and her daughter Bijou are pregnant at the same time and deliver a day within each other. The daughter cat has a few kittens attached to her breasts but goes to suckle from her mother who has her own set to nurse. There are sad stories too. The neighbor’s cat is grieving her dead kittens and has a lot of milk and the Colette family kitten seeks her abandoning his own distraught mother whose milk dries up. You can tell that Colette has observed animals very closely like many countryside children. These minute details captured so vividly remind me of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

A qui vit aux champs et se sert de ses yeux, tout devient miraculeux et simple. Il y a beau temps que nous trouvions naturel qu’une lice nourrît un jeune chat, qu’une chatte choisît, pour dormir, le dessus de la cage où chantaient des serins verts confiants et qui, parfois, tiraient du bec, au profit de leur nid, quelques poils soyeux de la dormeuse.

“To anyone who lives in the fields and uses his or her eyes, everything becomes miraculous and simple.We had long since felt that it was quite natural that a she-hound would feed a kitten, that a female cat would choose as her sleeping place the top of a cage where trusting green canaries sang, and who sometimes with their beaks pulled out a few silky hairs from the sleeping animal to build their nests.“

Beneath this tranquil surface, there is something simmering that threatens to disturb the harmony. There is a sense of melancholy pervading the air although Colette doesn’t allude to it explicitly. There are hints of financial trouble. I was especially intrigued by the mysterious Juliette and her crowning glory- the girl who is such a bookworm that even when she is sick with typhoid and forbidden to read, she lights matchsticks at night or strains to read clandestinely with nothing but the help of moonlight. Her in laws are not satisfied with her dowry and forbid her from visiting her parents. What secret sorrows lurk behind the thick and dark veil of hair! Who will rescue this Rapunzel from her tower? And why is she referred to repeatedly as an ‘ingrate’ when she is avoiding her parents only because she is afraid of her in laws’ ire? When we write a memoir with the distance of years between us, it affects our objectivity and we tend to gloss over unpleasant or uncomfortable details. Colette doesn’t want to break the spell of those halcyon days of childhood.

We don’t want the spell to break either. Colette summons up a childhood paradise imbued with delight and magic. Yet from the beginning, we are aware of the transience of the house, the garden and the inhabitants. From the very first chapter entitled,” Where are the children?” where Sido is frantically trying to round up the children who are in the garden playing games or hiding on tree tops with their books, we know that they will be leaving the maternal Eden behind. And that eventually their mother will leave them too and they would be left wondering where their mother was just as she was anxious about them.

Maison et jardin vivent encore, je le sais, mais qu’importe si la magie les a quittés, si le secret est perdu qui ouvrait — lumière, odeurs, harmonie d’arbres et d’oiseaux, murmure de voix humaines qu’a déjà suspendu la mort — un monde dont j’ai cessé d’être digne?…

“The house and garden still exist, I know it, but of what use is that if their magic has left them and if their secret has been lost- the secret that once opened up a whole world to me- light, scents, the harmony of trees and birds, the murmur of human voices that death has already stilled…a world of which I have ceased to be worthy?”

The book describes three generations of people who even share names and nicknames. Colette’s full name has her mother’s name Sidonie in it and she took her father’s last name as her first name and passed it on to her own daughter along with her nickname Bel-Gazou. Even though homes and people vanish out of their lives, there is this continuity in retaining the names along with the memories through the generations of this particular family.

And yet, the most amazing part of the book is its universality: it transported me to my own childhood ,which, strangely, was nothing like Colette’s; it made me nostalgic for a place or state of mind that wasn’t even there or perhaps was there in fragments. I used to relate to Minet- Chéri, or the young Colette; now on re-reading the book, I wonder if I have been a mother like Sido to my children in some small way and if I have provided them with enough experiences for sweet reminiscences. All I know is that as they take wing, I am left to lament like her: ” Where are the children?”

* The translations are all mine.

 

Claudine à L’École ( Claudine at School) : Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

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The young Colette with luscious long braids!

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.

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First edition cover of Claudine à l’École with Willy credited as the author.

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!