Colette’s Class

In response to:

Earth Mother of the Demi-Monde from the June 9, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

John Weightman’s annoyingly condescending review of the recent Colette books [NYR, June 9] deserves correction on one point: Colette did not have a “lower-middle-class” childhood. Her father was an ex-captain of a crack regiment, trained at Saint-Cyr; her mother was the heiress to a manor-farm of some size; her half-brother was a doctor. All of them were educated people. A Reader in French ought to know the difference between a merely provincial background and a lower-middle-class one.

Eleanor Perenyi

Stonington, Connecticut

John Weightman replies:

Miss Perenyi seems to take “lower-middle-class” as a term of abuse, meaning, amongst other things, uneducated. This is not at all the sense I think it has. The lower-middle class is, after all, the one to which the majority of French teachers and intellectuals belong. I would agree that the word is in some ways unsatisfactory, but I wanted to indicate that Colette was, on the one hand, neither a peasant nor an off-shoot of the workingclass (as Péguy was), nor, on the other definitely middle-class (like Gide, Mauriac, or Proust). From her own accounts of her childhood, it is obvious that she had a lower-middle-class standard of living. Her parents were rather unusual and perhaps one could consider them as “downstarts,” in Bernard Shaw’s sense. This does not alter the fact that her own early life was spent in the provincial lower-middle class.

If I sounded condescending towards Colette, whom I admire very much, this was through a failure of expression on my part. My aim, comically enough, was to define what I think is her genuine quality for the benefit of readers who might be put off by the gush.