There are writers whose essence may be suggested by a single phrase or sentence from their work—Kipling, Hemingway, Eliot for instance. Colette (1873-1934) is another such writer. “Ces plaisirs qu’on nomme, à la légère, physiques“—“these pleasures lightly called physical.” The sentence appears first in her novel of adolescent love, Le Blé en herbe (The Ripening Seed). She took it again as the original title of her study of lesbian affections, Le Pur et l’impur, which, she suggested, mistakenly, “will one day be recognized perhaps as my best book.” I say “mistakenly,” for I do not think it her best book, though it may be her most significant.
Judith Thurman, in her excellent new biography, which follows hard on the detailed two-volume French biography, Creating Colette, by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, says Le Pur et l’impur “comes closer than any other of Colette’s books, memoir or fiction, to revealing the ‘mysterious nature of [her] being’…which she guarded so fiercely, even from her intimates.” Ms. Thurman’s title, Secrets of the Flesh, acknowledges the importance of “these pleasures lightly called physical” for an understanding of her subject.
Colette, uninterested in “general ideas,” as Ms. Thurman puts it, was among the most autobiographical of writers. Yet the nature of her being was “mysterious.” That is the paradox the biographer seeks to explore, with, especially in Ms. Thurman’s case, both art and intelligence. There is a problem from the start. How far can the version of Colette offered by Colette be trusted? Were the character and history she presented to the world conscious artifacts? The problem is not unique; most writers fashion a persona they would have the world accept. Colette is, however, remarkable for the success of her self-portrait.
Here I must make a confession. A dozen or so years ago I wrote a short biography of Colette for a Penguin series, Lives of Modern Women. It lacked objectivity. I was seduced by Colette, by her prose, and also by the girl in the sailor suit and the wise old woman crippled by arthritis but working to the end from her bed (which she called her “raft”). I was captivated by the once-scandalous young woman who in her old age had become, as the English critic Raymond Mortimer wrote, “a national glory, something to enjoy as well as to be proud of, like Chambertin or the Luxembourg Gardens or the Provençal spring.” I do not regret the book, or regret having fallen in love with her, and so having come to find everything she did forgivable; but I recognize that Ms. Thurman’s biography is not only a much fuller book, but a far better one, being more critical. And the same may also be said of the biography by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier. Ms. Thurman, like Francis and Gontier, is not in love with Colette. She paints her with all her defects, some of them conspicuous and ugly.
In the authorized version of Colette’s life, everything begins with her adored and adoring mother, Sido, and a perfect childhood. “It is from Sido,” wrote the French critic (and friend) Jean Charpentier, “that Mme. Colette gets her spontaneity, her humor, and that instinct or divination which makes her understand both the animal and vegetable worlds.” Sido was Parisian by birth, but was sent to a peasant wet nurse on a farm in Burgundy. She was to spend most of her life in that province, the country of Colette’s childhood. (Colette herself would retain to the end a Burgundian accent, with the rolled “r,” not then a feature of northern French or Parisian speech.) But, as both biographies point out, in fact Sido was a northerner. Radical politics had driven her family into exile in Belgium, and she had a great love for the solid bourgeois culture of Brussels. There was an exotic strain too, provided by a quadroon grandfather from the French West Indies. “You know,” Colette wrote to the poet Francis Jammes, “I’ve a black stain in my blood. Does that disgust you?”
Francis and Gontier make much of the influence on Sido and, through her, on Colette of the ideas of the utopian social theorist Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Himself a Burgundian, born in Besançon, Fourier was, in the words of Edmund Wilson, a man of “remarkable unworldliness and directness;…capable of relentless persistency…,” combining “in a peculiar fashion the deepest humanitarian sympathies with a passion for systematic exactitude.” Thurman is less than impressed by the argument for Fourier’s influence on Colette, and rightly, for Colette herself had no interest in any systems. Nevertheless Fourier’s belief that mankind could pass from social chaos to harmony only by encouraging the free and healthy development of human talent and emotions does seem to have been Sido’s also, and it finds a reflection in Colette’s work. It’s also the case of course that the free development and expression of emotions can be a recipe for selfishness, and an excuse for indifference to the feelings of others. Colette, sadly, too often displayed that as well.
Sido was married once, and then she married again; the passive voice should be used only for her first marriage to a local landowner, an alcoholic on the verge of madness, known (Colette tells us) as “the Savage.” This arranged marriage was regarded by Colette as the sacrifice of her mother on the altar of the bourgeois regard for property. No doubt it was, although Colette would herself eventually worship at that altar herself.
The second husband, Colette’s father, was Sido’s lover before her first husband was happily removed by death. Jules-Joseph Colette was a retired officer who had lost a leg in Napoleon III’s 1859 Italian campaign. He was an unsuccessful politician and would-be author. When he died, Colette tells us, a dozen bound volumes, empty of any words but a title and a dedication to Sido, were found in his study. It is at least a good story. Captain Colette adored his wife; his daughter felt tenderly toward him, at least in memory.
A happy childhood was interrupted by financial disaster when her father’s speculations turned out badly. Their house had to be sold, the furniture put up for public auction. As Francis and Gontier make clear, the humiliation was extreme. Colette came to believe it had strengthened her. Previously, her life had been “roses all the way; yet what would I have done with a life that was nothing but roses?”
The financial crash meant that Colette would have no dowry. Without one she would be lucky to find a husband. A man then presented himself, an unconventional but brilliant fellow. His name was Henri Gaulthier-Villars, but everyone knew him as Willy. He was fourteen years older than Colette, and the son of a distinguished publisher of scientific works. Starting conventionally as a poet, he had established a reputation as a journalist and novelist.
Accounts of how Sido viewed the marriage vary, but are not necessarily to be disbelieved when they appear contradictory. Thurman cites a story of Sido looking miserable the day after the wedding; Francis and Gontier present us with a Sido who schemed to arrange the marriage. She may well have done so, and with reason. Yet she could scarcely fail to have had doubts, for the courtship had been disturbed by anonymous letters—that specialty of the French provinces—denouncing Willy’s way of life, and Sido had herself looked after Willy’s illegitimate child. But though, eventually, Colette was to reproach herself for the marriage, there is no evidence that she ever reproached Sido.
Colette was twenty when they married, and she exchanged a village in Burgundy for the Paris of the Belle Epoque, where, as the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche put it, “this singular couple, Willy and Colette, moved in the best, and the worst, society.” Willy, even before marriage, had sensed a truth of our century, not yet born: that notoriety has a cash value.
The marriage with Willy is a problem for any biographer of Colette. Years after it was over, she herself gave a brilliant account of it in Mes Apprentissages. Her version is utterly persuasive, and not to be relied on. (I once relied on it; Thurman doesn’t and neither do Francis and Gontier.) She presents her marriage as the fruit of
a guilty rapture, an atrocious impure adolescent impulse. There are many scarcely nubile girls who dream of becoming the show, the plaything, the licentious masterpiece of some middle-aged man. It is an ugly dream that is punished by its fulfillment, a morbid thing, akin to the neuroses of puberty, the habit of eating chalk and coal, of drinking mouthwash, of reading dirty books and sticking pins into the palm of your hand….
Was she sincere when she wrote that? Probably. Does she protest too much? Undoubtedly. She got what she wanted then. She was dazzled by Willy and infatuated with him, and he offered her an exciting life in Paris. What, eventually, Colette could not forgive Willy for was the huge effect he had on her life. She was as much his creation as Sido’s.
In Mes Apprentissages she had her revenge, presenting Willy as primarily a comic figure. He was the writer who could not write, and who set up accordingly as an entrepreneur, a capitalist of literature who would supply, on demand, columns, essays, paragraphs of gossip, dialogues, whole novels and books of scandalous history and spurious memoirs, of which he would write scarcely a line, all the work being done in his “factory” by his ghosts, his “nègres,” of whom Colette herself would become the most famous, and the one who escaped him.
Without question, Willy exploited his assistants, Colette among them. But he had a touch of genius himself, and not only as an entrepreneur. If in the end he came to nothing, if he is doomed to be remembered only because of his association with Colette, it was because he suffered, in his own words, from a boredom that was “dense and tenacious, that weighs me down and eats me up.” Thurman says, “His goal was to be as notorious as possible for his utter moral worthlessness.” Francis and Gontier speak of his “contempt for conventional morality” and believe that the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (when he was eleven) had “a lasting impact…; ever afterward he felt that life was absurd, that the pursuit of artistic and physical pleasures was the only thing worthwhile….” A complex character, he became addicted to publicity, and would go to any lengths to attract it, though in their marriage Colette would also find occasion to resent his obsessive love of secrecy. Finding certainty nowhere, he was obsessed with money, while living in such a manner as to ensure he could never become rich. His worship of money “eventually sapped his strength, degraded his character, and destroyed his marriage to Colette.”