Not So Close to Colette


by Joanna Richardson
Franklin Watts, 276 pp., $17.95

The Collected Stories of Colette

edited with an introduction by Robert Phelps, translated by Matthew Ward and Antonia White and Anne-Marie Callimachi. others
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 605 pp., $22.50

No female novelist could be less like Jane Austen than Colette, but they share an unfortunate distinction: it is difficult to love either without finding oneself enrolled in a club. If there is no word corresponding to the horrible “Janeite,” then it can only be for reasons of euphony. But in both cases the fans have got it wrong: they admire Jane Austen for being an adult’s Kate Greenaway, and Colette, in the words of Glenway Wescott, for being “a kind of female Montaigne.”

The most unexpected and reassuring thing about Joanna Richardson’s biography is that she does not appear to love Colette unduly. She slots in concise and lucid accounts of the major works, dismissing some, excusing others, admiring most, and not going overboard for any of them. As for the life, already interminably and variously told by Colette and others, she covers every move in it, however temporary or insignificant. She may have decided to do this because Colette’s own versions are frankly poeticized, and perhaps she thought earlier biographers had relied too much on them and on the memoir by Colette’s last uncritically devoted husband Maurice Goudeket, whom she married in 1935 when she was sixty-two and he was forty-five.

Richardson can be critical: she thinks Colette neglected her only child, the daughter of her second marriage, to the editor and politician Henry de Jouvenel; and she disapproves of her seducing her stepson Bertrand de Jouvenel when he was sixteen and she forty-seven. But on the whole she remains uninvolved and simply assembles the facts—all the facts, and there are an unconscionable number of them. For Colette lived a life full to bursting point: she had three husbands, lovers of both sexes, and many careers: novelist, journalist, playwright, script writer, drama critic, lecturer, mime, music hall artiste, straight actress, advertising copy writer, and beautician. Had she been alive today she would probably have written cookbooks: she was greedy and understood food as she did all sensual pleasures, and though perpetually groaning how much she hated writing, she was always willing to turn an extra penny by it. Her output was enormous and very variable in quality.

In Paris she constantly changed her address while simultaneously acquiring and selling properties in the country. She needed and usually had two establishments to complement her two personae: the urban bohemian, and the country girl with a Burgundian accent. She knew tout Paris, and had many famous friends and correspondents and innumerable pets with eventful careers of their own. From the time she got her Légion d’Honneur in 1920 (Proust said he was proud “to have the cross at the same time as the author of the wonderfully clever Chéri“) honors rained on her, culminating in a state funeral in 1954. She traveled and was frequently ill, especially in later life when she was crippled with arthritis.

Richardson must have worked hard to get all this material into chronological order, and it is a pity she did not provide a…

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