It pays to take a romantic view of oneself; distinction is only tardily conceded by others. In the business of self-assessment – which was her business – Colette was never far from self-promotion. This endeavour sustained her through three marriages, numerous love affairs, and, more important in her own estimation, 49 volumes, some of them admittedly slight. She expressed admiration for George Sand, who could finish one novel and begin another in the same half-hour, yet she herself could shoulder the equally impressive task of projecting her image throughout a long and varied life, both on and off stage. Her undoubted beauty helped, yet it is not as a beautiful woman that Colette is remembered but as a fearless solipsist. The title of one of her later books, Le Voyage égoïste, describes her progress perfectly. To her singular status the gift of sumptuous prose, refined from tentative beginnings, seemed a natural adjunct. Her readers came from every level of society, and from every sex: her emotional range was wide, but not necessarily indulgent. Henry de Montherlant, who described her as ‘le plus grand écrivain français naturel’ was wrong: Colette is a work of art, and one created entirely by her own means.
As an example of her mature and calculating self-regard, La Naissance du jour, published in 1928, still stands up very well. Written when she was 55, it is an account of renunciation, described in the most flattering terms – that is to say, flattering to the writer. Colette, her age left vague, is spending the summer in her house in Saint-Tropez, writing the book which will become La Naissance du jour. Again, writing is described in flattering terms: the blue paper, the opaline lamp, the sleeping cats, the starry Provençal night beyond the uncurtained window. Who would not write if the procedure were so attractive? Nevertheless, Colette, the real Colette, who features in the text as Colette, just as Proust figured in his narrative as Marcel, was in difficulty; she could not get it onto the page.
One part of her wanted to write about what she found easy – her friends, the Mediterranean landscape, the sea and sun, the impromptu meals, the abundance of melons and peaches, the grapes on the vine so heavy and compact that not even a wasp could penetrate the clusters. But an equally impressive part of her, perhaps the most impressive, wants to deal with a more rebarbative subject: the disappearance of physical love. Enter now into the story the romantically named Valère Vial, fifteen years younger than the narrator, whose fervent advances she rejects, a decision dictated, says either the real or the fictitious Colette, by necessity. Here she becomes disingenuous; she claims to renounce him because he is mediocre, because at her age only a singular cause of torment could be justified. But the authentic jealousy of the real Colette is apparent in the depiction of her fictitious rival, Hélène Clément, who comes across as tiresome, unattractive. It is not wisdom or generosity that makes the narrator pair these two together; it is regard for her own dignity, the dignity which she says she inherited from her ineffable mother Sido (whose letters she doctored for publication and drafted into La Naissance du jour). In this way she proves herself superior to the mediocre Hélène and the mediocre Vial, both standing in for real-life frustrations on which she is silent. The reader is easily coerced into admiration, for the marvellous text is in itself seductive, its sensuous prose inviting complicity. From it one learns what it is to admit weakness, but never defeat, a valuable lesson which she passes on in the form of a parable. The real Colette was much more ruthless.
The men in her novels are easily routed. Once they have ceased to cause pain, like Chéri, the graceless young lover whom Lea, the ageing courtesan, sees off so magisterially in La Fin de Chéri, they are demoted to respectful girlishness. The bisexual Colette despised their timidity, wrote them down, wrote them out. There is an animus here that is only slowly detected. Her sympathies are feminine, and at times she seems to inhabit a companionable female sub-world, which features in many of the novels. Her co-conspirators are dressmakers, manicurists, typists, fortune-tellers, semi-professional actresses. She herself was a notable mime, yet she retained from the experience of punishing tours to provincial music halls an ability to remain alive to the landscape glimpsed from a passing train, to the changing colour of the sea at dawn, to the deserted road, to unfolding leaves in the bleak light of an unwelcome morning. This invaluable proletarian sympathy was a natural progression. From her fellow hacks in her first husband’s fiction factory she learned a timid camaraderie which, as she describes it in Ces plaisirs was largely innocent. She was, after all, still very young, young enough to be paraded through Paris dressed as a schoolgirl, on the strength of her first novel, Claudine à l’école, to which her husband put his name. Photographs of this period do the odd couple justice: Colette a lissom ingénue, her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars – Willy – stout and bearded, some years her senior. While expansive on the trials of these early years she gives no account of how the writer in her progressed and matured, how that elaborate Belle Epoque style came to fruition. It is almost a shock to realise that she was still writing in the Forties, when national austerity was favourable to her own form of nostalgia. In those dark days she provided triumphant evidence of the superfluous, of a vanished plethora of earthly gifts. Even the exaggerations answered a need.
No editor could cope with her today, with the wealth of esoteric words with which she described gardens, animals, changes of climate, and always colours. By the same token, no contemporary publisher would-be content with the oblique phrasing of Ces plaisirs and its veiled account of homosexual attractions. She wrote with a dictionary at her side, and the first-time reader would be advised to do the same. Composition was not always easy, yet it appears effortless, and she is silent on matters of professional difficulty. For this reason she will always rise above her commentators, who are obliged to follow her laboriously through a life which she portrays as entirely natural and instinctive. La Femme cachée, another title, gives the lie to this.
Colette’s version, the one complete with euphemisms, is the one we obstinately prefer. The authors of this excellent biography offer another, far more complex. The appellation of ‘femme cachée’ could apply as much to Sido as to her celebrated daughter. Francis and Gontier reveal the existence of a mulatto grandfather – Colette’s ‘goutte de sang noir’ – as well as unveiling Sido’s excitable character, her restlessness, her intellectual and social ambitions. Born in Paris, she was in many ways a true Parisian, anticlerical, a reader of Saint-Simon. Her daughter preferred the novels of Balzac, which she began at the age of seven. In short, neither of these women was the simple, humane village genius promoted by Colette in later life. Nor was her father the amiable cipher who appears in the books. He was a published historian, whose love of fine writing materials was inherited by his daughter. All this is a far cry from the limpid simplifications on which her legend is built.
Nor is Willy the villain of the piece. It was Sido who organised the marriage of her dowry-less adolescent daughter; if Willy consented it was because he already had an illegitimate son who would make his entry into a respectable family difficult. A friend of Sido’s, Mme Cholleton, collaborated by teaching the girl ‘quelques bonnes manières de harem’, a lesson which was well received. Colette’s letters to Willy at this time reveal the potential writer whose gifts it was in his interest to nurture. Thereafter progress was rapid; Parisian intimates included painters, dramatists, musicians. Not only was Saint-Sauveur, where she was born, distant geographically (literally, for the family had since moved to Châtillon-Coligny), its attractions could not compete with those of Paris, with emerging self-expression, and with wide acceptance by a distinguished and ever-growing network of celebrities. Seven months into the marriage, Colette contracted syphilis. Thus her sentimental education preceded her literary début, and was not its unforeseen outcome, as she later painted it.
Her early novels were written under Willy’s tutelage and signed by him. There was no reclusion, the reclusion she describes so winningly in Mes apprentissages, but plenty of good counsel. He crossed out her lyrical passages, forced her to be simple, unambiguous (advice she was later to pass on to Simenon). Nor was she Willy’s victim; she was his ‘exquise vicieuse gosse aimante’. If she collaborated with him in this fabrication it was as a tribute to their profound complicity; both had a similar outlook, were at home with deformations of the truth. Claudine à l’école was published by Ollendorff in 1900. The signature deceived no one. Jules Renard remarked on Willy’s varied talents, including that of female impersonation.
Far from being a hirsute monster, as he appears in photographs, Willy was delicate, fallible, more than once caught out by circumstance. His mistresses quickly became his wife’s mistresses, for Colette’s most profound tastes were for other women. Her first female lovers, Nathalie Barney, the Marquise de Morny – both tailored by Savile Row – were succeeded by women both famous and obscure. Colette was in the fortunate position of having nothing to lose; she was married, protected, admired by her husband’s friends. She was also prominent. One could buy Claudine face-powder, Claudine cigarettes; one could eat Claudine ices. Willy was delighted; Colette Willy, as she was known, did him credit both as a husband and an editor. Of the two Colette was the greater exhibitionist. Her talents as a mime and actress can no longer be assessed, but she seems to have had a wide and iconic appeal. Simultaneously, the writer was maturing and was soon to share her life with her readers. Colette – no nonsense about a nom de plume – remains Colette in all her stories, even when they purport to be about other people, like the Heaumes, in Chambre d’hôtel. Her skilled and fallacious revelations are also iconic, a tribute to her ability to mount fiction on a basis of fact. La Naissance du jour, a work of maturity far removed from the adolescent confessions which launched her career, shows her both as herself and as another, and is thus a key text.
All writers edit themselves. Writing edits out the unclassifiable beginnings, the unsuccessful love affairs. Colette edited herself throughout a long and meritorious career, as an actress, a journalist, a beautician and, of course, a novelist. When Claudine became Colette, round about her 40th birthday, the serious work began. Serious does not necessarily mean candid. Colette’s tranquil and impenitent egotism kept disapproval at bay. Her genius lay in her ability to write about bad behaviour as if it were a romance, and to do so in prose which is the essence of lyricism, Willy’s strictures having been left far behind. Scandalous conduct became translated as estimable appetite, irregular liaisons as pardonable caprices. This is dissembling as a fine art, inevitably celebrated as honesty. Authenticity, perhaps; honesty never.
‘Vie de Colette. Scandale sur scandale. Puis tout bascule et elle passe au rang d’idole,’ remarked Cocteau. In old age – unsmiling, cat-faced, bushy haired – she did indeed become respectable. The state funeral made her immortal. And it is as a later writer, unashamedly autobiographical, still celebrating the world and its marvels, that she is at her best. Francis and Gontier prefer her as a young and fairly awful woman, and their enthusiastic researches do full justice to Colette Willy. But that cautious grizzled head, emerging from an upper window in the Palais Royal, is the mask of the true writer.