The Claudine sequence

It's many years since I read Colette's Claudine novels. The last time I had recently graduated and was travelling around Europe with a college friend. Even now, opening my old paperback, I sense a whiff of Austrian cheese, a cheese that followed us across Europe getting whiffier by the day. Perhaps it's appropriate that Claudine should remind me of my youth as that's what the novels are essentially about - a young girl's transition from childhood into adult life.

The sequence of four novels were considered shocking when they were first published, under the name of Colette's husband, who forced the authoress to complete the first novels by locking her in her room. Shocking because they were more open in their sexual imagery than most previous novels of their kind (at least those sold on the open market!). Wikipedia notes that nowadays the books would be regarded less as shocking and more as "chastely sensual". I must say that I was quite surprised at how raunchy they still were, a fact that I had completely forgotten.

I felt that the first novel Claudine in school was slightly uncomfortable reading. This may have been because "Willy" (Mr. Colette) wanted a raunchier novel to evolve from his wife's memoirs, and so extra sexual imagery was added which doesn't always sit comfortably with the main body of the text. Claudine in Paris though was a delight, in many ways similar to Gigi, it follows Claudine's first love affair with the older man who will become her husband, a mirroring of the Gigi-Gaston storyline. Claudine married traces Claudine's early married life. It's an interesting novel this one, charting what will be familiar to many people - what happens next after "And they all lived happily ever after". It also presents a portrait of the life of a woman in the early twentieth century; and the double standards that female sexuality was (and perhaps still is) measured by.

The final novel in the sequence Claudine and Annie is the only novel not to be told in Claudine's voice. This novel presents a new narrator, Annie, who is perhaps a more mature, but I think also a more believable version, of the naive Claudine of the earlier novels.

For me the novels got better as they progressed through the sequence, and moved further away from Henry (Willy) Gauthier-Villars' input and more into pure Colette. If sometimes the earlier novels read a little clumsily there's still much to recommend them. Colette is a great scene-setter, who genuinely makes you feel that you have been transported to small town France, or fin-de-siecle Paris, or gossipy Bayreuth in opera season. And her heroines, if occasionally irritating, are never less than loveable. I'm so glad that I rediscovered Claudine, and fell in love with her all over again.


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