Colette, Essay by Angela Carter

Colette is possibly the only well-known woman writer of modern times who is universally referred to simply by her surname, tout court. Woolf hasn’t made it, even after all these years; Rhys without the Jean is incognito; Nin without the Anais looks like a typo. Colette, Madame Colette, remains, in this as much else, unique.

Colette did not acquire this distinction because she terrorised respect language out of her peers, alas: by a happy accident, her father’s name doubles as a girlish handle – and a very ducky one, too. One could posit ‘Bonny’ or ‘Rosie’ as English equivalents. It was by a probably perfectly unconscious sleight-of-hand that Colette appropriated for herself the form of address of both masculine respect and masculine intimacy of her period – a fact that, in a small way, reflects the message of her whole career. This is: if you can’t win, change the rules of the game.

Her career was a profoundly strange one and necessarily full of contradictions, of which her uncompromising zeal for self-exploitation is one. Madame Colette, though never quite Madame Colette de l’Académie Française – one game she couldn’t crack – was accorded a state funeral by the French government: this was the woman who was dismissed by her second husband’s aristocratic family as a cunning little striptease artist overeager for the title of baroness. As Madame Colette, she first appeared on pin-up pictures: ‘Our pretty actresses: Madame Colette of the Olympia’. And, in these pictures, taken in her late thirties, she is very beautiful and sexy indeed; she looks out at you with all the invitation of the stripper: ‘You can call me Colette.’

The artificial creation of a sense of intimacy with Colette herself is one of the qualities that gives her writing its seductiveness. She certainly wasn’t on the halls all those years for nothing, although the extent to which a wilful exhibitionism kept her on the boards (against the advice of the majority of her critics) well into her fifties may be connected with a capacity to embarrass which often frays the edges of her writing.

‘You can call me Colette’ isn’t a statement of the same order as ‘Call me Ishmael.’ The social limitations to experience in a woman’s life still preclude the unself-conscious picaresque adventuring that formed the artistic apprenticeships of Melville, Lowry, Conrad, while other socio-economic factors mean that those women who see most of the beastly backside of the world – prostitutes – are least in a position to utilise this invaluable experience as art. Norman Mailer has said that there won’t be a really great woman writer – one, you understand, con cojones and everything – until the first call-girl tells her story. Though it’s reasonable to assume that, when she does, Mailer won’t like it at all, the unpleasant truth in this put-down is that most women don’t have exposure to the breadth of experience that, when digested, produces great fiction. (Okay, so what about the Brontës? Well, as vicar’s daughters in a rural slum parish, peripatetic international governesses and terminal consumptives, they did have such a variety of experience. So.) But the life of Colette was as picaresque as a woman’s may be without putting herself in a state of hazard.

Her first novels, Claudine at School and its sequels, appeared with the husband’s name on the title-page. The peculiar Willy, one of the best-publicised bohemians of the Belle Epoque, ensured that the little Burgundian village girl, Colette’s favourite disguise, encountered at an impressionable age not only numerous whores of both sexes but alsoeverybody – Proust, Debussy, Ravel, you name them. When Willy left her, his wife found herself in the unusual position of having written a number of best-sellers for which she was unable to take any financial or artistic credit. To earn a living in the years before the First World War, she felt she had no alternative but to go on the halls. As she could neither sing nor dance, she performed as a sex-object and subject of scandal – and not a particularly upmarket sex-object, either. Since Willy had enjoyed sexually humiliating her, no doubt there was a special pleasure in exploiting her sexuality whilst herself secure and unavailable. After Willy, she took refuge in the bosom of the lesbian establishment of the period. Our pretty actress had an aristocratic protector, the Marquise de Mornay – nothing unusual about this, not even the sex of the Marquise, in those permissive times. Then came a Cinderella-esque marriage to (Baron) Henry de Jouvenal, editor of Le Matin, later a politician of considerable distinction. One thing about Colette interests me: when did she stop lying about her age? The voluptuous dancer was pushing 40 when she married De Jouvenal: ‘But the registry office has to know your age,’ she complained to a friend. There comes a time when a woman freely publicises her age so that people can say: ‘How young you look!’ It seems to have come later than most to Colette, but when it did, she gloried in it.

In tandem with this characteristically, if rather Hollywood, Edwardian career, two writers are growing within her. One writes, in 1910, La Vagabonde, a novel which is still one of the most truthful expositions of the dilemma of a free woman in a male-dominated society. Perhaps because Colette, having the triumphant myopia of a vain woman, refused to acknowledge her society as male-dominated, she sees no dilemma: there is no real choice: one is free. In the same year, the other writer, the one more nearly related to our pretty actress, began work as a journalist for Le Matin, which is how she met its editor. Renée Néré, music-hall artiste, prefers to go it alone in La Vagabonde, but Colette, Colette married and married well. Her marriage also sealed her fate as a journalist, which in turn sealed her fate as a novelist.

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