BOOK REVIEW / An inspired Venus of hot marble: Natasha Walter on Louise Colet, flashy Muse and hardworking feminist: Rage and fire: A Life of Louise Colet - Francine du Plessix Gray: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 17.99
Francine du Plessix Gray's book on this particular icon is brightly readable - but with such a life to chronicle, could it be otherwise? Louise Revoil was born in 1810 into a rather deadly provincial French family who mocked her early erudition and radical sympathies. She swept away from them to marry a musician, Hippolyte Colet, dashed off to Paris where she won the Academie Francaise's annual prize for poetry four times, published countless volumes of poetry, fiction, travel-writing, and journalism, was the long-standing mistress of Flaubert, as well as Alfred de Musset and Alfred de Vigny, had one of the most influential salons of her day, was the intimate of Victor Hugo and Madame de Recamier, was sculpted by Pradier and painted by Courbet, called a Venus of hot marble, a pearl of the Bouches-Rhone . . . What more could a girl want?
Du Plessix Gray isn't dazzled by the heady spin of Colet's life. Despite her amateurish prose style: 'Imagine the exhilaration Louise felt . . . upon signing a guestbook that had been autographed by the most eminent poets and personalities of the day]' 'Finally, the ambitious beauty arrives in the promised land,' she has done her research, tracking down previously unconsidered Colet writings and picking through hundreds of contemporary references. She shows us two faces of the woman, so bringing Colet jumpily alive for us.
Apart from the flashy Muse described above, there was the woman who walked on a knife-edge only just this side of respectability and solvency. Especially after her husband died, Colet struggled to support herself and her daughter. She had recourse to publishing friends' correspondence, to fashion journalism, even selling hats. She confesses to her diary: 'Ten francs left in the house. Desperate,' or, 'Not a cent left to live on.'
Du Plessix Gray's ability to keep both aspects of her life in view is a rare gift. At other times she seems merely confused in her interpretations. Does she believe Colet is just following the crowd in her lifestyle - 'She had attained two essentials of the successful Parisian woman's life, with a prominent lover and a distinguished salon' - or does she hope to impress us with her singular strength?
After all, given the freedom that Louise Colet and contemporaries like George Sand displayed in taking their own lovers, travelling and supporting themselves, mid-19th-century France could look like a haven for independent women. But Du Plessix Gray energetically tries to show us the opposite. Extensive quotations from male critics and writers of the time - including Flaubert, reveal the misogyny that surrounded them: 'Woman, a vulgar animal . . . Woman is a production of man, she is a mere result of civilisation.'
And that seemingly generous relationship she had with Flaubert, in which the novelist poured out the line-by-line genesis of Madame Bovary in letters, and at first put her work under careful, even adulatory, consideration, had a sting in its tail. Flaubert never allowed her into his house. He talked of her to his friends as if she were a disposable prostitute and ended up belittling her work. He made open use of her as a model for the mawkish Emma Bovary, who was a Louise Revoil stripped of her success and abilities. When he finally left her, he did so with flagrant heartlessness, and knowing that she had been the fertiliser for a masterpiece couldn't have been much comfort for her.
The only glaring dissonance in Plessix Gray's easy-going biography is that although she tries to mix some consideration of Colet's work into the high-flying gossip that makes up the bulk of the book, she just can't decide whether she respects Colet as an artist, as opposed to a self-publicist who knew on what side her bread was buttered. 'The 1830s marked the beginning of media cults, the fashioning of artists' public personae as indispensable assets to success . . . Louise excelled at those techniques.' And Du Plessix Gray seems to believe that artistic movements make artists, rather than the other way around, making overmuch of Louise's reliance on Romantic models for her life. It jolts the reader to hear continually that Louise was only 'playing the part' of a Romantic muse or writer.
And although she is cool about the way that contemporary male critics disparaged Colet even as they built her up, she has the same two handed approach, unnecessarily recreating her heroine as a victim. She puts much of Colet's success down to her looks, as when she takes the Academie prize (for which poems were submitted anonymously) for the first time: 'It is probable that this aging playwright (Lemercier), still very sensitive to feminine charm, overlooked the Academie's rule of anonymity and allowed Louise to read her poem aloud to him. Much taken with her . . . he may well have tried to help her by recommending her talents to his colleagues . . .' The 'probable' and the 'may' point to a lack of evidence. Again, when she quotes the overjoyed press reports of the day she feels the need for a good put-down: 'If the description of the event in the Paris press sounds inflated, one must recall the spell Louise's face cast on her contemporaries.'
And she is even disappointing in her consideration of Louise Colet's politics and feminism. Although she displays the incidence of each, by listing her works or describing her activities, she does not manage to bring alive the deeply rooted feelings that must have informed them. Louise Colet's first prose work was a biography of Mirabeau, her first play a life of Charlotte Corday, her most ambitious poetry-cycle one dedicated to illuminating the lives of women in different classes. The one action of her life that seemed to give her unadulterated pleasure was addressing the women of Marseilles on their patriotic duty just before the Paris Commune - which she wholeheartedly supported. We therefore want some ongoing consideration of her political development. And yet Du Plessix Gray takes it for granted, with throwaway lines like: 'Louise was recreating herself as a political activist'. With more considered, less breezy evaluation - the kind we would take for granted with a male subject - Gray would have given Louise Colet a finer monument than all the marble statues that are said to be modelled on her in Paris.
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