Iconoclast with a moral streak

By Robin Buss
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The Independent Culture

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman (Bloomsbury £25)

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman (Bloomsbury £25)

When Colette died in 1954, she was accorded a state funeral, the first ever given by the French Republic to a woman. The Archbishop of Paris, on the other hand, refused her a Catholic ceremony - and did her the favour of considering her still a scandalous figure, though she had died at the age of 81 after being for years immobilised by arthritis and incapable of any serious misbehaviour. She would have enjoyed the controversy as least as much as the adulation, not least because in the postwar world - the Paris of Sartrean Existentialism and the first skirmishes of the Cold War - she seemed a prodigious anachronism, remarkable chiefly as a survivor from the Belle Epoque.

That has changed, as Judith Thurman's biography demonstrates. The writer who said that "the most praiseworthy thing about me is that I have known how to write like a woman", and who lived her life in defiance of (masculine) conventions, has become a subject of considerable interest in the last quarter of the century. Ironically, it is the ideological conflicts of the 1950s that now seem distant to us, whereas Colette, tireless explorer of the emotions, lover of men and women, mime artist, journalist, dramatist and scriptwriter, hedonist and gourmet, could easily be imagined writing for this paper's Real Life section.

You might expect her to be an ardent supporter of feminism (already an active force in France at the end of the last century); but there is nothing straightforward in Colette's stand on this, or most other issues. She liked social conventions; without them, what was there for her to defy? Notorious for her sexual behaviour - in the early 1900s, she dressed in drag, had a number of affairs with women, pranced around bare-breasted on stage and, later, seduced the son of her second husband, Henri de Jouvenel - she nonetheless expressed strong disapproval of her daughter's lesbianism. She was fortunate to live in France at the turn of the century, a country and a time when her behaviour was not punished by the stake or the gulag, yet still produced a satisfying degree of outrage and notoriety. Colette would not have liked the unshockability of our time. "She saw no contradiction, and never would," Thurman writes, "between supporting conservative positions and living her life in revolt against them."

Even the case of her first husband, which seems on the face of it a clear example of male exploitation, is not so simple; among Colette's biographers, Thurman is notably sympathetic towards Henri Gauthier-Villars, the novelist and journalist who went by the fashionably English-sounding name of "Willy". In fact, most of what appeared under that label was not Willy's work at all. He employed several ghostwriters and, as soon as he recognised his young wife's talent, enrolled her in the number. Claudine à l'école (1900) was the first of a hugely successful series, attributed to Willy. Nowadays, they carry both names, or Colette's alone.

Has justice been done? Colette herself never denied Willy's contribution to the Claudines, his vital role as her agent or the importance of the literary education he provided. Their divorce was not acrimonious (at least, to begin with) and she retained throughout her life a deep affection for the old rogue which was more than nostalgia. And she was too intelligent to be seduced for long by someone who was merely a charming scoundrel. In many ways, Willy, a plumpish womaniser, nearly 14 years her senior, could have been just the person a naive girl from the provinces needed to whisk her up to town, put her to bed, introduce her to Parisian society and make a writer of her.

Anyway, she was not the sort of person to be held back by the past; she was too busy living the present. "In the prize ring of life, few of us would have lasted 10 rounds with Colette," John Updike remarked, saluting the zest, courage and vitality that were her most obvious and attractive qualities. Thurman reports on Colette's 10 rounds more or less chronologically, with a sensible amount of information about the social and political background, and well-judged critical summaries of her work. The book has some tiresome mistakes, such as a reference to "Kipling's grave on Samoa", which would no doubt have been picked up by a good copy editor, if the publisher could be bothered to employ one. As it is, occasional lapses of this kind arouse unjustified misgivings about Thurman's competence when it comes to Colette.

She is not entirely enamoured of her subject: one senses, as the book proceeds, that she is becoming more aware of the personality traits that made Martha Gellhorn describe Colette as "evil", "a terrible woman" and "absolute utter hell". Cocteau put it more kindly: "Everything in art is monstrous and Madame Colette is no exception to that rule." She was self-absorbed to the point of egocentricity - and this was the source of another trait, which Thurman calls her "complacence" about events in the world beyond the range of her own intimate concerns.

This "complacence" is evident early on, in ambivalence about Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer unjustly convicted of spying for Germany and imprisoned on Devil's Island; the subsequent affaire divided French society. Willy refused to put his name to a petition supporting Dreyfus - the first time, Pierre Veber remarked, that he had ever refused to sign something he had not written. Colette remained silent, apparently indifferent. The Dreyfus affair, Thurman says, "coincided ... with the years of her extended adolescence and servility to Willy as a woman and as a writer" - adding that her passivity suggests an "ethical immaturity" that time would not alter.

This damning reproach anticipates what the biographer has to say almost at the end of the book, when dealing with the years of the German occupation. Colette (whose husband at the time, Maurice Goudeket, was Jewish) can hardly be described as a collaborator, though she did publish articles in collaborationist newspapers, apparently without a qualm. But Thurman's criticism of Colette's behaviour during the war centres on her last novel, Julie de Carneilhan, for which, in an unusual departure from scholarly detachment, Thurman expresses a "pronounced distaste". The portrait of Julie's lover and his rich Jewish wife were intended to settle a score with Henri de Jouvenel; but in the 1940s, serialised in the anti-semitic Gringoire and published in book form with an advertisement for writings by Hitler on the back cover, it was tactless, to say the least. It was an example of the narrow self-absorption that characterises most of Colette's life and work - those finely crafted novels about the emotional lives of people detached from the concerns of the everyday world. There are serious limitations to Colette's sensibility: if she is a writer for our time, she should also serve as a warning.