Colette, by Joanna Richardson
Is French author Colette someone worth knowing about in vivid detail? Before you read a book like this, if you are not a fast reader, this is a question well worth asking. Many people will not know or care who she was–a French author whose novels and novellas and short stories feed from her somewhat disordered personal life but which nonetheless show a strong degree of interest in the thinking and psychology of women in dysfunctional relationships. If you do know or care who she was, this is a biography that offers a lot of information and a generally sympathetic viewpoint, albeit one that points out the failings that Colette had as a mother in the tragic damage that her daughter suffered as a result of what she saw and experienced growing up around such a woman as the book’s subject was. Obviously the author’s approach would be politically correct in our own particular time but it represents a fair-minded view of someone who was a talented and frequently praised writer but one whose disordered life understandably irritated the more traditional-minded of her countrymen who, as tends to happen, were able to enforce their irritation upon her death where they were unable to arrest her popularity in life.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and is divided chronologically into various sections that correspond to certain eras of the subject’s life. After an introduction the author begins with the first twenty years of Colette’s life when she was Sido’s daughter, with all that entailed concerning her provincial education and family connections. After that, the author discusses her time while married to Mssr Willy, where she learned the craft of writing under his abusive tutelage and had to deal with the corruption that was involved in her life with him. This leads to a period of vagabondage where struggled to live on her own. After that the author discusses her second marriage where she seduced her stepson and gave birth to a daughter she had no maternal care for, and where she came to understand what it mean to be married to a proud and politically ambitious aristocrat. Naturally, the marriage did not last because both were unfaithful and ill-suited to each other. The author then explores ten years she spent as the partner of a Jewish man whom she later married, looking again at her struggle to keep herself fed and housed through her wits and writing. The author then explores Colette’s difficult time in World War II and the struggles she faced with aging and declining health before her death.
Is Colette worth knowing to this extent? I ask myself this question even now having read this book. The author’s level of detail about the works of Colette’s writing career and their close connection with her life, the account of her travels and her affairs and her awards and the reviews she received and her pleasure at knowing that at least a few people in the United States could speak French since she did not communicate well in English and her lectures and her family life is impressive. But it is also intensely exhaustive, and that is not something that every reader is going to enjoy at all. Having read this book, I still do not know the extent to which it was worthwhile to read it. The enjoyment I got out of this book was the sort of enjoyment I got out of reading the wikileaks accounts or watching various rubbish shows exposing the dark and corrupt secret life of stars and other important people, and that is not a pleasure that I feel particularly proud of. Whether or not knowing this sort of detail is pleasing to you is perhaps a moral statement that does not speak well about one’s character.