And just to prove that the world has thankfully moved on let us consider the case of French writer Colette (1873-1954). Her husband locked her in her room until she completed “Claudine At School” (1900) whereupon he published it under his own name (as he did the follow-up) and basked in its success! With the unsurprising failure of this doomed marriage Colette reclaimed her work and followed up with other French classics including “Gigi” and “Cheri”. She was an author I knew very little about until I read these four novels, published separately in the early years of the twentieth century. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting with the Claudine Novels, because of the publication date I thought something straight-laced and moral with just perhaps a little smidgeon of French sauciness but they are surprisingly racy.
It’s fair to say that in “Claudine At School” not a great deal happens but it is written with such enthusiasm that it is totally winning. Claudine is a great feisty character who sparkles throughout. She is a dominant, prepossessing figure in her last year at school. She develops a crush on a new female teacher and arranges extra lessons but the Headmistress falls for the same teacher and their relationship is central to the novel. It may be more implied than explicitly stated in this book (so as not to frighten the horses, maybe) but such implicity is thrown out of the window in the later books. Claudine becomes prey for the lecherous school inspector and the eldest girls prepare for final examinations. The title might conjure up images of Enid Blyton but that’s about as far as that connection goes. It’s written with great relish throughout and a scandalous ending at a ball finishes this off nicely. This would certainly have raised eyebrows when it was first published over here. Antonia White’s translation is sublime.
The standard is maintained for the second of the books published the following year “Claudette in Paris” (1901) was also originally attributed to the husband. In her preface to this edition of the Collected novels Colette says, “The success of the Claudine books was for the period, very great. It inspired fashions, plays and beauty products.” Moving Claudine to Paris may have explained this marketing boost. Is this an early example of using a novel to sell non-book products? It begins with a move to the Capital with her father where our heroine becomes seriously ill with fever. It is a very backward-looking opening and you do need to be familiar with the characters of the first novel for it to mean very much. Once recovered, however, she takes Paris on board, visits her aunt and befriends her second cousin, Marcel, a gay character in love with a boy his father got expelled from school following a discovery of a love letter. She meets up again with the waif-like Luce from the first novel- then a downtrodden sister of the headmistress’ lover now an older man’s mistress and Claudine herself falls in love with Marcel’s father, her cousin Renaud. One of my main concerns in the first section of this book was that it had lost the joie-de-vivre which made its predecessor so enthralling but it does get it back in spades, although I do not think it is quite as good as “Claudine At School”. I loved the new characters, the memories of the old and Claudine’s zest for life.
It is in the third book “Claudine Married” (1902) where there is a greater drop in quality. Maybe times in France changed over these couple of years as what was ambiguous and subtle in the first books now becomes more explicit and clearly stated and Claudine definitely loses her spark. She falls for a female acquaintance of her husband, Renaud and begins an affair. The lover, Rezi, does not have the fully-fledged roundness of the characters introduced in the first two books and it seems as if Colette has tired of Marcel, who is all rather washed up in this and almost of Claudine herself. There’s a decidedly dodgy section where Claudine and her honeymooning husband revisit the old school and both are disturbingly predatory towards the boarders, almost egged on by the Headmistress!
The slip in standard continues with the last of the four “Claudine And Annie” (1903). The narration switches to Annie, an acquaintance of Claudine. When Annie’s childhood sweetheart husband goes off to South America she holidays with his sister and her husband and Claudine and Renaud visit the same place. There’s a moment of potential passion between the now-reformed Claudine and Annie and the latter begins to realise her doting husband is not quite what she thought he was. I very much missed Claudine as the narrator and although she is still a significant character, she is on the periphery with the overly-sensitive, migraine suffering Annie a disappointing substitute. This is an early example of a fictional series where there is a significant dip in quality but the first two are certainly worth reading and Colette has proved to be a fascinating new find as an author.
The novels are available separately but I read the Penguin Edition of “The Claudine Novels” translated by Antonia White which was first published in 1987.