Book review: The Complete Claudine

The Complete Claudine by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Highly recommended.

  • Claudine at School
  • Claudine in Paris
  • Claudine Married
  • Claudine and Annie

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette wrote the Claudine novels when she was in her late twenties, when she was young enough to remember the single-mindedness and bitterness of adolescent fixations and old enough to have acquired the tempered wisdom and understanding of experience. Through Claudine’s eyes, the reader sees how the unreserved passion of the young must, of necessity, burn itself out or be transformed into a more lasting love that expresses itself more deeply and less dramatically to ensure its own survival.

Not surprisingly, Claudine at School is the most delightful of the series. Our narrator is full of life and mischief, and never fails to indulge in scathing commentary on anything within her limited countryside range — the licentious superintendent of schools, the weak and pretentious assistant masters, and the assistant mistress and head mistress who are literally joined at the lip and hip. Claudine’s barbs find targets in everyone, including her father, her former wet nurse and servant, and her best friends.

Like her creator, Claudine is a sensualist. She loves that which appeals to her senses, not necessarily her heart or her mind. Claudine craves her first “love,” the assistant schoolmistress Aimée Lathenay, for her “slim waist,” “lovely eyes,” “golden eyes with their curled-up lashes,” “complexion,” and “supple body” that “seeks and demands an unknown satisfaction.” Mademoiselle Lathenay proves her faithlessness quickly, and Claudine makes an abrupt transition from gushing would-be lover to “a chill that froze me.” Astute and precocious, Claudine recognizes that Aimée’s nature is “frail and egotistical, a nature that likes its pleasures but knows how to look after its own interests.” Claudine, calling the loss a “great disappointment,” seems to understand that the battle has not been for the love of Aimée, but for her possession.

Also like Colette, Claudine seems to sense that sexual relationships between women, a recurring motif throughout the four novels, are somehow incomplete. At this age, however, Claudine does not yet have the experience to make the comparison to a relationship with a man, especially since the men she knows are primarily her single-minded father, the silly assistant masters and the licentious superintendent.

Claudine soon learns what it’s like to be the object of unrequited adoration and submissiveness, and protests — too much — that she doesn’t like it coming from Aimée’s younger sister.

Despite the 19th-century setting and the adult themes, Colette has captured the essence of the adolescent experience — the testing of authority and its limits, sexual exploration and emotions, interest in the things of the senses, a more realistic view of adults and their foibles, and a sense of being caught between the familiar comforts of childhood and the frightening prospect of adulthood. It’s fascinating to watch Claudine slowly realize that she is not the sophisticate that she tries to project to adults and her peers, that there is more to life, love, and sex than she can glean from her racy books.

Claudine in Paris takes Claudine — and the reader — away from the country village of Montigny, to Paris, where Claudine will finally experience the delusions, illusions, deceits, ecstasies, and cruelties of adult love and lust. She, who naturally dominates women, longs to be dominated by a man, her husband. In Paris, in the adult world, and in the world of marriage, Claudine becomes less sure of herself as part of maturing. It is in this milieu, where her stepson poses for his portrait as a Byzantine queen, where her husband indulges her tastes (and then his), and where sex is a form of currency between those who want and those who have, that Claudine learns the distinctions between lust and love, the practical, the sensual, and the romantic. When her marriage is threatened by her desires and her husband’s encouragement, she finally discovers what love is — and is not.

Claudine and Annie is a departure in the series; it is the only one of the four novels that is told by a different narrator, the housewife Annie. In some ways, it’s more interesting than Claudine in Paris and Claudine Married because Annie is a powerful narrator in her own way, who loses her innocence when her husband goes away to collect an inheritance. In his absences, she sees how she has been subjugated as well as the crassness of her acquaintances, including her practical, faithless, domineering, money-grubbing sister-in-law. As she sees more of that from which her husband protected her — for his own selfish reasons — she experiences the paradoxical need to escape and to see more (not unlike Claudine in Claudine Married).

In this novel, Claudine has become a background figure whose voice is for the most part rare and strangely muted. The reader, who has watched Claudine mature and grow, can imagine how Claudine might have told this tale from the outside. At the same time, the strength of the Claudine novels lies in her voice and perspective, and in her catty observations, sarcasm, ironic wit, sensuous descriptions, and unique personality. In that sense, Claudine and Annie is an anticlimax — a loss to the reader of the Claudine we had come to appreciate (if not always like) in her prime. With her earlier return to Renaud, Claudine has lost her edge, which is only hinted at in Claudine and Annie.

The Claudine novels are filled with wonderful characters, including her unforgettable father and her equally unforgettable white cat, Fanchette. The Complete Claudine is a great read for Colette’s distinctive voice and insights and for the view it provides of turn-of-the-century rural France and urban Paris. You may not always like Claudine (or Colette), but she never fails to entertain and to say that which is worth hearing.

29 January 2006
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf


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