The Pure and the Impure by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette with introduction by Judith Thurman. Recommended.
Colette believed The Pure and the Impure was her best work. I can’t judge, not having read anything of hers but a few short stories, but this collection of her observations about human attitudes toward relationships and sexuality is insightful and timeless. It is also difficult and obscure at times, perhaps because of the translation and because there is no real structure to such a collection.
Thanks to her milieu, her position in it, and her willingness to seek the story, Colette could draw upon the most interesting people of her time — the givers and the takers. From the older woman who publicly fakes an orgasm while self-pleasuring in an opium house to gladden the heart of her young, sickly lover to the roué who exclaims of women, “They allow us to be their master in the sex act, but never their equal. That is what I cannot forgive them” to the circle of prominent women who learn the ways of sex from servants, dress as men, and love horses (she calls the most notable of these women “La Chevalière”) to the “happy,” alcoholic, lesbian poet Renée Vivien to the gay men with whom she seems most comfortable, Colette covers a spectrum of sexuality and combinations — including those men and women who play their heterosexual and homosexual relations against one another.
“I’m devoted to that boy, with all my heart,” the older woman tells Colette, a stranger to her. “But what is the heart, madame? It’s worth less than people think. It’s quite accommodating. It accepts anything. You give it whatever you have, it’s not very particular. But the body . . . Ha! That’s something else, again.” Thurman believes this sums up Colette’s view precisely, the heart as a slave to the body.
Although Colette apparently wanted to remain an impartial observer, she cannot mask her own feelings and biases. One senses that she could not quite see a woman-woman partnership as “whole,” as passionate, as capable of being the source of tragedy in the same way as other types of relationships. (Anaïs Nin will also hint at something similar in her diaries, at the “incompleteness” of female/female love.) “What woman would not blush to seek out her amie only for sensual pleasure? In no way is it passion that fosters the devotion of two women, but rather a feeling of kinship.”
She is fascinated by the story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, the “Ladies of Llangollen,” who elope and spend several decades living together. During this time, Butler will keep an extensive journal about her life with “My Beloved,” while, to Colette’s consternation and fascination, Ponsonby remains a silent partner. Colette so romanticizes the Ladies that she says they run off together as “young girls,” when in fact Butler was 39 and Ponsonby in her 20s. While there is all kind of detail about their living arrangements, from gardening, sewing, hosting an array of distinguished visitors, and sharing a bedroom and bed, there is nothing known of their emotional or sexual intimacies other than their obvious devotion to one another. They remain a happy, content enigma to Colette and to the present day.
The book concludes on a more personal note — about jealousy, “the only suffering that we endure without ever becoming used to it.” She maintains that “a man never belongs to us” and hints at the unique and not unfriendly relationship two female rivals may have — even rivals who wish to kill one another. When one rival tells Colette all the things that had prevented her from killing Colette in Rambouillet (missed train, stalled car, etc.), Colette says, “I was not in Rambouillet.” The relationship between her and her rival becomes more interesting, more revealing, more important, and more affectionate than with the man over whom they duel.
Colette suffered what many turn-of-the-century female intellectuals must have — a society’s fear of “masculine” women who are too intelligent, too outspoken, too knowing. When she offers to travel with the roué (apparently as a friend), he says in seriousness, “I only like to travel with women,” which, a moment later, is softened by, “You, a woman? Why, try as you will . . .” Even today, there are women who have experienced this.
“This is a sad book,” Colette said. “It doesn’t warm itself at the fire of love, because the flesh doesn’t cheer up its ardent servants.” Thurman adds, “This great ode to emptiness was written by a woman who felt full.”
The Pure and the Impure is a must read for anyone who enjoys Colette’s other writings; it is the most autobiographical of her works.
1 January 2002
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf