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Jane Gilmour, Colette’s France: her lives, her loves – TLS

25/04/2014

This is perhaps the perfect moment for a new biography of Colette – the provincial girl who arrived as an ingénue in fin de siècle Paris, wrote a handful of sensational best-sellers under her husband’s name, kissed her lesbian lover on stage at the Moulin Rouge, worked the halls in semi-nude revue shows, only to emerge as a respected cultural doyenne: theatre critic, literary editor of Le Matin, author of fifty novels, and the first French woman to be honoured with a state funeral. Colette’s triumphant, picaresque life, her glorious refusal to be hemmed in by society or to recognize her place in it, make her an ideal role-model for today’s self-fascinated young, equally disposed to role-playing and self-mythology.

Colette in Rêve d'Égypte at the Moulin Rouge, 1907, in which she kissed her lesbian lover, the writer of this Orientalist fantasy, the Marquise de Belbeuf.

Colette in Rêve d’Égypte at the Moulin Rouge, 1907.

In her new biography, however, Jane Gilmour is more interested in what Colette means to her personally than in exploring how the writer’s life and work anticipate any modern self-preoccupation. As with Rebecca Mead’s recent book, My Life in Middlemarch, Gilmour is not content with a portrait of her subject alone, she has to put herself into the story. So she pursues her heroine (“she was like a confidante, a friend”), eating where the gourmande ate, sleeping where the free-lover slept in a variety of country houses, castles and hotels in Paris, Brittany and Provence. The result is a literary travelogue that conveys Colette’s talent for the good life, and gives a serviceable introduction to her work. But after several conventional biographies and Julia Kristeva’s eulogy to Colette’s linguistic “genius” (2004), Gilmour misses the opportunity for a truly ‘personal’ reading: one that engages with the challenges still presented by a woman whose self-regard was so immense, and pursuit of her own interests so steadfast, that she never entertained the idea of women as the second sex.  What Gilmour does with this instead is to frown in disapproval: “There have been times when I have not particularly liked the Colette that has revealed herself to me over the course of this journey.”

Colette’s France is generously padded with contemporary portraits, handwritten letters, theatre posters, and photographs by Gilmour of pretty French scenes, all designed in a découpage style. The flower border running along the bottom of every page is a nod to the “earth mother”, Colette’s most nostalgic and quite possibly fraudulent persona, given the neglect of her daughter and affair with a teenage stepson. However, the book’s appealing displays cannot disguise its lack of original analysis. Colette’s was “a particularly feminine sensibility”, Gilmour asserts, “her narcissism dominates”. Well, quite. But without an examination of what this narcissism meant, how it permeated her work and made her so indomitable, Colette is reduced to a collection of traits, susceptible to judgments about her likeability.

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