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Picture of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, author of over 50 books, including Claudine and School; French Literature

January 28, 1873
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette   (1873 - 1954)
Colette & Claudine
by Steve King

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On this day in 1873 Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) was born outside Paris. Even given her mythologizing, and her intentional blurring of the lines in her autobiographical fiction, Colette's full and sensational life made her one of the most popular writers and personalities in the first half of the twentieth century. She wrote over fifty books, and is credited and blamed with much: having invented the modern teenager (presented in her early Claudine novels); being the first modern woman (based on her intention to live "in the most normal manner I know, which is according to [my] pleasure"); being the first superstar (her self-promotion, her own line of chocolates and cosmetics, her personal gym, her cake-and-eat-it-too lament for privacy); being the first actress to bare her breasts on stage (or not bare them in a jeweled bra, or in man's clothing); being one of the first to write about the faked orgasm; being the first woman to be given, in 1954, a state funeral. Whether as Simone de Beauvoir or Madonna, she knocked the top-hat off more than one husband and the age, and most of the thousands at the funeral were women.

If Colette helped shape a new era, her four-book Claudine series, published beginning in 1900, is regarded as striking the first blow. Judith Thurman's recent biography (Secrets of the Flesh, 1999; there have been several other new ones) discusses Claudine at School, the opening book in the series, along such symbolic lines. The novel begins with the girls' old school being torn down, Claudine discovering that its walls were not full and thick but "hollow as armoires, with a kind of black corridor between them, where there's nothing but dust and a frightful, repulsive old smell. I amuse myself by frightening Marie Belhomme, telling her that these mysterious hiding places were contrived in the olden days to immure women who had deceived their husbands." The last scene of the novel is a dedication ceremony for the new school; as the traditional rites and pieties are observed, Claudine and her friends deliver their best, teenage lip-service. Thurman's summary: "And the girls who have spent two hundred pages comparing breasts, fighting in the dust, lusting for each other, and for their teachers of both sexes, struggling for their places in a pecking order as a vertical as that of any barnyard or corporation, listen to the speeches with lowered eyes, in dresses of First Communion white, and lift their off-key voices in "The Hymn to Nature."

Another recent biographer says that, from the commercial point of view, Colette's Claudine series "is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in all of French literature." The legendary story of how her first husband locked her in a closet to write them is apparently not accurate; it is true that he took credit for writing the series, that he was unethical and debauched, that Colette started sleeping with his mistress while on the second book, and that she would soon leave him far behind.

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