Colette Week: Day 1 – Claudine at School (1900)

Last year I undertook to blog on a Novella a Day in May, which I really enjoyed. I’m hoping to do it again this year, but I fear I may end up delaying it until 2020. To tide me over I’m going to do a mini-version with a favourite writer who wrote short novels: Colette each day for a week, starting today as it’s her birthday.

Image from here

I’ll begin obviously, with Colette’s first novel, Claudine a l’ecole which I read in English translation, Claudine at School (trans. Antonia White 1956). Claudine is fifteen and in her final year at school. She lives in Burgundy with her father, who is distant but loving, interested mainly in slugs. As a result, Claudine is left to her own devices; her voice is strong and distinctive but she can also be something of a bitch, manipulating people and freely giving out slaps and other violence to her classmates.

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”

There are some lovely descriptions of the countryside which Colette clearly had great feeling for:

“The charm, the delight of this countryside composed of hills and valleys so narrow that some are ravines, lies in the woods – the deep, encroaching woods that ripple and wave away into the distance as far as you can see….Green meadows make rifts in them here and there, so do little plots of cultivation.”

A new teacher arrives at the school, Aimee Lanthenay, and Claudine is immediately entranced:

“My English mistress seemed adorable to me that night under the library lamp. Her cat’s eyes shone like pure gold, at once malicious and caressing, and I admired them, not without reminding myself that they were neither kind nor frank nor trustworthy. But they sparkled so brilliantly in her fresh face and she seemed so utterly at ease in this warm, softly-lit room that I already felt ready to love her so much, so very much, with all my irrational heart. Yes, I’ve known perfectly well, for a long time, that I have an irrational heart. But knowing it doesn’t stop me in the least.”

Claudine is aware of her own attractions and confident in them, including her appeal to the school’s District Superintendent Dutertre, who she sees clear-sightedly as something of a lech. Ultimately however, she loses Aimee to her Headmistress:

“The class was well-trained now. All the girls even down to those in the Third Division knew that, during recreation, they must never enter a classroom in which the mistresses had shut themselves up… we found them so tenderly entwined, or so absorbed in their whisperings, or else Madame Sergent holding her little Aimee on her lap with such a total lack of reserve that even the stupidest were nonplussed”

The treatment of sexual attraction between women is dealt with frankly in the novel. It is never apologised for, explained away as schoolgirl crushes, or treated as anything extraordinary. Claudine is at once inexperienced but wise and somewhat cynical beyond her years:

“In a week she will possess another fiancée who will leave her at the end of three months; she is not cunning enough to hold the boys and not practical enough to get herself married. And, as she obstinately insists on remaining virtuous, this may go on for a long time.”

The plot is minimal, the novel is Claudine’s diary of her final school year and all that entails. Yet Claudine’s distinctive voice propelled me along as I wanted to see what the precocious teenager would do next.

“Papa was sending me to Paris to a rich childless aunt… How should I do without the country; with this hunger for green, growing things that never left me?”

The answer to that question tomorrow 😊

28 thoughts on “Colette Week: Day 1 – Claudine at School (1900)

  1. Hooray – I love your projects! I vaguely remember reading Colette in french at school. But since that was about 35 years ago (yikes!), I can’t recall much detail. So I am looking forward to your daily musings as a reminder. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely review! I’ve never read any of the Claudine novels, but the recent Colette biopic has piqued my interest in this aspect of her work. That voice is so sharp and distinctive, a girl wise beyond her years.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ha, like many of the others, I wasn’t sure about Keira Knightley as Colette, but I loved Colette in my youth – read all her books obsessively. I so identified with Claudine as well. And I love Colette’s tender portrayal of her mother in Sido.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Keira as Colette is not an obvious choice 😀

      I think Colette does speak to young women especially, but in my 40s I find there’s still so much to enjoy, her writing is so rich.

      I’ve not read Sido – I’ll get hold of a copy, thanks for the tip!


  4. The only Colette I’ve read, some time ago, was her 1923 novella Le Blé en herbe, translated as Ripening Seed. From what I can tell, it’s based on a familiar plot: much younger man seduced by older, more experienced woman. I found the film OK, like Jacqui, but a bit pedestrian and worthy after the fireworks of The Favourite – much better, more ambitious and original. Nice costumes and sets, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If the week goes according to plan I’m hoping to write about Ripening Seed on Friday. Yes, on the front of my old Penguin it says its based on Daphnis and Chloe, so a very old tale.

      The Favourite appeals to me more than Colette I must admit. I need to get myself to the cinema 🙂


  5. I never even thought of reading the Claudine novels although I’ve read many of her books. This does sound rather charming though. Once I’ve finished all those still on my piles, I might give them a go.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Winding up the Week #55 – Book Jotter

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