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Published June 18th 2018
The lives and loves of the belle epoque writer
Released in 2013, Colette's France by Jane Gilmour traces the life and loves of the sometimes controversial, often complex and always talented French novelist, journalist and mime performer, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who later became known simply as Colette.
So Who is Colette? In a life spanning from 1873, when she was born in the flourishing village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, until her death in Paris on August 3 1954, Colette wrote over 50 novels and a string of short stories among which Gigi and the Claudine novels were her most famous. Gigi was in fact made into a film starring Audrey Hepburn.
Colette was applauded by the arts community and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, admitted to the Belgian Academy of French Language and Literature and was an honorary associate of the American National Institute of Arts and Letters. She became only the second woman in history to be made a grand officer of the Legion of Honor.
Beyond the public awards and accolades, Jane Gilmour helps us to understand Colette's character and personality. Her own reflection of Colette is that "she was unflinchingly female – tough, egotistical and seductive. Her tenacity, her perseverance, her single-minded pursuit of her own interests were what made her the great writer she was."
Importantly, we see Colette through Gilmour's eyes as she retraces the sites across France of significance in Colette's life. We begin to see how Colette's childhood house looks today, how Parisian apartments and salons where Colette frequented, once somewhat seedy and artistic, have been replaced by trendy shops and noisy brasseries.
While it clearly applauds the literary works of Colette and her path to be recognised as an author in her own right, the book is embedded in understanding Colette's complex relationships particularly with her mother Sido, her daughter Colette, her 3 husbands, friends (including Jean Cocteau), her family and her lovers.
Like the author, there were times when I was intrigued by and applauded Colette and her choices to not to be straight-jacketed by conservative, social traditions. Her decision to embark on a relationship with her 17-year-old stepson, Bertrand, was surprising but nonconventional as was Colette. At other times, I would be troubled and almost annoyed at her seeming lack of emotive and empathetic connection with her only child, a daughter, Colette de Jouvenel. She appeared to show an unwavering individuality that was somewhat selfish and single-minded in her quest to live her life on her terms.
Pictures and layout Colette's France is the kind of book that becomes your companion. It's one that you want to carry around and take with you on your own travels through the everyday. Beautiful illustrations, hand-written cards, aged photographs of the writer and short extracts from Colette's literary works are scattered throughout the pages. They help to further take us deeper into appreciating Colette's life.
Over its 205 pages, the book is as much an insight into the intriguing life of Colette as it is a life-long and personal journey of fascination, inquiry and re-discovery for Jane Gilmour herself. She recalls and re-visits her earlier work as a student in Paris, where she completed her doctoral thesis on Colette and shares the enduring and special place that the work has played in her own life.
Colette's France was a book of which I was saddened to have reached the final page. I didn't want the joy of reading it to end. If you are a fan of Colette, a francophile or simply interested in delving into the life of a writer in the 1920s, then you are likely to enjoy this one. Bravo Jane Gilmour.