Friday, October 29, 2021

Five more Colette books, including La Maison de Claudine - My mother smelled of lemon-verbena leaves which she rolled between her palms or thrust into her pocket

Colette wrote close to a book a year for fifty years.  It’s a lot of books.  I’m still in the early 1920s, the time of the novels Chéri and Le Blé en herbe.  I have mostly read Colette’s short pieces, not her novels.  From this period:

La Chambre éclairée (1922, The Well-lit Room), a ragbag of pieces published during the war, some of which are about wartime life in Paris, which sounds to me more interesting than it is.  The Collected Stories only includes one of the these, a few pages about a misogynistic dressmaker.

La Femme cachée (1924, The Hidden Woman).  Whereas almost all of this is in Collected Stories, likely on the grounds that this book is something new for Colette, a book of short stories.  Regular old short stories, largely about couples, often in hotels.  Young couples on a honeymoon, older couples working on their marriage, that sort of thing. 

I hope I have made clear that one interesting thing about Colette is that although she mostly wrote short pieces, and always wrote short books, she thought in terms of the book, the text as a coherent object of some kind.  Animals or the music hall or couples in hotels.  Books that make sense as books.  One more reason it would be nice for English-language readers to be able to engage them as such.  Colette would make more sense.

La Maison de Claudine (1922).  This one is a beauty.  It is a childhood memoir in the form of vignettes, centered around Sido, Colette’s mother, set in village Burgundy, full of animals, flowers, and minor small-town incidents.  Colette links the book to her earliest books, the Claudine novels, but only in the title, The House of Claudine.  The most recent English translation abandons the connection, going (accurately, as far as the contents go) with My Mother’s House. 

She was easily moved to laughter, a youthful, rather shrill laughter that brought tears to her eyes, and which she would afterwords deplore as inconsistent with the dignity of a mother burdened with the care of four children and financial worries.  She would master her paroxysms of mirth, scolding herself severely, “Come, now, come!...” and then fall to laughing again till her pince-nez trembled on her nose.  (“Laughter”, ellipses in original, tr. Una Vincenza Troubridge and Enid McLeod)

Colette gives her mother a big, appealing personality.  And she, Colette, is such a pure sensualist:

My mother smelled of laundered cretonne, of irons heated on the poplar-wood fire, of lemon-verbena leaves which she rolled between her palms or thrust into her pocket.  (“My Mother and Morals”)

In a few years, Colette would write another little book, Sido (1930), that openly mythologized her mother, turning her into some kind of domestic nature deity.  Her father and siblings, also treated in the book, come off more like people.  An odd book.  My Mother’s House is the easy, maybe the easiest, Colette book to recommend to newcomers, at least those who do not mind a book that is minimally eventful but more about personality and mood.

Now I have just two more Colette books to go, the two I read most recently, but I am now reminded that, no, I have read one more Colette book, sort of, a collège anthology of letters titled Mère et fille (Mother and Daughter), which gives about a third of its length to the formal 17th century Mme de Sévigné, most famous for Proust’s use of her; a third to George Sand scolding her daughter; and the rest to Sido writing young Colette and Colette writing her own daughter.  Honestly most of what I remember about this book is that George Sand was a nightmarish mother.  Colette and her mother and daughter were all ordinary people, not constantly disappointed geniuses.  The complete collection of the correspondence between Colette and her daughter is over 600 pages long.  I enjoy Colette enough that I sometimes imagine reading “all” of her fifty plus books, but maybe not all of “all.”


  1. I think I've read pretty much everything in translation by Colette but I long for more. I really wish her complete works could be made available in English in an authentic new edition. But that's a pipe dream, I think... :(

  2. Time for a revival! Maybe Persephone editions. But if the Keira Knightley movie did not spark the revival, likely nothing will.

  3. What's the original of “Come, now, come!...”?