‘Yes, they used to tell me, when I was little, that I had a grown-up person’s eyes; later it was eyes that were “not quite respectable”: you can’t please everyone and yourself as well. I prefer to please myself first of all…’
How quaint to see what was once considered mischief. Time has outpaced the shock accompanying Claudine’s first publishing. The worst ‘crimes’, ‘excesses’, or ‘indecencies’ within the novel peak at insolence, physical torment, and a bite of bisexuality. The modern eye smirks, it smiles, but it does not recoil in scandal. To be fair, however, I doubt Colette aimed to write sensationalism.
Claudine is a fifteen year-old schoolgirl in her last year. Her father has a lax hand with her, caring more for the study of slugs, than her development. She attends a local public school, quite below her abilities. There she meets new friends… well, not friends, more competitors. No, not competitors, neither… She meets objects for teasing. None of them matter that much to her, spare Mademoiselle Aimée Lanthenay, a nineteen year-old assistant teacher. She’s a popular girl, popular with the schoolboys, the workmen – and Claudine. Claudine, under the veil of needing an English tutor, organises meetings with her crush, all alone, in her room.
I will have to spoil the first hundred pages or so. Because, as I will explain later, they are narratively and formally different from the rest of the novel. A thorough review requires that I move beyond these pages.
Lanthenay nips her budding relationship with Claudine, in favour of (according to Claudine) a more lucrative romance with her superior, Mademoiselle Sergent. On top of that, Lanthenay gets engaged to a male assistant teacher. And all this is parallel to Lanthenay’s backroom dalliance with the District Inspector, which comes to light with explosive results.
The rest of the novel is not so plot-heavy. The last two-thirds are a set of events, rather than a progression of events. The first third has a beginning, middle and end. It also has a central conflict, even if it seems tangential at times. The last two-thirds don’t have these. In my edition of the book, at least, there is a blank page between page 115 and the rest of the book. This is the only time this happens. In the next section Claudine recounts her sickness, but similar transitions only get a line break. It is as if Colette, one-third into her novel, changed her aims. She had run out of huff for telling narratives. Yet she could not be bothered to rewrite the beginning, nor the heart to throw it out. She settles for drawing a line between the sections.
Lacking momentum of narrative structure, the second section must barrel along on the strength of Claudine’s personality. In the first section we are privy to her flippant, irreverent thoughts and feelings, but in the second they are all we have. All we have is her acting and reacting in barely connected events.1 And it is a pleasant time. She is delightfully mischievous, amoral, ready to snip at anyone or anything that does not please her. If she is cruel, she means it from no evil. She means it from child-like selfishness. She is a static character, she is the same character from the first to the last page. This does not make her boring character.
The problem is that she cannot sustain the whole novel. Though it is entertaining to skip with her through the school year, it ceases to entertain before the end. Without a narrative hook to bait me forward, I grew bored. There is no climax, and hence nothing leading to the climax, and hence no appetizing trail of bread crumbs through the last hundred pages. There is an ending set piece, two set pieces: the exams, and then the Agricultural Festival. Neither realises a conflict introduced earlier in the book; you could cut either one out and few readers would notice the absence.
During the exams, there is no tension. Most of the tests are beneath Claudine’s intelligence. On top of that, she doesn’t care about exam results. There are no stakes. And that’s fine, in theory. Neither the exams nor the festival were meant to arouse suspense, tension, or conflict; they are playgrounds for Claudine’s narration. But while I chuckled along with Claudine for as long as her exams, the festival seemed a lap too far.
Cheeky innocence. That’s the spark animating the book, which makes it something more than a turn-of-the-century artefact. I don’t mean ‘innocent’ in a moralistic sense – the novel is far from moralistic. Nor do I mean ‘innocent’ as in ‘lacking vulgarity’ – though it does lack vulgarity. I mean ‘innocence’ as in ‘child-like amorality’. Claudine can do no wrong for she adheres to neither good nor evil. She praises and blames, bites and caresses, but not from any moral impulse; she does so from her self-centred sentiments (and that is not a bad thing).
I can imagine a worse version of this novel, tainted by a tone of scandal, or leering, or didacticism. That worse novel would have an undercurrent of ‘this should not be’, or the slurp of a pervert licking his lips. This novel depicts lesbianism, and shows a schoolgirl’s just-short-of-sexual sexual license. But Colette writes it as all fun and games. For that reason the novel has endured social progress; its nonchalant attitude towards sensuality and Sapphism could have been written today. I mean, yes, the nonchalant-ness extends to acts that were scandalous then and should still be now. A school inspector leers at the fifteen year-old schoolgirls, and makes advances towards our heroine. The schoolgirls in the novel three-quarters revile, and one-quarter smile at this behaviour – it is not viewed as a crime. Fair enough; this novel is not an expose. It would be out Claudine’s character, if she started making moral judgements.
Just above I implied there is no sense of leering in this book, but that’s not true. On first-printing Claudine a la Cole named Colette’s then-husband as author; at points, a male author would make a lot of sense.
‘Luce went on enlightening me:
“At night, Clauidne, you simply can’t imagine what fun we have when we go to bed. We laugh, we run about in our chemises, we have pillow-fights. Some of the girls hide behind curtains to get undressed because they say it embarrasses them. The oldest one, Rose Raquenot, washes so little that her underclothes are grey by the end of the three days she wears them. Yesterday, they hid my nightdress so I had to stay in the washroom, absolutely naked. Luckily Mademoiselle Griset came along! Then we make fun of the one who’s so plump she had to powder herself all over with starch so as not chafe herself. … In the new washhouse they heat up a huge wine-vat full of water… as big as a room. We all get undressed and we cram ourselves into it to soap ourselves.”’ (128)
Yes, there are the untitilating images of unwashed underwear, and chafing, but this seems a man’s fantasy, not a woman’s. When I first read the preface, I thought Colette was covering herself from scandal – her rebuttal to readers who read autobiography from the novel. Specifically when she recounts: ‘Willy [the man whose name the book was first published under] said to me “hot this – these childish reminiscences up a little? For example, a too passionate friendship between Claudine and one of her schoolmates. … Some naughty pranks … You see what I mean?”’ (6-7). There seems to be more truth in this anecdote than I first thought. The occasionally lascivious narration rarely distracts, however. The excerpt above is the most egregious example.
Claudine at School is an arm-in-arm skip with a puckish schoolgirl. Though it entertains most of the way, without a narrative through-line, interest dissipates before the end. I do not expect I will reread this novel, but I do not regret reading it, and I have picked up the sequel.
1 This is sounding too avant-garde. By ‘barely connected events’ I just mean there is no narrative cause-and-effect. It is not a singular story of a girl in her final year of school; it is collection of scenes of a girl in her final year, which happen to be arranged chronologically.
[Quotations from Secker & Warburg’s ‘Uniform Edition of works by Colette VIII: Claudine at School’ (1956). London. Trans. Antonia White.]