I love Colette’s writing, though I’ve not yet managed to read her most scandalous novels about Claudine. Nor have I yet seen the Keira Knightley biopic; undoubtedly I’ll get around to them. My Colette collection consists of her two Chéri novels, Julie de Carneilhan, Chance Acquaintances, The Other Woman, The Vagabond, Gigi and The Cat: all short works packed with storytelling genius.
My Penguin edition of La Maison de Claudine / My Mother’s House, which includes the even shorter memoir Sido, has a bizarrely fawning introduction by Roger Senhouse, who has some literary-historical importance. He was intimate with Lytton Strachey and other men in British artistic circles in the 1920s and 1930s, and apparently rescued the publishing house that evolved into Secker & Warburg, which went on to publish Colette in English translation. His introduction reads as if it has been badly translated from a French original, giving the impression that Senhouse wanted to come across as so francophile that he habitually expresses himself franco-syntactically. Just a little pretentious, non?
My Mother’s House is a collection of short pieces, based on the original Fleuron edition of La Maison de Claudine with several new pieces added. It’s a memoir of growing up in the nineteenth century as the youngest child in a lively and loving household dominated by Sido, Colette’s mother. All the senses and emotions are involved, and there are occasional hints at the Claudineness to come, when ‘The Little One’, Colette’s nine-year old self as a child narrator, feels an inexplicable attraction to the breast of Adrienne, her mother’s great friend, who also suckled her as a baby.
There are many threads to follow. The family story is the strongest, unpacking the life and history of one-legged Captain Colette, late of the Zouaves, his devotion to Sidonie the widow with two children, and their additional children together. Juliette the eldest daughter gets herself married against everyone’s wishes to a unfriendly neighbour, and Sido is barred forever from her side, leaving her to pace the garden all night while her first grandchild is being audibly born. Achille, the eldest son, becomes a doctor, as responsible in adulthood as he had been reliable and passonate about life as a boy. Léo the younger brother is an astonishing musician, playing perfectly by ear the tunes he hears passing in the street.
There is a servant’s wedding, the discovery of moths in the captain’s red military cape, truancy, fear of child abduction and many natural history experiments, in which Sido is so enraptured by the intricacy of the blackbirds’ wings and feet that she almost forgets to chase them off the cherries. As an old woman Sido still tries to do everything herself, chopping wood in the frost in her nightgown, and trying to move a heavy piece of furniture from one landing to another on her own. Her rattling narrative permeates the memoir like a flood of life and opinions. She is the centre of the family, and the bedrock of Colette’s values. It’s a book to dip into and out of, long enough for a plane trip and detailed enough to immerse you in the smells and textures of a French town garden in the summer, populated by silent reading children and sleeping cats.