Colette’s hair

I finished Colette’s My Mother’s House and Sido last night; if you aren’t familiar with it, the short chapters in My Mother’s House were published serially first and then collected in book form in 1922, and Sido was published seven years later. Sido is made up of three sections, one each about Colette’s mother, father, and siblings.

I enjoyed the book very much and recommend it — I do think it should be read slowly. I read it a bit fast and sometimes felt like it was rushing past me and I was missing things. The writing was beautifully lyrical, which is a phrase that would turn me off if I read it in someone else’s review, but in this case the writing worked for me. The short chapters are like prose poems, each capturing a story or a character or a mood. They got me interested in reading a biography of Colette; there are things hinted at in this book that I’d like to know more about — Colette’s conflicted feelings about femininity and sexuality, in particular.

Here is Colette writing about her hair:

I was twelve years old, with the manners and vocabulary of an intelligent, rather uncouth boy, but my gait was not boyish because my figure already showed signs of development, and above all because I wore my hair in two long plaits that swished through the air around me like whips. These I used indiscriminately as ropes from which to hang the picnic basket, as brushes to be dipped in ink or in paint, as whips for a recalcitrant dog or as ribbons to make the cat play. My mother wailed to see me maltreat these two golden brown thongs for whose sake I was daily condemned to get up half an hour earlier than my school-fellows. At seven o’clock on dark winter mornings I would fall asleep again, sitting before the wood fire, while my mother brushed and combed my nodding head. From those mornings I date my invincible hatred of long hair.

As someone who would head out in sub-zero weather with wet hair rather than wake up ten minutes earlier to use the blow-dryer, I sympathize. I love her impulse to think of her hair as a whip before she thinks of it as an object of beauty or a source of attention. She ends the paragraph this way:

Long hairs would be discovered tangled in the lower branches of the trees in the garden, long hairs attached to the cross-beam from which hung the trapeze and the swing. A pullet in the barnyard was supposed to be lame from birth, until we ascertained that a long hair, covered with pimply skin was bound tightly round one of its feet and atrophying it.

Could she be clearer about seeing the conventions of femininity as crippling? However, the next paragraph takes another turn:

There is just one moment, in the evening, when the pins are withdrawn and the shy face shines out for an instant from between the tangled waves; and there is a similar moment in the early morning. And because of those two moments everything that I have just written against long hair counts for nothing at all.

Colette both loves and hates her hair, she feels it holds her captive, but she is also captivated when it’s let loose. It can cover and hide her face, but the moment of her face “shining” through the dangling hair somehow compensates for everything. She is oddly removed from this passage; it’s not “my shy face” but “the shy face” that shines through, as though she can appreciate her own beauty only if she pretends it is someone else’s.

Colette’s chapter called “Maternity” is similarly conflicted. Her sister makes an unfortunate marriage and is estranged from the rest of the family; when they find out she is pregnant, here is Colette’s response:

I had ceased to think about her, nor did I attach any special significance to the fact that just at that time my mother began to have attacks of nervous faintness, nausea and palpitations. I only remember that the sight of my sister, distorted and grown heavy, filled me with still more embarrassment and disgust.

When her sister is giving birth, her mother, kept from her side because of the family feud, goes over to the sister’s house and lingers outside, listening for sounds that would tell her what is happening. Colette writes this remarkable passage:

A second cry, pitched on the same note, almost like the opening of a melody, floated towards us, and a third …. Then I saw my mother grip her own loins with desperate hands, spin round and stamp on the ground as she began to assist and share, by her low groans, by the rocking of her tormented body, by the clasping of her unwanted arms, and by all her maternal anguish and strength, the anguish and strength of the ungrateful daughter who, so near to her and yet so far away, was bringing a child into the world.

Colette is shocked and embarrassed by this physical spectacle, and yet she is fascinated by her mother as well, seeing the horror of her mother’s anguish and her tremendous strength at the same time. She knows, as a woman, she is a part of this process — the writer Colette has given birth to a daughter by this time — and she agonizes and at the same time she can’t keep herself away.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

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