Colette and her mother

I’m not that far into Judith Thurman’s biography of Colette, maybe 60 pages out of 500, but she’s married already — the early years rush by in the biography, largely because there’s a lot that’s unknown about her early life. The chronology of how she met and got to know her first husband is unclear, for example (she married fairly young, at 20). I’m finding her an elusive figure as I read about her; the time is long enough ago (she was born in 1873), the place and customs different enough, and, most of all, the family dynamics and Colette’s own personality odd enough, that I find myself more mystified than ever about who she is. I feel as though I can often worm my way into someone’s life imaginatively — no matter how far apart we might be in time and place and personality — but not so with Colette, at least not yet. So far, she seems to be an elusive figure for the biographer as well, not least because Colette was known for exaggerating and embellishing and sometimes outright lying about her history. None of this lessens my interest in her; in fact, quite the opposite. I find myself wanting to know more and more about this mysterious figure.

Some of the most interesting parts of the biograhy are about Colette’s relationship with her mother, which, as some bloggers have pointed out to me and Thurman describes in some detail, was extremely complicated. In many ways, it seems, Colette’s mother, Sido, taught her much that was valuable, including a questioning attitude toward traditional morality and the patriarchy. Thurman writes,

If [Colette] never became a professional housewife, it was, in part, Sido’s doing. Her ambitions for her daughter did not include drudgery … the flash of defiance Colette saw in Sido’s garden face became the light she wrote by. It had shown her, very young, that a woman’s domestic burdens are incompatible with her creative freedom. And with Sido’s encouragement she rejected those aspects of her mother’s experience that Sido let her feel were demeaning, confining or sacrificial — including motherhood itself.

Isn’t that a great legacy? And yet, as I understand it, Colette was, at least at times, neglectful of her daughter. Motherhood can be confining, yes, but what to do when you’ve got a daughter who needs you? To learn from your mother that motherhood can be demeaning, confining, and sacrificial is bound to be a difficult, ambiguous lesson, one that could affect generations to come.

And here’s another part of Sido’s legacy: the jealousy and domination of Colette and her siblings. Here is Thurman again, on the wedding night Colette spent in her parents’ house:

In the small house where [Sido’s] daughter was losing her virginity, at least officially, the mother had not undressed for bed; had spent the whole night awake, evidently tormented and unhappy. She was unable to bear the thought of Colette’s “going off with a strange man,” or her initiation into an adult sexual life, and Colette was nearly unable to bear her mother’s sadness.

When I came to this scene, I thought of Isak Dinesen’s image for the ordeal of separation — the Bible story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel. “I will not let thee go,” says Jacob to the Angel, “until thou blesseth me.” Sido gave her daughter many inestimable gifts, but never the blessing of letting go.

We shall see, as I read on, what Colette makes of this complicated legacy.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

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