"In 1900, a provincial beauty best known as the child bride of a famous Parisian rake captivated the Belle Epoque by writing a story that invented the modern teenage girl. It was the first in a series of wildly popular but also critically acclaimed novels that, combined with a flamboyant career on the stage, made this former country girl the first authentic superstar of the century." "But for all her celebrity as one of France's greatest and most notorious novelists and personalities, Sidonic-Gabrielle Colette was a profoundly reticent and self-suspicious creature who fiercely resists being known." "Having spent her village childhood in the shadow of a queenly, possessive mother who taught her the value of resilience, Colette would go on to embody the image of the modern woman. At twenty, she marries the canny but unscrupulous Willy, who not only takes the credit - and the royalties - for her best-selling Claudine novels, but also keeps her enthralled in more primal ways. In 1908, she divorces her Pygmalion and pursues the most public of her many affairs with women. At forty, she gives birth to her only and much-neglected child. Her second marriage, to her daughter's father - a brilliant, predatory, patrician journalist and politician - falters, then fails. At forty-seven, she seduces her adolescent stepson. At menopause, she rediscovers her mother. At fifty-two, she embarks upon a torrid adventure with a much younger man that blooms - against all expectations - into the serene and enduring mutual devotion she has yearned for but has never known. This third husband, Maurice Goudeket, also becomes the source of her worst anguish when he is arrested by the Gestapo during the Occupation." "As Colette redefines the conventions of loving and aging, she continues to live and write with Olympian vitality. Her principal subject is the bonds of love; her one true faith the consoling power of sensual pleasure. She opens a beauty institute and does makeovers in a lab coat; she produces a body of incisive journalism; she writes enchanting gems like Gigi and Sido, and provocative masterpieces like Cheri, Break of Day, The Ripening Seed, and The Pure and the Impure. Her wartime work remains the most controversial part of her legacy, and Thurman addresses the troubling questions it raises."
With this wealth of information the would be biographer is spoilt for choice as to how she might slant her book. Perhaps a straight narrative life and times, or perhaps a more risque book that dwells on Colette's sex life, perhaps an in-depth analysis of her published works or a focus on how she was viewed by her contemporaries. Judith Thurman has opted for an all encompassing approach skilfully pulling together all these threads to produce a thoughtful and vivid life of this great French author. Colette's story is told in a lively narrative style with enough details of contemporary events/issues in France to give the story the required perspective and to provide the necessary background for the reader. Her major published works are analysed succinctly as they occur in the narrative and consideration is given as to how they fit into the oeuvre. My fears that the "Secrets of the Flesh" title might be an indication of a salacious romp through Colette's sex life were unfounded. This is a well rounded biography.
If I had to describe the underlying approach to this biography I would sat it was psychoanalytical. Thurman attempts to show how the major influences on Colette's life affected the subject matter of her fiction:
she was dominated too early and too long by exploitative masters-first her mother then her husband-.....The rivalry bred of her primitive anxieties-her fathers indifference, her mothers romance with Achille(her son), her feelings of exclusion- was one of Colette's strongest passions, if not her predominate one; and she couldn't avoid, indeed perversely sought to reconstitute, the original love triangles of her child hood in most of her adult relationships and in all her fiction
Thurman says at one point;
she became a young woman with a weakness for bondage and an old woman with a genius for domination
A biography should leave the reader with an impression of it's subject and this one certainly does. Thurman has an obvious admiration for her subject particularly her literary merit and her energy and her desire to "become herself", but this is no panegyric. Thurman says that her life was a "voyage egoiste" and I would add that she seems to me to have been a supreme egoist, greedy for love, for pleasure and of course for food. Like most people there are contradictions and Colette fought hard to make her way in a world dominated by men and yet there is that famous quote about the suffragette movement:
you know what the feminist deserves - the whip and the harem
This is a well researched book with plenty of notes and sources. Use is made throughout of correspondence and other primary sources. Having read it I am now keen to read more of Colette's fiction. A very good biography which I thoroughly enjoyed
I carried on reading because I wanted to know about Colette, not from any joy in reading the biography itself.