Rating 3 stars
I’ve wanted to read Colette’s Claudine books since my birthday trip to Paris four years ago. I intended to buy the omnibus from Shakespeare and Co but they’d sold out. Since then, the books have been on my library wishlist. I saw the Colette biopic earlier this year and read a short story by her in Wayward Girls last month and this spurred me on to borrow the first in the series.
In Claudine at School, we meet our heroine as she turns 15. She and her classmates are as 15 year old girls are universally recognised to be, a mix of silly, funny, sulky and irreverent. I enjoyed reading about their escapades and their longeurs, remembering my own in that adolescent hinterland between being still mostly child and very nearly adult.
What is different about the school experiences of Claudine and her friends to my own is the predatory focus of the male gaze, from the school superintendent who can’t keep his hands off the young ladies when he visits, to the assistant masters in the boys’ school who find excuses to spend unnecessary time with these coquettish girls and the examiner who sketches Claudine surreptitiously because she looks like Botticelli’s Spring come to life. Perhaps I wasn’t aware of it when I was at school. Perhaps because I was less than sylph like and completely unsexualised I didn’t catch the eye of the local creeps. I became aware of the male predilection for teenage girls in school uniform much later, first when my brother told me about my then 11 year old niece getting cat calls in the street and again when a work colleague told me at length how much he enjoyed seeing the local schoolgirls in their pleated skirts. He seemed not to make a connection between these schoolgirls and his own daughter, nor did he care how creepy he was.
It struck me that the recent comments from men on how Greta Thunberg doesn’t look 16 are a variation on this theme. Greta Thunberg does look 16. That’s what 16 year old girls look like when they’re not trying to look older because that’s what the media says they should try to do. The fact that she’s 16 doesn’t preclude her from having an informed opinion on climate change. 16 year olds can understand complex matters and articulate their concern about those matters, and they don’t need to look older than their years to do so. 16 year old girls are also allowed to be into fashion, hair and makeup without men considering them fair game for lechery.
Far less troublesome is the love affair between the headmistress and her favourite assistant teacher. The only troublesome thing about it is that they can’t keep their hands off each other at the expense of doing their jobs. There’s a suggestion that society, while not at that time knowing what lesbianism was, frowned upon such explicit expressions of love between women. The workmen building the new school declare themselves sickened by the teachers’ behaviour and Claudine uses her knowledge of their affair as a bargaining chip to fend off expulsion. True, her knowledge of the superintendent’s pederasty is a much stronger bargaining chip, but still there’s a hint that anything more than affectionate friendship between women is somehow shameful.
The workmen’s attitude raised a wry eyebrow from me because they see the teachers’ love for each other as an affront to their masculinity. The younger teacher, not much older than Claudine, is viewed as a juicy piece and there’s a sense that the workmen see her affair with her female colleague as a waste, somehow. And yet they like to watch, simultaneously repelled and aroused. There are still too many men who think that way. It made me think of the couple who were taunted and then assaulted by a group of men on a bus, because the men’s masculinity was so fragile that it almost broke under the weight of two women in love with each other and not them.
Over the course of a school year, Claudine begins to grow up. Her stationery obsession, her love of pranks, her delight in exasperating her teachers with her insolence all start to wane. She begins to prefer spending time alone walking in the woods, or at home reading with her cat on her lap. She’s a woman after my own heart.
I found Colette’s writing style overly fussy at times, but this was the first thing she wrote and at its core is the same delightful observation of the world that I found in the short story I read. Such as description of the train journey from the village to the town where the Certificate exams are held.
Factory chimneys appeared, then scattered white houses that suddenly huddled together and became a crowd; the next moment we were at the station and getting out. … soon we were bumping along over grievous cobblestones, like cats’ skulls …
I could see those houses huddling and dispersing as the train travelled past, the effect of the train’s motion akin to a film reel or flick book. I could feel those cat skull cobbles bruising the coccyx as a badly sprung bus jolted over them.
The Certificate exams are described in detail. It was too much detail for me. Some of it was funny but most of it dragged. I expect that the passage of time hasn’t treated this aspect of the book so well. I imagine that the French women who went crazy for Claudine when Colette was writing the books had similar experiences in their recent memories and for them the descriptions would be hilarious.
The preparations and activities for the village fête in honour of a visiting Minister are well observed and the dénouement is as expected, with tables turned and Claudine’s nemeses not coming out of things too well. I got the sense that those involved would be fine, however.
I liked Claudine enough in this first outing to want to read about what happens to her next, but I think I’ll leave it a while before reserving Claudine in Paris at the library.