Academic journal article French Forum

Colette Misogyne?

Academic journal article French Forum

Colette Misogyne?

Article excerpt

  En effet, le roman rendra-t-il jamais l'effet des combinaisons
  bizarres de la vie? Vous inventez l'homme, ne sachant pas l'observer.
  Quels sont les romans preferables aux histoires comiques,--ou
  tragiques d'un journal de tribunaux?
  Nerval Les Nuits d'Octobre

The question posed in my title has vexed, or at least teased, feminist scholars of Colette's writing for some time. Was she a proto-feminist? No, evidently. Nor was she in favour of women's suffrage, or an education for the professions. Yet there she is, on any measure an emancipated woman, exercising a profession in the most mercantile of fashions, not only earning fame and a living from it but claiming a preeminent place amongst the writers of her day. What was her view of traditional styles of femininity? Nostalgic, apparently, when we read her sometimes acerbic comments on flapper fashion and on the mores that evolved with it (1)--and this despite her own vestimentary modernity. She was exasperated when she saw les femmes au Congres, asking what they were doing there. (2)

"Sincerement," she writes, a trifle ironically, "je les admire." The fashionable women of Paris themselves are surprised by their own audacity; Colette is not, but she--they--have lost something:

  Non, ce n'est pas l'imprevu qui manque ici, a tant et tant de femmes.
  C'est ... autre chose, de tres prevu et de difficile a exprimer, un
  charme qu'elles dedaignent, et pourtant tres feminin, qui serait fait
  d'incompetence, d'embarras, de silence....

What was her attitude to women at this time of deep social and cultural change? I think this may be the wrong question, not least because her own contradictions--those we find in her life, those that emerge in her writing--are no doubt an index to the complexities of the period. We should read them, then, for what they tell us about the lives of middle-class women in the first half of the twentieth century, rather than lamenting her failure to conform to some ideal solution to the problems they were confronting. She cannot soothe our desire for cultural heroines to represent the sources and foundations of our own modernity. (3) Beyond this general point is another, more germane to Colette's writing and to her subject-matter: she is, I think, more interested in women--I insist on the plural--than many other women writers of more obviously feminist inclinations. It is to this interest that I wish to attend. It is multifarious. My focus in this article is her report of a trial that took place in 1912. (4) It is an exemplary text. In it we do not find "Colette's attitude to women," but a work of representation.

In the dock, and eventually convicted, was a certain Paul Houssard, who had murdered a Monsieur Guillotin. Nevertheless, it is the widow who was the centre of all the attention:

  ce qui a Tours preoccupe, passionne l'opinion publique, c'est le role
  de Mme Guillotin. [...] Juridiquement il est tres net; Mme Guillotin a
  ete mise hors de cause par un arret de non-lieu; la Chambre des mises
  en accusations d'Orleans a declare qu'elle n'etait point complice de
  Houssard; elle n'est plus que temoin--et aussi partie civile, car elle
  se fait representer par Me Maurice Bernard.
    A la veille du proces, on s'occupe beaucoup moins de Houssard,
  l'accuse, et de la peine qu'il peut encourir, que de Mme Guillotin.
  Viendra-t-elle cette fois? La verra-t-on en presence de l'homme qui
  l'a aimee jusqu'au crime? Que dira-t-elle, et que diront ces deux
  etres? Le proces Houssard est devenu "l'affaire Guillotin." (Le
  Figaro, 25 juin 1912)

The interest in Madame Guillotin was not benign, and Colette positions her piece explicitly in relation with the public hostility. Exceptionally amongst her articles for les Contes des mille et un matins, (5) this one carries a sub-title:

A Tours

En regardant Houssard accuse d'avoir tue

et Mme Guillotin accusee d'avoir aime

Was Mme Guillotin Houssard's mistress? …

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