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A recent contribution to Peguin's Lives of Modern Women series, Allan Massie's Colette: The Woman, the Writer and the Myth fits comfortably within the parameters of these short, biographical portraits. The picture Massie creates of Colette, one of France's greatest modern writers, is taut, complex, and sympathetic. In eight brief chapters, he chronicles her difficult childhood, her lesbian relationships, her three marriages, her careers as actress and writer. He also skillfully, if briefly, summarizes her writings, explaining the connections between Colette's fiction and other major French works of the period. Eight pages of photographs show us Colette and important figures in her life.
A selected bibliography in Massie's book mentions Geneviève Dormann's Colette: A Passion for Life. Massie describes this work as "lavishly illustrated," an accurate assessment to be sure. The book is that and more. Its 320 pages contain photographs in color and black and white, drawings, postcards, advertisements, notes handwritten by Colette, edited pages of manuscript, cartoons, and a chronology of Colette's life. Also, there is a surprisingly full biography. Where Massie's book is summative, Dormann's account is large and has a more anecdotal feel. Massie's work tries to balance discussion of Colette's biography and writing; Dormann devotes herself to Colette's life. Certainly as sympathetic as Massie's, Dormann's account brings Colette more vividly to life. With lavish art work to support the text, Dormann shows us a spirited child who "acquired a taste for drinking mulled wine" while helping her father campaign for political office and who early on corrected her father's manuscripts. As a young woman about to marry for the first time, Colette is reported by her fiance's family to use excessively vulgar language and a "horrifying amount of butter and jam." Dormann also shows us a Colette who, as a young woman, springs naked out of cakes and who insults an admirer by passing gas loudly in his presence.
Always Dormann gives the impression, perhaps excessively so, of being fair. She struggles, for instance, to present a balanced, accurate portrait of Colette's first marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars, otherwise known as Willy. Her job is [End Page 384] made more difficult by Willy's age (fourteen years older than eighteen-year-old Colette when they meet), his appearance in photographs (dissolute), his conduct (the same), and his claiming as his own Colette's early writing. Nevertheless, Dormann argues, Colette was Willy's willing accomplice, and she loved the man passionately. Here, for example, is Dormann explaining away Willy's oppressive behavior:
Feminists have made a great deal of this period in Colette's life, when her husband locked her up to make her write. As with George Sand and other exceptional women, they try to recruit Colette under their own banner by portraying her as the victim of a ruthless man . . . to say Colette was a victim is simply not true. It has to be remembered that it was by no means unknown for one person to lock another up in order to make them concentrate.
Though she cites case histories of other writers similarly incarcerated, though she quotes Colette who, in retrospect, claims to have learned from the experience, I question Dormann's judgment. But I don't doubt her honesty. She always clearly labels her opinions and invariably offers support for them, here from Colette's own pen.
Those interested in Colette will enjoy both Massie's and Dormann's books. Massie's is information served up like a plate of oysters, eight chapters tidily on the half-shell. Dormann's is a box of popcorn at a movie, words and pictures to be savored slowly and at the same time.