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Reviewed by:
  • Colette's Republic: Work, Gender, and Popular Culture in France, 1870-1914
  • Diana Holmes
Colette's Republic: Work, Gender, and Popular Culture in France, 1870-1914. By Patricia A. Tilburg. New York: Berghahn Books, 2009. xiv + 232 pp. Hb £55.00; $90.00.

In this thoroughly readable volume Patricia Tilburg takes Colette as a prism through which to study the particular 'cognitive style' of the Third Republic as shaped and transmitted through its educational practices and expressed in its popular culture. Colette is seen here, quite rightly, not as the magical product of a somewhat anomalous family, but as formed by the secular, Republican ethos that governed her schooling, and by the rich contradictions it embodied. Unusually for a bourgeois girl at the time, and owing to a combination of her parents' financial problems and their committed republicanism, Gabrielle Sidonie Colette was educated entirely at the local village school — a school, moreover, that in the 1880s was in the vanguard of the new, secular education provided by the state, in one of France's most ardently Republican departments. Although Colette paints an irreverently comic portrait in Claudine à l'école, lampooning syllabus, teachers, and state representatives, Tilburg shows convincingly how much affection for and endorsement of the school's ethos is also present in her writing, as well as in her lifelong attitudes to work, art, class, and gender. Imbued with the work ethic that underpinned the new, compulsory curriculum (for the école républicaine was intended to produce not only a pro-Republican citizenry but also a productive workforce), Colette always portrayed writing as a form of craft labour, and represented stage performance (including her own semi-nude dancing) as above all hard work, a morally decent if physically wearing form of industry. Colette's endorsement of these values, though, echoes the contradictions of Republican schooling itself, for girls were supposed to interpret the work ethic as leading principally towards dutiful wife and motherhood, whereas Colette's writing represents bourgeois marriage, for a woman, as a dishonourable loss of economic independence. Her refusal to attach any shame to nudity, or to dancing in public, is also shown to echo Republican values even as it shocked majority opinion: a robust ethic of 'mens sana in corpore sano' opposed the secular Republic to Catholic condemnation of the body (especially the female body) as source of sin and shame, and underlay the inclusion in the curriculum of physical education, hygiene, and biology. Colette logically, yet subversively, carried these values through to the sphere of popular culture and sexual behaviour. And if the new Republican pedagogy emphasized the 'méthode intuitive', or the use of deductive reasoning based on faith in the validity of sense perception, this too is reflected in Colette's emphasis on the sensory throughout her writing, including in the depiction of psychology and emotion. Tilburg's approach as a historian foregrounds the 'generalized moral structure' (p. 10) that informs the cultural production [End Page 498] of the Third Republic, whilst emphasizing the individual agency of its producers. Colette was certainly unique and original, but she also represented the paradoxical imperatives of the Republican ethos: her heroines, like many 'New Women' of Colette's generation, put into practice the principles of physical and moral freedom, equality, and self-reliance that were not entirely intended for them. This is at once a fine, nuanced work of cultural history, and an illuminating reflection on Colette.

Diana Holmes
University of Leeds
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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-2931
Print ISSN
0016-1128
Pages
pp. 498-499
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-27
Open Access
No
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