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Translated by Enid Mcleod and Una Troubridge

I bought this volume just last weekend at Second Shelf books while paying a quick visit to London to see friends. This American first edition from 1953 contains La Maison de Claudine and Sido – with former translated as My Mother’s House.

It isn’t often that I read a new book so soon after buying it, but this one called out to be read straight away. I had seen a few things just before this about Colette – and been reminded that I had only read one book by her, which I had loved. So, knowing I was overdue reacquainting myself with Colette – I dived in just the day after I bought it. It kept me company during some difficult days this past week, it was somehow great comfort – good writing often is, I find.

My Mother’s House and Sido – two, novellas? memoirs? I’m not sure how to refer to them – Colette seems to have styled them as novels and yet we know they are very biographical. They were written by the great French writer when she was in her forties and fifties. In them she is looking back to her youth, to her village childhood, telling stories of her mother; Sido, her father the Captain, her brothers and half-sister and the Savage – her mother’s first husband. It is gloriously nostalgic, but never sentimental. In these reminiscences Colette writes with a glorious lyricism, bringing to life the time and place of her childhood – a time that clearly remained very important to her.  

“Both house and garden are living still, I know; but what of that, if the magic has deserted them? If the secret is lost that opened to me a whole world – light, scents, birds and trees in perfect harmony, the murmur of human voices now silent for ever – a world of which I have ceased to be worthy.”

The childhood recounted here was one of country wisdom and good food, wild flowers and animals. A childhood of games with village children who enjoy more freedom than modern children. Colette writes in a series of delightfully vivid vignettes – stories of villagers, siblings, politics and her parents’ marriage, but above all of a place, the place of her childhood – where she was loved.

“A smell of crushed grass hangs over the unmown lawn, where the lush new blades lie trodden in all directions by the childish games, as if laid flat by a heavy shower of hail. Fierce little heels have dug into the paths and scattered gravel over the flower beds; a skipping rope dangles from the pump handle; dolls’ plates the size of marguerites star the grass; and a long feline wail of boredom heralds the close of day, the cats’ awakening and the approach of dinner time.”

She writes with a particularly palpable affection of Sido, her mother – in both these volumes. It becomes clear that Sido was a woman capable of great love, a woman of strength and good sense, who refused to dismiss a pregnant servant girl to the scandal of the village. She kept a large spider in the corner of her bedroom as a kind of pet – and feared, unreasonably, for Minet-Chéri’s abduction when the child was moved into the recently vacated first floor bedroom. In all her reminiscences, Colette talks of her mother with extraordinary warmth.

In the second novella/memoir; Sido, Colette also recalls her father, the Captain – his absolute adoration of Sido. In her middle age she realises that she really hadn’t known him quite so well.

“It seems strange to me, now, that I knew him so little. My attention, my fervent admiration, were all for Sido and only fitfully strayed from her. It was just the same with my father. His eyes dwelt on Sido. On thinking it over I believe that she did not know him well either. She was content with a few broad and clumsy truths; his love for her was boundless – it was in trying to enrich her that he lost her fortune – she loved him with an unwavering love, treating him lightly in everyday matters but respecting all his decisions.”

The Captain, with his amputated leg, occasional rages and money troubles. When he died there was found a shelf of journals – every page blank – in which he had intended to write, though never had.

We then, inevitably see Sido in her seventies – her daughter visits from Paris, a doctor son lives nearby. She is still bright eyed, clear headed but stubborn – resisting the curtailments of her advancing years.

Colette’s prose breaths life again into these people – her family – the people she knew and loved best. Her memories of them almost become part of her readers’ memories – for from the page these long dead people emerge – very much not forgotten.

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You may have noticed that I rather love books by twentieth century women writers, and so it was never going to be too long before I paid a visit to The Second Shelf in London. A delightful little shop in the heart of the capital selling my kinds of books.

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My friend Meg and I got the train to Euston, and from there it was a short tube ride to Leicester Square on the Northern Line, swapping to the Piccadilly Line for one stop, we got off at Piccadilly Circus and walked to the shop via Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. Tucked away in Smiths Court is the Second Shelf – and it is a delight. The proprietor Allison Devers who has worked so hard to get this project off the ground was so warm and welcoming, and we had a lovely chat and were permitted to take photos – I did ask first of course.

There were so many books by the kinds of writers I love, I saw Daphne Du Maurier, Anita Brooker, Nina Bawden, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf and many others. It is an Aladdin’s cave of women’s literature.

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Well I was always going to buy some books – and of course I did. Actually, one was purchased a few weeks ago, paid for and just picked up today. The other three – were just too hard to resist. I could have bought several others. I am so happy with these four books.

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A Game of Hide and Seek – by Elizabeth Taylor – one of my favourite writers, definitely one of my top five – and A Game of Hide and Seek is probably my favourite of her novels. I have a green virago edition too, which I am keeping – I have read it twice already, and as I am planning on re-reading some of the others this is just going on my special books, bookshelf for now. It isn’t a first edition, it’s the book club edition (book club editions are cheaper obviously) but I adore the cover. I can just imagine Harriet and Vesey going into that little house.

My mothers House and Sido by Colette – I have been reminded a couple of times lately how I really need to read more Colette – and this gorgeous little book shouted out to me. A 1953, American first edition.

The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson, I have come to really enjoy PHJ’s writing. She was pretty prolific, and I have only read about four of her novels so far. This one just sounds so interesting, and I loved the cover. It is also a first edition.

The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning – many of you will have seen my love of Olivia Manning through my reading of The Balkan and Levant trilogies (the last one of those left to read) and others of her work. This, one of her later novels is a first edition.

I am completely delighted with my beautiful purchases.

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After this we went to a tiny deli next door and had a cup of tea – the food smelled amazing – but we had a table booked elsewhere where we were meeting three other friends. A lovely long lazy chatty lunch at Bill’s on Brewer Street was next on the agenda – which was rather busy and a bit chaotic at times, but the food was good, and it is great catching up with people I don’t see very often.

Before heading back to Euston Meg and I had some time to kill and so we went to the National Portrait Gallery, we spent about 45 minutes in there – and still managed to see quite a lot. The literary theme continued there with portraits of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney and photographs of Edna O’Brien, Beryl Bainbridge and Nadine Gordimer among others.

A truly lovely day, with laughs and treats a plenty, I realise now, I really needed it!

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claudine's house

Colette was always one of those writers who I had been aware of, and had yet never read. A recent Saturday morning trip to the library saw me finally bring home one of her slim little volumes (the only one they had available that day, so had no idea if it was the best one to start with). I understand that Colette is best known for her novel Gigi and her Claudine series of novels, but this novel despite its title is actually not part of that series. The famous Claudine series were published between 1900 and 1903, Claudine’s House is much later 1922, and is quite obviously heavily autobiographical, a dreamlike reminiscence for a lost time.

Although the title features the name of Colette’s famous fictional alter-ego – the narrator of this novel is most often called ‘Little Darling’ and later sometimes Colette. According to the introduction to this Hesperus edition, Claudine’s House cannot be seen as a normal autobiography, it is a novel, as in this book Colette has merged fact and fiction. Combining the everyday realism of rural family life with the more fantastic imaginative world of the child, Colette recreates an almost idyllic time in her own early life. A time she lived in the home of her childhood, and how beautifully Colette recreates that home for us.

“It was a big serious-looking house, somewhat forbidding with its front doorbell like that of an orphanage and its carriage entrance with a huge bolt like an ancient dungeon. Only on one side did it smile. Its rear, invisible to the passer by, lit by the golden sunlight, was swathed in a tangle of wisteria and bignonia branches that weighed down the weary iron trellis that sagged in the middle like a hammock and provided shade for a little flagged terrace and the doorway into the living room…”

In the idyllic rural French countryside of the late nineteenth century Colette grew up surrounded by woods, in the midst of a loving family and with a host of much loved pets. It is this world that is so beautifully portrayed here. Her busy, capable little mother Sido, her one legged Captain father, her elder sister with her masses of long black hair and a seemingly unending parade of sneaky and mischievous cats and dogs. Colette was her mother’s favourite child, her ‘Minet-Cheri’ (Little Darling). Not knowing much about the woman Colette – I find it very hard, impossible perhaps to separate the fictional Colette (Little Darling) from the real woman, and writer of Claudine’s House. Surely, though we see in this novel a lover of the living things around her, the countryside that was Colette’s playground provided her with a wealth of things to do, and learn about.

“A whole year of my childhood was devoted to capturing the rare winter flies in the kitchen or the cowshed, so as to feed them to two swallows – an October brood blown down by the wind. Surely it was my duty to save these insatiable creatures with their gaping beaks, who disdained to eat dead meat? It’s thanks to them that I know how much the tame swallows surpasses the most spoilt dog in insolent sociability. Our two swallows lived perched on our shoulders, or on our heads, or nestled in the work-basket, darting under the table like hens and pecking the dog, who was dumbfounded, or chirruping into the face of the cat, who was completely taken aback…”

In Claudine’s House the narrative moves from the time of Colette’s early childhood to the time when she is herself a mother of a young daughter – Bel-Gazou. It’s the kind of book where the action is limited, gloriously so, this is the story of a precious time, a family, their anecdotes, observations of their neighbours and childhood games. Claudine’s House is also a delightful homage to the natural world, and to the freedoms enjoyed by Colette and her playmates. Into this almost perfect seeming world, Colette injects the odd note of sadness, in the recreation of her parent’s sometimes volatile relationship, her sister’s separation from the family following her unwise marriage, and just the barest hint of money troubles.
This was such a delightful little book, both humorous and touching it is a deeply affectionate recreation of a childhood that must have been looked back on with very great longing. I really must read more Colette soon, but which should I try to get hold of next? Colette experts please advise.

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