Claudine at school, p.1
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       Claudine at School, p.1

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Claudine at School



  About the Book

  About the Author

  Also by Colette

  Title Page


  Claudine at School


  About the Book

  Claudine is a headstrong, clever and extremely mischievous schoolgirl. Along with her friends the gangly Anais, the cheerful Marie and the prim Joubert twins, Claudine wreaks havoc on her small school. Always clever, witty and charming, Claudine is more than a match for her formidable headmistress as they fight for the attention of the pretty assistant Aimee.

  The horrors of examinations and good-humoured bullying are the backdrops in this immensely funny and delightful novel with which Colette established the captivating character of Claudine. Through the games, the fun and the intricacies of school life Claudine emerges as a true original; lyrical and intelligent, she is one of the twentieth century’s most beguiling emancipated women.

  About the Author

  Colette, the creator of Claudine, Chéri and Gigi, and one of France’s outstanding writers, had a long, varied and active life. She was born in Burgundy in 1873, into a home overflowing with dogs, cats and children, and educated at the local village school. At the age of twenty she was brought to Paris by her first husband, the notorious Henry Gauthiers-Villars (Willy), writer and critic. By dint of locking her in her room, Willy forced Colette to write her first novels (the Claudine sequence), which he published under his name. They were an instant success. But their marriage (chronicled in Mes Apprentissages) was never happy and Colette left him in 1906. She spent the next six years on the stage – an experience, like that of her early childhood, which would provide many of the themes for her work. She remarried (Julie de Carneilhan ‘is as close a reckoning with the elements of her second marriage as she ever allowed herself’), later divorcing her second husband, by whom she had a daughter. In 1935 she married Maurice Goudeket, with whom she lived until her death in 1954.

  With the publication of Chéri (1920) Colette’s place as one of France’s prose masters became assured. Although she became increasingly crippled with arthritis, she never lost her intense preoccupation with everything around her. ‘I cannot interest myself in anything that is not life,’ she said; and, to a young writer, ‘Look for a long time at what pleases you, and longer still at what pains you’. Her rich and supple prose, with its sensuous detail and sharp psychological insights, illustrates that personal philosophy.

  Her writing runs to fifteen volumes, novels, portraits, essays, chroniques and a large body of autobiographical prose. She was the first woman President of the Académie Goncourt, and when she died was given a state funeral and buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.



  Claudine Married

  Claudine and Annie

  Claudine in Paris


  The Last of Chéri

  Gigi and the Cat

  Chance Acquaintances

  Julie de Carneilhan

  The Ripening Seed

  The Vagabond

  Break of Day

  The Innocent Libertine


  The Other One

  The Shackle


  My Apprenticeships and Music-Hall Sidelights

  The Blue Lantern

  My Mother’s House and Sido

  The Pure and the Impure


  I have told in Mes Apprentissages how, some two years after our marriage, therefore about 1895, Monsieur Willy said to me one day:

  ‘You ought to jot down on paper some memories of the Primary School. I might be able to make something out of them … Don’t be afraid of racy details.’

  This curious and still comparatively unknown man, who put his name to I know not how many volumes without having written a single one of them, was constantly on the look-out for new talents for his literary factory. It was not in the least surprising that he should have extended his investigations as far as his own home.

  ‘I was recovering from a long and serious illness which had left my mind and body lazy. But, having found at a stationer’s some exercise-books like the ones I had at school, and bought them again, their cream-laid pages, ruled in grey, with red margins, their black linen spines, and their covers bearing a medallion and an ornate title Le Calligraphe gave my fingers back a kind of itch for doing “lines”, for the passivity of a set task. A certain watermark, seen through the cream-laid paper, made me feel six years younger. On a stub of a desk, the window behind me, one shoulder askew and my knees crossed, I wrote with application and indifference …

  ‘When I had finished, I handed over to my husband a closely-written manuscript which respected the margins. He skimmed through it and said:

  ‘“I made a mistake, this can’t be of the slightest use …”

  ‘Released, I went back to the sofa, to the cat, to books, to silence, to a life that I tried to make pleasant for myself and that I did not know was unhealthy for me.

  ‘The exercise-books remained for two years at the bottom of a drawer. One day Willy decided to tidy up the contents of his desk.

  ‘The appalling counter-like object of sham ebony with a crimson baize top displayed its deal drawers and disgorged bundles of old papers and once again we saw the forgotten exercise-books in which I had scribbled: Claudine à l’école.

  ‘“Fancy,” said Monsieur Willy. “I thought I had put them in the waste-paper basket.”

  ‘He opened one exercise-book and turned over the pages:

  ‘“It’s charming …”

  ‘He opened a second exercise-book, and said no more – a third, then a fourth …

  ‘“Good Lord,” he muttered, “I’m an utter imbecile …”

  ‘He swept up the exercise-books haphazard, pounced on his flat-brimmed hat and rushed off to a publisher … And that was how I became a writer.’

  But that was also how I very nearly missed ever becoming a writer. I lacked the literary vocation and it is probable that I should never have produced another line if, after the success of Claudine à l’école, other imposed tasks had not, little by little, got me into the habit of writing.

  Claudine à l’école appeared in 1900, published by Paul Ollendorff, bearing Willy’s sole name as the author. In the interval, I had to get back to the job again to put a little ‘spice’ into my text.

  ‘Couldn’t you,’ Willy said to me, ‘hot this – these childish reminiscences up a little? For example, a too passionate friendship between Claudine and one of her schoolmates … And then some dialect, lots of dialect words … Some naughty pranks … You see what I mean?’

  The pliancy of extreme youth is only equalled by its lack of scruples. What was the extent of Willy’s collaboration? The manuscripts furnish a partial answer to a question that has been asked a hundred times. Out of the four Claudine books, only the manuscripts of Claudine en ménage and Claudine s’en va have been saved from the destruction which Willy ordered Paul Barlet to carry out. Paul Barlet, known as Paul Héon – secretary, friend, Negro and extremely honourable man – suspended the execution, which had begun to be carried out, and brought me what remained, which I still possess.

  Turning over the pages of those exercise-books is not without interest. Written entirely in my handwriting, a very fine writing appears at distant intervals, changing a word, adding a pun or a very sharp rebuke. Likewise one could also read (in Claudine en ménage and Claudine s’en va) two more important re-written passages pasted over the original which I am omitting in the present edition.

  The success of the Claudine books was, for the period, very great. It inspired fashions, plays, and beauty-prod
ucts. Being honourable, and above all indifferent, I kept silent about the truth, which did not become known till very much later. Nevertheless, it is today for the first time that the Claudine books appear under the single name of their single author. I should also be glad if, henceforth, La Retraite sentimentale – a pretty title suggested by Alfred Vallette – were considered as the last book in the Claudine series. The reader will find this far more satisfactory from the point of view of both logic and convenience.


  MY NAME IS CLAUDINE, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there. My Manual of Departmental Geography expresses itself thus: ‘Montigny-en-Fresnois, a pretty little town of 1,950 inhabitants, built in tiers above the Thaize; its well-preserved Saracen tower is worthy of note …’ To me, those descriptions are totally meaningless! To begin with, the Thaize doesn’t exist. Of course I know it’s supposed to run through the meadows under the level-crossing but you won’t find enough water there in any season to give a sparrow a foot-bath. Montigny ‘built in tiers’? No, that’s not how I see it; to my mind, the houses just tumble haphazard from the top of the hill to the bottom of the valley. They rise one above the other, like a staircase, leading up to a bit château that was rebuilt under Louis XV and is already more dilapidated than the squat, ivy-sheathed Saracen tower that crumbles away from the top a trifle more every day. Montigny is a village, not a town: its streets, thank heaven, are not paved; the showers roll down them in little torrents that dry up in a couple of hours; it is a village, not even a very pretty village, but, all the same, I adore it.

  The charm, the delight of this countryside composed of hills and of valleys so narrow that some are ravines, lies in the woods – the deep, encroaching woods that ripple and wave away into the distance as far as you can see … Green meadows make rifts in them here and there, so do little patches of cultivation. But these do not amount to much, for the magnificent woods devour everything. As a result, this lovely region is atrociously poor and its few scattered farms provide just the requisite number of red roofs to set off the velvety green of the woods.

  Dear woods! I know them all; I’ve scoured them so often. There are the copses, where bushes spitefully catch your face as you pass. Those are full of sun and strawberries and lilies-of-the-valley; they are also full of snakes. I’ve shuddered there with choking terror at the sight of those dreadful, smooth, cold little bodies gliding just in front of my feet. Dozens of times near the ‘rose-mallow’ I’ve stopped still, panting, when I’ve found a well-behaved grass snake under my hand. It would be neatly coiled up, like a snail-shell, with its head raised and its little golden eyes staring at me: it was not dangerous, but how it frightened me! But never mind all that: I shall always end by going back there, alone or with my friends. Better alone, because those girls are so young-lady-ish that they annoy me. They’re frightened of being scratched by brambles; they’re frightened of little creatures such as hairy caterpillars and those pretty heath-spiders that are as pink and round as pearls; they squeal, they get tired – in fact, they’re insufferable.

  And then there are my favourites, the great woods that are sixteen and twenty years old. It makes my heart bleed to see one of those cut down. No bushy undergrowth in them but trees like pillars and narrow paths where it is almost night at noon, where one’s voice and one’s steps resound in a disturbing way. Heavens, how I love them! I feel so much alone there, my eyes lost far away among the trees, in the green, mysterious daylight that is at once deliciously peaceful and a little unnerving because of the loneliness and the vague darkness … No small creatures in those great dark woods; no tall grasses; but beaten earth, now dry, and sonorous, now soft on account of the springs. Rabbits with white scuts range through them, and timid deer who run so fast that you can only guess their passage. Great heavy pheasants too, red and golden, and wild boars (I’ve never seen one) and wolves. I heard a wolf once, at the beginning of winter, while I was picking up beech-nuts – those nice, oily little beech-nuts that tickle your throat and make you cough. Sometimes storm-showers surprise you in those woods; you huddle under an oak that is thicker than the others and listen to the rain pattering up there as if on a roof. You’re so well-sheltered that when you come out of those depths you are quite lost and dazzled and feel ill at ease in the broad daylight.

  And the fir-woods! Not very deep, these, and hardly at all mysterious. I love them for their smell, for the pink and purple heather that grows under them and for the way they sing in the wind. Before you get to them, you have to go through dense forest; then suddenly you have the delicious surprise of coming out on the edge of a lake; a smooth, deep lake, enclosed on all sides by the woods, far, far away from everything! The firs grow on a kind of island in the middle; you have to straddle bravely across on a fallen tree-trunk that bridges the two banks. Under the firs, you light a fire, even in summer, because it’s forbidden; you cook any old thing, an apple, a pear, a potato stolen from a field, some wholemeal bread if you’ve nothing better. And there’s a smell of acrid smoke and resin – it’s abominable but it’s exquisite.

  I have lived ten years of wild rovings, of conquests and discoveries, in those woods; the day when I have to leave them my heart will be very heavy.

  Two months ago, when I turned fifteen and let down my skirts to my ankles, they demolished the old school and changed the Headmistress. The long skirts were necessitated by my calves; they attracted glances and were already making me look too much like a young lady. The old school was falling into ruins. As for the Headmistress, poor good Madame X, forty, ugly, ignorant, gentle, and always terrified in the presence of the Elementary School inspectors, Doctor Dutertre, our District Superintendent of Schools, needed her place for a protégée of his own. In this part of the world, what Dutertre wishes, the Minister wishes too.

  Poor old school, dilapidated and unhygienic, but so amusing! The handsome buildings they are putting up now will never make me forget you!

  The rooms on the first floor, the ones belonging to the masters, were cheerless and uncomfortable. The ground floor was occupied by our two classrooms, the big girls’ and the little girls’; two rooms of incredible ugliness and dirtiness, with tables whose like I have never seen since. They were worn down to half their height by constant use and, by rights, we ought to have become hunchbacks after six months of sitting over them. The smell of those classrooms, after the three hours of study in the morning and in the afternoon, was literally enough to knock you down. I have never had schoolmates of my own kind, for the few middle-class families of Montigny send their children as a matter of course to boarding-school in the main county town. Thus the school’s only pupils were the daughters of grocers, farmers, policemen, and, for the most part, of labourers; all of them none too well washed.

  The reason I find myself in this strange milieu is that I do not want to leave Montigny. If had a Mamma, I know very well that she would not have let me stay here twenty-four hours. But Papa – he doesn’t notice anything and doesn’t bother about me. He is entirely wrapped up in his work and it never occurs to him that I might be more suitably brought up in a convent or in some Lycée or other. There’s no danger of my opening his eyes!

  As companions therefore, I had – and still have – Claire (I won’t give her surname) who made her First Communion with me, a gentle girl with beautiful, soft eyes and a romantic little soul. She spent her time at school becoming enamoured (oh! platonically, of course!) of a new boy every week and, even now, her only ambition is to fall in love with the first idiot of an assistant-master or road-surveyor who happens to be in the mood for ‘poetical’ declarations.

  Then there’s the lanky Anaïs who, no doubt, will succeed in entering the portals of the school at Fontenay-aux-Roses, thanks to a prodigious memory which takes the place of real intelligence. She is cold, vicious, and so impossible to upset that she never blushes, lucky creature! She is a positive past mistress of comedy and often makes me quite ill with laughing. Her ha
ir is neither dark nor fair; she has a yellow skin, no colour in her cheeks, and narrow black eyes, and she is as tall as a bean-pole. Someone quite out of the ordinary, in fact. Liar, toady, swindler, and traitress, that lanky Anaïs will always know how to get out of any scrape in life. At thirteen, she was writing to some booby of her own age and making assignations with him; this got about and resulted in gossip which upset all the girls in the school except herself. Then there are the Jauberts, two sisters – twins actually – both model pupils. Model pupils! Don’t I know it! I could cheerfully flay them alive, they exasperate me so much with their good behaviour and their pretty, neat handwriting and their silly identical flat, flabby faces and sheep’s eyes full of maudlin mildness. They swot all the time; they’re bursting with good marks; they’re prim and underhand and their breath smells of glue. Ugh!

  And Marie Belhomme, a goose but such a cheerful one! At fifteen, she has as much reasoning power and common sense as a rather backward child of eight; she overflows with colossally naïve remarks that disarm our maliciousness and we are very fond of her. I’m always saying any amount of disgraceful things in front of her because, at first, she’s genuinely shocked and then, the next minute, she laughs wholeheartedly, flinging up her long, narrow hands as high as they’ll go. ‘Her midwife’s hands’ Anaïs calls them. Dark, with a matt complexion, long, humid black eyes, and an innocent nose, Marie looks like a pretty, timid hare. These four and myself make up an envied set this year; from now on we rank above the ‘big girls’ as aspirants to the elementary School Certificate. The rest, in our eyes, are mere scum; lower orders beneath contempt! I shall introduce a few more of my schoolmates in the course of this diary for it is definitely a diary, or very nearly one, that I am about to begin …

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