Among the jumble of postcards, newspaper clippings, maps and to-do lists that cram the walls around my desk is a school photograph. The occasion was the annual fair at which a group of us had commandeered the brightly coloured parachute used for junior school games. The photograph shows four girls – my friend Tanya, in white prefect’s blazer and sash; two of our younger protégées, all drooping knee socks and jauntily loosened school ties; and a child of 6 or 7 fresh from a visit to the face-painting stall – huddled together on the grass beneath the billowing parachute in the moments before the tent collapsed around our shoulders. I don’t remember the seconds after the shutter snapped (I was the one taking the picture) but the image records a golden period, at once bittersweet, anxious and exhilarating, in the weeks before Tanya and I left school for good.
The young Claudine, heroine of four novels written by Colette between 1900 and 1903, inhabits a similar limbo in the first book of the series, Claudine at School. Written as a journal, and inspired by Colette’s own happy experiences at the local school in Saint-Sauveuren-Puisaye, the book shocked readers with its narration by a 15-year-old hellion whose bold opening statements – ‘My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there’ – leave us in no doubt of her self-assured, witty and ambitious credentials. An only child whose benignly negligent father is far too preoccupied with his research on rare slugs to take much notice of his daughter’s raucous escapades, Claudine is counting the days to the end of her school career. Effortlessly clever, irreverent and impulsive, she is bored by lessons and revels in nature. She makes no effort to disguise her less flattering characteristics – vanity, cunning and a talent for manipulation – but her take-no-prisoners attitude, brazen distaste for authority and innocent sensuality render her a character one cannot help but love and admire.
Her story is set against the demolition of the village school. Just as the old walls are exposed, so too are the lives of the staff and students – and Claudine is the first to take advantage of this upheaval to undermine the new headmistress, Mlle Sergent, and show up the feeble and pretentious assistant masters and lecherous superintendent, Doctor Dutêtre. Claudine’s object of affection is a junior mistress known as Mlle Lanthenay, with whom at the beginning of the novel she contrives to take extra English lessons (‘Little Mlle Lanthenay, your supple body seeks and demands an unknown satisfaction,’ she muses in her journal. ‘If you were not an assistant mistress at Montigny you might be . . . I’d rather not say what . . .’). When the young mistress slights her, Claudine launches a campaign of terror against both her cowardly former love and the woman responsible for hijacking their liaison. Hell hath no fury like a schoolgirl scorned.
The chastely homoerotic tenor of the book and its preoccupation with passionate female friendship was encouraged by the author’s husband, the writer and critic Henry Gauthie
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