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 Gauthier-Villars, known as ‘Willy’, who presided over a vast and productive literary workshop. Two years into the couple’s unhappy marriage, Willy asked Colette to write down her memories of school with the encouragement, ‘Don’t be afraid of racy details.’ Before long, Colette (the pen name of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, at the time aged 22 and unpublished) had dutifully filled several exercise books with a series of frank and funny recollections. Initially unimpressed by the results (‘Couldn’t you hot these childish reminiscences up a little?’ he is said to have demanded), Willy later released his wife’s work under his own name. It was not until many years later that the true authorship of Claudine à l’école and the books that followed came to be known.
It might seem strange, then, that what I most appreciate about this novel is the truthfulness that underlies Colette’s depiction of schoolgirl friendships. Claudine paints portraits of her friends and schoolmates that are by turns touching, cruel and hilarious: we meet the lanky and amoral Anaïs, who is a compulsive chewer of indiarubber, pencil stubs, charcoal, blotting-paper and chalk (sniffs Claudine, ‘At least I only eat cigarette-paper and only one special kind of that’), and the endlessly naïve Marie Belhomme, as well as Mlle Lanthenay’s neglected younger sister, Luce, who herself becomes infatuated with Claudine.
Colette doesn’t sentimentalize these fierce and passionate friendships. Instead she faithfully recounts the single-minded obsessions, fickle alliances and bitter betrayals, petty victories and desperate humiliations – not to mention casual violence (‘This morning I beat little Luce to a jelly because she wanted to kiss me in the shed where they keep the watering cans,’ huffs Claudine that I remember from my own school days.
Of course, Colette’s creation is far more charismatic, considerably more reckless and much more at ease with her burgeoning charms than most of us were at the same age. She is also perhaps more willing to laugh at herself and prone to more dramatic swings between malice and tenderness. Sardonic and sophisticated, she dismisses the drinks that her classmates bring to school in the hot summer months and tells her reader that instead, ‘I, being a simple nature, confined myself to drinking white wine with a dash of Seltzer water, sugar, and a little lemon.’ Remarking on the summer exhibition of the students’ handiwork, which consists mainly of sumptuous lingerie, she notes that ‘these grown-up little girls liked the underclothes they displayed to be glamorous’ – much to the delight of visiting students from the boys’ school.
It’s not difficult to see why readers a century ago were shocked by this audacious woman-child – the first in a long line of subversive female protagonists to populate Colette’s works and arguably the author’s finest alter-ego. Within a year of its publication, Claudine at School had sold 40,000 copies and it was shortly followed by three sequels (Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married and Claudine and Annie) as well as two successful plays and a range of product spin-offs that included Claudine cigarettes, perfume, make-up and clothing.
In the current era of broodingly passive teenage heroines, I find it hugely refreshing to encounter a girl who flourishes amid mayhem and who is at once enchanted and repelled by her nascent womanhood. The adventures described in Claudine at School culminate in exams and a prize-giving ceremony, an event eerily similar to my own, at which graduands were also compelled to appear in white dresses that made us resemble a crew of virgin brides. As Claudine prepares to make her entry into the world, it’s hard not to recall the words of the St Trinian’s headmistress who warned that ‘In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world; but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared.’
I know that the girls in the photograph that hangs above my desk felt much the same way on that sunny afternoon – if only for the fleeting moment that it took for the camera shutter to snap. As I study their faces now, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine a certain French schoolgirl in our midst, laughing beneath a multicoloured canopy that has never ceased to billow, in a breeze that still feels like summer.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 29 © Trilby Kent 2011