The trials of being above the rest

Claudine at School
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

This was the first novel written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, the result of her entertaining her first husband with stories of her own schooldays. It is a thoroughly charming read that I was reluctant to put down yet wanted to linger over.

Perfect breakfast

Claudine is sassy, bitchy, talented, beautiful and entitled. She attends the local day school because she refused to be sent to a boarding school, with the result that she’s a rich girl surrounded by the daughters of farmers and shopkeepers. She doesn’t need to do well at school but she takes pleasure in achieving more than the other girls whose future livelihoods depend on their test scores. Really, she should be completely unlikeable. But she’s not. She also has a very sweet relationship with her doting but distracted father.

The book takes the form of Claudine’s diary. She confides her own bitchy actions, with the full awareness that she has acted badly. She also confides all the gossip she has learned and her own intimate thoughts. I mean, this isn’t Judy Blume, no-one’s going to learn how to deal with periods or ill-fitting bras from this book, but she does admit to her crushes and flirtations.

The thing that will stand out for a lot of people about this book is the lesbianism. It’s pretty rife. Claudine herself, as well as the headmistress of the school, know how to gain advantage from flirtation and suggestion with men but are only really interested in women. This is never stated outright, but gradually becomes apparent from the actions of both characters. It’s also never clear if this is accepted by the people around them (or indeed known in Claudine’s case). One character does come under criticism for her lesbian relationship but the criticism is based on the fact that she’s engaged to a man at the time. Which is a fair point.

Claudine is aged 16 and 17 in this novel and it feels like a very realistic portrait of being that age. She is confident and brassy around others but alone she experiences doubts and insecurities about her future, her looks and her love life. This may be partly because she has not fully acknowledged that she is gay, or at least bisexual. She talks vaguely about how one day she will do this, that or the other with a man, without any enthusiasm or interest. She does show great interest in her friend Claire’s string of boyfriends but she vacillates between admiration and disapproval of such an active (and yet virtuous) love life. She pretends to know better how to keep hold of a man, and yet admits to never having been in a situation to put her knowledge to the test.

Looking back, very little actually happens in this book. And in many ways that is the point. Claudine can be obsessively excited by, and then deeply bored by, the day-to-day minutiae of school life. Which is precisely how I remember school being. She views herself as worldly and cosmopolitan but actually lives in a small country village where very little happens. Which I suspect leads to all kinds of fun in the next book in the series, Claudine in Paris.

This book was so much fun. It’s the schoolgirl book I wish I had read when I was a teenager instead of all those sappy American ones. I’m so entranced I fully intend to read all of the Claudine sequels.

Claudine à l’école first published in 1900 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1956 by Secker and Warburg

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