I had been told that Colette, the French writer, produced “light” novels. I chanced upon one of her early works, “Claudine in Paris”, in a charity shop and thought I would give it a go. I was astonished!
This is the second of the “Claudine” novels, as narrated by Claudine herself. In it, Claudine, aged 17, and her father, leave their village home and go to live in Paris. They visit her father’s aged sister and meet her grandson, Marcel, who is Claudine’s own age. The aunt clearly has hopes of Marcel and Claudine getting together, but Claudine soon realises that the dandified youth is a homosexual. Instead she finds herself attracted to Marcel’s father, Renaud, a middle-aged widower. Quite by chance, Claudine meets an old school-friend, Luce, whom she remembered as a timid, mousy little thing, but who is now living in luxury as the mistress of a fat and unpleasant but very rich uncle. (Amongst other things, he makes her dress up as a schoolgirl and threatens to spank her if she gets her sums wrong). Luce delights in showing off her expensive new clothes and jewellery, but Claudine is disgusted; less at the immorality than at the thought of going to bed with an ugly old man. Next, Claudine receives a proposal of marriage from her father’s young assistant, but although she likes him, she turns him down flat. Her maid, a splendidly earthy woman from the village, approves, recommending “trying out” a prospective husband first, to see if he’s any good! Instead Claudine goes to see Renaud, and, knowing him to be a great womaniser, offers to be his mistress. He rejects this, and instead insists that Claudine marries him. Reluctantly, she agrees.
A “light” novel indeed! I checked to see when the book was first published. It was in 1901! It would be controversial enough even today, would it not? It’s no wonder that our ancestors thought French novels were highly immoral!