In Celia Brayfield's nine novels she has reworked the plots of Cosi fan Tutte and She Stoops to Conquer, set stories in the Ballets Russes era and on a volcanic island in 18th-century Spain and explored the crisis in masculinity in the London suburbs. She has also written five non-fiction books, of which the latest is Writing Historical Fiction, to be published by Bloomsbury Academic in December 2013. A former journalist, Celia will be guest-editing the December 2013 edition of MsLexia. She teaches Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Below she discusses Colette's Chéri.
Celia Brayfield on Chéri by Colette
In Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, among the abundant ivy and oddly healthy feral cats, lies a great slab of porphyry, like a double bed with a dark red cover. Whenever I've seen it, there has been a posy of flowers wilting at the foot. The headstone, or headboard, reads 'Ici repose Colette'. The introduction to my 1962 Penguin edition of her novel, Chéri, begins, 'In France, Madame Colette is accepted as a national glory.'
Chéri was the novel that regenerated Colette’s polymorphous career for the fourth time. It was published in 1920, when she was 47, and was, at the outset, a work of pure imagination, the story of a love affair between an ageing courtesan, Lea, and the son of one of her friends, more than 20 years her junior.
The belle-époque demi-monde may be a sentimentalized Baz Luhrman set to us now, at a distance of both time and culture, but Colette never overlooks the inequity, cruelty and corruption under the bejewelled surface. Chéri himself is the human product of a society in which men have all the economic and social power and women have only the temporary leverage of sex. Chéri's mother lucked in with him. 'His birth mysteriously brought wealth to the house,' although his father is never named. He grows from a child valued only for his cherubic beauty into a selfish, shallow, vicious but alluring young man.
Read against the author's biography, Chéri is the same boy as the bratty child in Colette's libretto for Ravel's opera L'Enfant et les Sortileges, isolated by his own childish cruelty and crying out for 'Maman'. Lea is at first the maman who feeds him up, laps him in comfort, catches the lit cigarette as it falls from his fingers when he slips into a doze in her boudoir. Her métier is luxurious comfort and sex seems only part of that at first.
And then Chéri, or Fred Peloux to give him his real name, has the opportunity to move up, to leave behind his mother's circle of arthritic ex-ballerinas, wrinkled old tarts and evergreen toy boys and marry into the mainstream. His passport to the bourgeoisie is a young heiress who falls in love with him. Lea is used to giving up lovers - the ritual involves a formal farewell dinner with langoustines in cream sauce - and at first expects to give up Chéri without a second thought.
Like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the novel asserts the ability of the human heart to feel pure love no matter how deeply the protagonists try to drown their feelings in moral corruption. Lea and Chéri separately are blind-sided by passion. Neither can feel alive until they are reunited. What they took for a passing sensual liaison proves to be a deep devotion. Which is not to say that their story ends happily. A sequel, Le Fin de Chéri - sadly translated as The Last of Chéri – is even darker.
When I first read the book as a teenager I loved it for many reasons. The subtlety and elaboration of emotion is extraordinary, especially to one for whom love is in the future. The storyworld is rich, elaborate and sensuous, with the flowers, clothes, jewellery and food as sharply observed as the manners and mores. Above all, this was the world from a woman's perspective, the same world I knew from Maupassant, Balzac, Hugo and Dumas fils, but which suddenly seemed external and heartless, almost a lie, in comparison. La Dame aux Camellias, over which I shed serious tears, came to read as a moralizing and masculine attempt at the same theme.
Colette herself became an inspiration to the women of my generation who knew that the life of a 1950s housewife would not be for them. Like Madonna – there's a physical resemblance too – Colette explored the boundaries of gender without fear but with an astute awareness of the market value of scandal. She had a good teacher in her first husband, under whose name her first novels, the Claudine series, were published. These frothy, lesbian schoolgirl romps are both authentically female in sensibility and shaped to contemporary male fantasies.
The Claudine series gave her fame, fortune, independence and the entrée to artistic Paris. By the time she wrote Chéri, Colette had moved through a number of relationships with both men and women of distinction, as well as a career on the stage, and was married to an aristocratic newspaper proprietor. In a strange instance of life following art, she began an affair with her stepson just as she completed the book.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]