I rarely begin reviews by talking about what a book looks like, but I feel I ought to here. The hardback edition of Colette’s France: Her Lives, Her Loves by Jane Gilmour is absolutely beautiful. It is very aesthetically pleasing, and will be a wonderful addition to any bookshelf. You can see the glorious attention to detail on the cover image below, and I am pleased to report that the theme continues throughout. Each chapter begins with a gorgeous double page spread of photographs and illustrations, and pictures have been included throughout the text of both Colette and the places which she called home. A lovely illustrated motif runs along the bottom of each page too, and even the typography has been marvellously thought out.
Without further ado, I will stop gushing about the aesthetic properties of Colette’s France and deliver a review about its contents. The illustrated biography which Gilmour has written so lovingly is ‘told through the stunning locations in France where she lived, worked and loved.’ Gilmour, having studied the author in question’s work for decades, ‘has a personal passion and extensive knowledge of Colette and her life’. At the outset, she states that she wanted to write such a biography for the following reason: ‘When reading Colette, I had the feeling of not being alone. She was like a confidante, a friend who could see into the human heart, who could peel back the layers of illusion and delusion that mask the complex and troublesome nature of human relationships’.
In her biography, Gilmour has traced the path of Colette through France. She has chosen to split the writing into nine rather short and accessible chapters, which range from elements such as her childhood and Belle Epoque Paris, to the effects of war and her love of tranquil seaside places such as Saint Tropez. Gilmour has added a wonderful prologue and epilogue as bookends of sorts against the main body of text, as well as a chronology, a suggested reading list, and ‘a guide for your own journey in search of Colette’, which is a lovely touch.
When beginning to write about her subject, Gilmour states that, ‘Armed with what she called her “monstrous innocence”, she wore many masks as she created both her own reality and her own myth – provincial ingenue, risque performer, lesbian lover, prodigious journalist and writer, businesswoman, baroness and mother, lover and seducer, loyal friend and mentor and, finally, grand old lady of letters, revered and honoured with a state funeral when she died in 1954.’ She begins with outlining the lives of Colette’s parents, and then goes onto her own birth in 1873, and her childhood in ‘a flourishing village [Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye] of close to two thousand people’, in a region which Colette referred to as ‘my poor Burgundy’.
Colette was the daughter of free-thinking parents, who allowed their children to ‘spend hours in the garden reading, or to go wandering in the woods’. Only the novels of Emile Zola were forbidden to Colette and her siblings, and they were encouraged to be as well read as was possible. Gilmour tracks her early interest in literature and her path to becoming a writer in a succinct manner, which suits the book perfectly.
The quotes which Gilmour weaves in throughout from Colette’s work, letters and journals are lovely, and it is clear that they have been chosen with such care. The social and historical context has been set marvellously. As the author has visited all of the places in which Colette lived and loved, her descriptions come to life. She writes of what certain scenes were like when Colette knew them, and how they have altered in the interim. Gilmour’s writing is beautiful; her prose is delicate, and almost story-like throughout. This enables the book to be very readable, and it is not at all dry as a lot of biographies seem to be.
Colette’s France is well structured and fascinating, and at no point does it drag on or seem dull. Colette had a fascinating life in France, and Gilmour has transcribed this to the page in the best manner imaginable. The book is highly recommended for anyone interested in French culture, life in France, Colette, the lives of writers living in the same period, the Belle Epoque, early- to mid-twentieth century Paris, and French theatre. Colette’s France is a biography which is difficult to put down, and one can only hope that Gilmour turns her hand to writing other such books in future.