I’ve been to Paris. On my way there, I tried to lower my hopes – surely the city can’t be as magnificent as I imagined it? To my utter surprise, I was right: Paris surpassed my daydreams (which is a fine feat indeed). To this day, I maintain that Paris is one of the few cities I ever felt at home in.
Claudine, the (chastely) titillating seventeen-year-old protagonist of the 1901 French novel, Claudine in Paris, disagrees. She finds the city boring, dirty and claustrophobic, and misses the leaves (or something) in the small town she grew up in. Luckily she makes friends with her gay (?) nephew, and gets the hots for his father. Yes, her widowed cousin-in-law.
The Claudine series (starting with Claudine at School, of which this book is a sequel) was born when the deliciously controversial French author Colette‘s ex-husband, Willy, asked her to write down what she remembered of her school years. Apparently, her skeevy ex-husband grew bored of country schoolgirls tales and requested that Colette “… hot these childhood reminiscences up a little?” Indeed.
This part of the overall story focuses on Claudine’s ruthless and witty observations on her glamourous new life in Paris. In fact, I’m quite surprised such biting commentary can originate from a small-town character, but Claudine’s rough mannerisms only lend her charm. Example being the time she threw water on a servant that loudly beat her dog outside every morning:
Five minutes later, enter the portress, a dirty, long-winded woman who had once been handsome. Papa being absent, she stared with some surprise at this pale, arrogant little girl. ‘Mademoiselle, the Breton girl has said someone eptied a pail…’ – ‘I did. What of it?’ – ‘She says as how it’s a reason for her to put up a complaint …’ – ‘My nerves can’t put up with her. Besides, if she starts beating the dog again, she’ll get something worse than water. Do I tell her employers that she spits in the breakfast-cups and blows her nose on the table napkins?’
… Moreover, you know, I’ve never seen her spit in the cups or blow her nose on the napkins. But she looks perfectly capable of doing so. Besides, as we say at home, she repulses me. Isn’t that what’s called a ‘generous lie’?
I like Claudine a lot less, however, when she insists on falling in love with the aforementioned cousin. After several days of our illustrious protagonist floating on a pink cloud, Claudine tells the love of her life that she would rather be his mistress than his wife. At this stage, I had settled back to wait in eager anticipation for the return of the old Claudine. I was disappointed, however, as Sir Womaniser has decided that Claudine is, indeed, the love of his life and he must marry her at once. Cue annoying, giggling Claudine.
The story is marvelous aside from the above transgression, although I can hardly fault the author for my own aversion to reading anything resembling romance. If Disney couldn’t make me excited about princes running around saving princesses for happily ever afters, I doubt anyone could.
Nevertheless, I’ve still got Claudine at School to read if I want to avoid part three: Claudine Married. If anyone was wondering, I blame my choice for reading the sequel before the first book on my weak will and the tempting delights of Paris. This is because of the direct juxtaposition of the first few pages of the first book, which describe the exact charm of Claudine’s country town, with Paris. Need I say more?