The Other Woman by Colette

Today sees the start of the 1924 Club, Simon’s clever idea for us to look at, read and enjoy books from that year! When he first mooted the idea, one of the first things that probably sprang into both of our minds was to check which of the Virago titles were published that year, and then to see which ones we had in our collection! Fortunately, the very handy Virago Collection tracker on LibraryThing (cleverly prepared and maintained by members of the group) enables sorting by year and these were the titles which came up:

Precious Bane by Mary Webb
The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy
Old New York by Edith Wharton
The Matriarch by G.B. Stern
The Rector’s Daughter by F.M. Mayor
The Other Woman by Colette
Challenge by Vita Sackville-West

An intriguing and mixed bunch, no? Certainly, the first title on the list, “Precious Bane”, seems to inspire either love or hate in a reader; I’ve never had the courage to approach it after reading the parody of it in the form of “Cold Comfort Farm”. However, I do own several of the titles on the list and here are some of them:

1924 viragos(I know I’ve got at least one copy of “The Constant Nymph” in the house; and I do have “Challenge” too, but in a non-Virago edition).

I also might just have downloaded a copy of Wharton’s “Old New York” just for the fun of it…

It’s a tribute to the strength of the Virago list that these are all titles that are highly regarded and could be picked up and read quite happily (but then VMCs are known for their quality). I had to make a very difficult decision as to which one I’d read and in the end I went for the Colette – it’s ages since I read any of her short stories and they rather appealed to me. The collection consists of 20 short stories ranging in length from a couple of pages, to round forty for the closing piece in the book “My Friend Valentine”. And every single one is a gem – I don’t think Colette could write a bad piece of work if she tried!

In a few pages she can lay bare a relationship, expose a woman’s everyday deceptions or reveal the excruciating loneliness when love comes to an end. Her eye is always objective but compassionate – she never judges, but observes, and you can feel her warmth and sympathy and love of life coming through whatever her subject.

The aforementioned “My Friend Valentine” is one of my favourite of Colette’s shorter works, and one in which she features herself as a character. Collecting together a sequence of pieces, we see Valentine as she chastises Colette for dining at a disreputable bar run by the formidable Semiramis; the two ladies take part in the vine harvest; they discuss how to bring up their daughters; and in a pivotal passage, Colette considers the reasons why cutting her hair short is so liberating for a woman.

1924 colette

A case could be made for asserting that Colette’s greatest creation was herself; certainly many of my favourite of her works are those in which she projected herself as a character. I say as a character because the Colette she chose to show to the world was probably not the real woman behind this image; but it’s delightful to feel that you’re in touch with her and getting a glimpse into her world.

The prose is, of course, gorgeous and I could have pulled out masses of quotes but frankly I’d rather just recommend that you get a copy of this book (or indeed her collected short stories, or any of her novels, or basically anything she wrote) and just read it. In 1924 Colette had published many of the great works we still know and love her for, and was a writer at the height of her powers. “The Other Woman” is a wonderful way to get to know her!

Don’t forget to let us know what books you’re reading from 1924, what exciting titles you’ve uncovered and what you think of them all! 

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