Gigi by Colette
Translated by Roger Senhouse

Well, what a week it’s been so far! We’re getting to the end and today I wanted to post about one of my favourite authors, a writer I was so pleased I could re-read for the #1944Club! I’ve written fairly extensively on the Ramblings about Colette (and she’s probably trending, as they say, at the moment owing to there being a biopic in the offing); so the fact that one of her most famous works was published in 1944 was a real bonus.

Pretty but fragile Penguin edition….

“Gigi” is one of the titles that springs to the lips of those in the know when Colette’s name is mentioned; possibly because of the film starring Leslie Caron; and yet when I picked it up for a re-read I was astonished at how short it actually is. At around 50 pages in my pretty old Penguin, it would struggle to be classed as a novella, and I would almost expect to find it in my volume of her collected short stories. In fact, my Penguin has “Gigi” paired with “The Cat”, a longer work; yet reputation of the title story is large, and for a very good reason.

Gilberte, known affectionately as Gigi, is 15 going on grown-up; on the cusp of womanhood, still naive and closely protected by her mother, her Grandmother and her aunt Alicia, she is being discreetly lined up for life as a courtesan. The family is slightly on the outside of things; although they have higher class associates, they struggle financially, with Gigi’s mother singing at night to earn money. A legacy of one of Grandmother’s past liaisons is a current friendship with Gaston Lachaille, a rich man who nevertheless seems to enjoy calling on the little family of women where he can relax. Gigi calls him Uncle Tonton, and is happy to be spoiled with little treats. However, Tonton has broken up with his society girlfriend, at a point where Gigi is reaching an age to be of interest as more than a family friend. The older women seem to be considering some kind of modern version of Grandmother’s friendship with the Lachaille family; however, Gigi has ideas of her own…

As always, Colette’s writing is a pure delight. Despite its short length, “Gigi” brims with atmosphere, characters, settings and stories. Gigi herself is headstrong and engaging; Tonton a convincing besotted man . Leaving aside any morals here (when did we ever look to a Colette book for morals???), the story is beautifully told and it’s a joy seeing Gigi get her own way despite the attempts of the older women to control her.

So I might have shelled out on an expensive ‘paper lovers’ magazine just because it had some postcards of women reading, including Colette and Hepburn….

OK, OK, the morals. Tonton is 33, Gigi is 15; that age gap and her youth are problematic, although it has to be borne in mind that the story is set some considerable time in the past (which is no excuse really). However, I can’t help being reminded of how Colette married a man older than her, the libertine Willy (she was a naive looking 20, he was 34); and I wondered how much this coloured her narrative. Nevertheless, “Gigi” is beautifully written, evocative of time and place, and a fascinating look at the lives of certain women too easily dismissed. This was a time when being wife or mistress seemed the only options, unless you had money, and Gigi is intelligent enough to know which was the better choice.

“Gigi” was made into a successful stage show, and then a film; the former launched the career of Audrey Hepburn, when Colette reputedly pointed her out as the perfect actress to play her heroine. The film became a classic (though staring Caron not Hepburn) and Colette continued writing until her death. I wouldn’t say “Gigi” is necessarily the best place to start with her work; but nothing she writes is ever dull, and I’m happy to have become reacquainted with “Gigi” again for the 1944 Club!

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