Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Miss and Madame
Perhaps it's just that I'm getting a little stir-crazy in this five-star gilded prison, but today I'm feeling literary. Fortunately, there are not one but two significant moments of which to take note, and they have a certain unlikely symmetry.
First off we have the birthday of the moody vamp seen above, the remarkable woman who in private life had a very long name - Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette Gauthier-Villars de Jouvenal Goudeket - but who to the world rejoiced in but one: Colette. She arrived 142 years ago, and in many ways we're still in the midst of sorting out the legacy - bemused, cosmopolitan, frankly sexual and just as frankly sentimental - she left behind. Over the course of her long life she had incarnations as varied as being a scandal of the music halls, a cosmetics tycoon of sorts, and a member (the first woman) and eventual president of the prestigious Académie Goncourt. Above all, she is a matchless limner of every phase of love, physical and emotional - cool, detached, and all the more moving for the worldliness with which she approaches matters of the heart (and points south).
Our second anniversary could hardly, at first glance, be a greater contrast: 202 years today saw the publication of one of the great - perhaps the great - novels taking as its subject the timeless topic of love as the most genteel form of commerce: marriage. Pride and Prejudice, like its author, the ultimate spinster aunt Miss Jane Austen, is the mirror image of the works and person of Colette.
I can't help feeling that they might have had much to say to each other. Miss Austen has never been bettered as a writer of externals, of people inhabiting the personae they hope to show the world. While it may be possible to think of Mr. Darcy with his shirt wet, or perhaps to consider getting an indiscreet glance of shoulder from the hapless Lydia Bennet, it is otherwise impossible to imagine the people of Austen's world in any way other than how they might have appeared in the drawing room at Pemberley. A Mr. Collins or a Lady Catherine de Bourgh unrobed? Inconceivable!
By contrast, Colette is the unrivaled mistress of deshabille, of handsome men in the lavish dressing gowns of the Belle Époque and of beautiful, dissolute ladies trailing clouds of ruched peignoirs as they move between the boudoir and chambers even more private. Austen's people have ambition and guineas per annum; Colette's have genitals, however discreetly, if intermittently, draped.
But both, in the end, trade in the currency of romance as currency and vice versa. To Austen, love is a practical transaction enlivened by a dash of flirtation; to her Gallic counterpart, it is a subtle and diverting game - but one of high stakes. Austen knows that it is the flirtation, the spark, that makes an advantageous match a life's destination; just as Colette's elegant demimondaines never lose sight of the bottom line.
I picture them together, in a high-ceilinged room that combines Regency propriety with Parisian élan, flowers and French doors opening to a sun-filled expanse of green and a fine summer afternoon beyond. One drinks a proper cup of tea in the very thinnest of cups, bolt upright and head slightly to one side as she regards the other, a Continental personage stretched on a divan covered in silks and stretches of fur, a vision of hennaed hair, profuse and frankly smudged maquillage, and a generous glass of Pernod. What a conversation they might have had - on fashion (Colette encouraging her churchmouse friend to think about just a touch, chérie, of rouge; Miss Austen suggesting a more becoming cap to cover the other's notorious mop of scarlet curls), society and its peculiarities, the foibles of the world, and, above all, the joy to be had by observing and secretly recording and then creating a distillation of one's milieu.
And that's what I'm thinking about, on a hot Wednesday night high above the whirling madness of this Asian city where, outside the sealed windows of this luxurious fortress, somewhere calculating mothers try to find a respectable match for their far too many daughters even as elegant reprobates (admittedly no longer irreproachable in tails and top hats, it's true) venture out to find a Gigi (albeit one likely to be considerably more fluid as to gender and intent than Madame's original). And so it goes...