I have always adored the film Gigi. The film unfurls across the screen in all its technicolour majesty, as fresh as when it was made in 1958. The scenes are swaddled in red velvet and trimmed with lace.
I have only just recently read the novella. Golly I was blown away. Not only by my ability to actually read something start to finish (why has life gotten in the way of reading??) but the book has infinity more flair than the film. The language is lush. The sentences are strung out with sensuality and tart with wit. Colette is just marvellous!
It’s a coming of age story in a most peculiar age. Set in Paris in 1899, young Gilberte, also known as Gigi, is raised by her Grandmother and Aunt Alicia. Gigi’s mother makes infrequent appearances and has even less to do with her upbringing.
It is not a standard childhood; Gigi is being primed to become a courtesan. There are clear expectations of how Gigi behave and what sort of society man is becomes “involved” with. There are certain pressures to perform as Grandmamma warns Gigi “we sink or swim together”.
What threatens them to sink even involves how Gigi performs at the dinner table:
“The three greats tumbling blocks in a girl’s education, she says (Aunt Alicia), are Homard Á L'Américaine, a boiled egg, and asparagus. Shoddy table manners, she says, have broken up many a happy home.”
The lessons don’t just involve table etiquette, but extend to posture, poise and even pastimes:
“Grandmamma says: ’Don’t read novels, they only depress you. Don’t put on powder, it ruins the complexion. Don’t wear stays, they spoil the figure. Don’t dawdle and gaze at shop windows when you’re by yourself. Don’t get to know the families of your school friends, especially not the fathers who wait at the gates to fetch their daughters home from school.”
These lessons often fall flat as Gigi is “a bit scattered-brained in certain things and backward for her age” and is "governed by the unconcern of childish innocence.” She rather play cards with her Uncle Gaston, gossip and eat liquorice.
For being only fifty-odd pages long I became utterly wrapped up in Gigi’s life and her journey to womanhood – “she was losing some of her sweetness”. This journey is sped up by an unexpected proposition which forces Gigi to grow up quickly.
If Downton Abbey leaves you leaving cold and pulse sluggish, then you my friend may adore Gigi. The French certainty exchange more then chase looks and heaving sighs. Plus Colette is an absolute wordsmith and awash with wanton witticisms.