Thursday, May 21, 2015

Adèle Eugénie Sidonie Landois Colette

Garden, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh
Colette's mother, known as Sido to her family, was born in August, 1835. Sido was left with a peasant family and her father and older siblings moved to Belgium when her mother died. It was the time of the Citizen King, Louis-Philippe, in France, but as journalists and members of radical groups, Sido’s brothers sought the haven of free expression Belgium had become.

Sido’s father traded in coffee, cocoa, cotton, rum and dyes. When Sido joined the family, she grew up in Brussels in a house filled with beautiful furniture and paintings. Sido acquired her father’s expensive tastes. At seventy she maintained she had never been able to drink out of a glass not made of crystal or a cup not of bone china.

Brussels was a hotbed of radicalism and buzzing with ideas, particularly those of Francois Raspail and Charles Fourier. Sido’s older brothers became editors and publishers of these men and others of their circles. The scientist Raspail advocated healthy living and preventative medicine, trying to spread notions of hygiene and moderation among the poor by operating free clinics. In Fourier’s utopian society, the passions — labeled vices in our Western civilization, or deadly sins in Christianity — would be used wisely and channeled from anti-social to social behavior, eventually evolving into harmony.

Sido lapped up these theories, becoming an atheist with a strong, independent personality. The Landois home was a refuge for radicals fleeing France and Sido was happy in the sophisticated, liberal milieu around her brothers. "Nothing supplanted in my mother's heart the beautiful Belgian cities, the warmth of their refined and gentle life, epicurean and enamored of the things of the mind," wrote Colette.

When Sido was 22, the family of Jules Robineau-Duclos sought her hand. Robineau had inherited farms, fields, wooded lands, cattle, and a vineyard that produced hundreds of liters of wine and brandy. He was an introverted, slouching alcoholic, but his family hoped Sido would be good for him. They were married in 1857 and Sido went to live in St.-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, a small village in an impoverished area of Burgundy. Called by Colette “the Savage,” Robineau, a “descendant of a once noble family, had inherited their disdain, their courtesy, their brutality and their taste for the society of inferiors.”

Sido was lonely but she had two children by “the Savage.” She also began an affair with Capt. Jules-Joseph Colette, a military hero who had lost a leg and had a post as tax collector in the village. They had a son together, and after Robineau finally drank himself to death, were married in 1865. Their daughter, the writer Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was born a few years later. Always an outsider and often the subject of the scandals the village looked forward to, Sido and her husband lived in St.-Sauveur-en-Puisaye for the rest of their lives. Preferring the provinces to Paris, Sido developed a strong sense of the social hierarchy, of the necessity for irreproachable conduct, and pride at inhabiting an ancient and honored house. “After all, I belong to my village,” she told her daughter.

I know Sido from the lush books Colette wrote about her: My Mother’s House, Sido and the frequent quotations from her letters in Break of Day. Colette wrote she was the personage “who has dominated all the rest of my work.” Colette recounts how she, her father and brothers, lived in a large house and garden utterly dependent upon Sido’s vivacious presence. “I still cherish happy memories of the sixth hour of the evening, the green watering-can soaking the blue sateen frock, the strong smell of leaf-mould, and the afterglow that cast a pink reflection on the pages of a forgotten book, the white petals of the tobacco flowers and the white fur of the cat in her basket.”

As Sido grew older, “she lived on, swept by shadow and sunshine, bowed by bodily torments, resigned, unpredictable and generous, rich in children, flowers and animals like a fruitful domain.” Sido worried her children, writing to Colette, “I’m better, and the proof is that at seven o’clock this morning I did the washing in my stream. I was enraptured. What a pleasure it is to dabble in clear water! I sawed wood, too, and made six little bundles of firewood. And I’m doing my housework myself again, which means it’s being properly done. And after all, I’m only seventy-six!” She died a year later.

Sido reminds me of my own mother, who tamed her powerful intelligence into a life of service and partnership with my father, a Lutheran pastor. With a great love of nature and surrounded by her many children, she was able to live in happiness and contentment in successive villages in the American Midwest. Like Colette herself, I loved and longed after my mother, treasuring her judgments and avid for her favorable regard.

It is women like Sido and my mother whom I wish to celebrate in these posts. Their large hearts and capacious intelligence have convinced me that women need not compete with men. Rather, women need recognition for their gifts. A culture based on strict rationality, in which only what can be measured counts for knowledge, is impoverished without the rich discretion as well as the understanding of natural laws which women, through hard-won physical experience and yes, education, richly provide.