Colette’s Advice Column

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Translated by Zack Rogow and Renée Morel

The French write Colette (1873–1954) wrote many books, including the novels Gigi and Cheri, made into popular movies. Colette also had an advice column in the women’s magazine Marie Claire during the years 1939 and 1940. These translations are from Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and Other Previously Untranslated Gems by Colette published by State University of New York Press. The translations copyright 2014 by Zack Rogow and Renée Morel. The translators wish to thank Anne de Jouvenel, Foulques de Jouvenel, and Hugues de Jouvenel for their cooperation in making these texts available to English-speaking readers.

The first letter-writer refers to Saint Catherine’s Day, November 25. Saint Catherine is the patron saint of unmarried women. In France, during this period, friends would be supportive of single women on that day and sometimes organize a party where a woman could meet a prospective husband.

From Denise in Despair:

In May, I met a young man. At the beginning he told me he loved me, and since I had never flirted, never known another young man, I put all my trust in him. I still love him with all my soul. From the start, he didn’t hide from me that he had flirted before, but he swore to me that he would love only me from then on. So we saw each other for a month and a half, and at the end of June he left town for a three-month vacation, and went home to stay with his parents in N. During those three months, he didn’t write to me. When he returned in October for his third year of teacher training college, we reconnected and clearly enjoyed being together again. A week after this meeting, he wrote to me a letter full of remorse, doubts, telling me that he wasn’t worthy of my love (since I’d never stopped loving him and thinking of him despite his silence). In this letter, he asks my forgiveness for having made me suffer and promises to try to change in order to be worthy of a love as pure as mine, as he says. Then he tells me that he never liked me as in “love,” he just wanted to flirt; he realizes that he was wrong. He says he feels for me a very, very strong friendship. He still writes to me and keeps asking my forgiveness and says he wants to always be a sincere friend to me. In other words, there hasn’t been a break-up at all. On Saint Catherine’s Day, he sent me a card with these words: “Georgette, permit me to wish you a happy Saint Catherine’s Day; I hope you welcome my card. Your sincere friend, Jean.” His words are simple, but they touch me deeply. Tell me, dear Marie Claire, do you think love can grow from a great friendship? Answer me, please, I’m in such despair. It causes Jean a great deal of pain to see me in such despair. He says to me: “Don’t get discouraged, my little Georgette. Don’t make yourself sick over this. I’m not worthy of a deep love like yours.”

You see, for him, I’m completely different from the girls he knew before, because I have a beautiful concept of love; for me, it’s something sacred; you should only love one time, I believe, and I really feel I’ll never love another besides him. I love him exclusively, as my only love. He asks me to promise that I’ll get over my pain, but I can’t: I keep having these crises of crazy despair. I can never be consoled. Should I hope?

Besides, I’m very pretty, everyone says so. And I’m always getting compliments, but it disgusts me, I can tell you; I’d prefer to be ugly and to be loved by the one I love so much. Some girls tell me I’m really wrong to suffer for a guy, that I’m not modern, that I’d do better to have fun with whoever, but this negative advice disheartens me. I don’t go out much; I’m going to be twenty years old and I have to do all the housework myself for my family. The people who know me admire my courage, I never complain, but it’s hard, this life.

P.S. Right now, Jean has no relationships with other girls. I think he really wants to change, and be more serious.

Colette’s response:

He has “recognized his mistakes” and he signs his letter, “Your sincere friend, Jean.” Can you doubt that it’s all over between you?

If he liked you as someone to love, he might have signed his letter, “Your worst enemy who adores you, Jean.” Then he wrote you, “I’m not worthy…” and he told you his “doubts.” Leave all hope behind. If you were the one distant from him, and he still loved you, wouldn’t you, in order to leave him, in order no longer to carry the burden—intolerable—of an unrequited love, wouldn’t you forego this gesture (which lacks nobility) of making yourself ugly in someone else’s eyes? But that’s what Jean is doing. To begin with, he says he’s “unworthy.” Even worse, he talks about “friendship,” a decoy, a scarecrow for young lovers, that he offers as a consolation. How would he know that between a man and a woman friendship is a temperate and delicious climate where love takes refuge when it has given up all its fruits and serenely welcomes old age? Jean speaks about humility. Why not also the respect that he has for you? Such great virtues in him seem like a fake beard; they are insignificant next to his charming faults, often just an ornament for his prerogative of being twenty years old, thoughtless, spontaneous, demanding, jealous. How moving your postscript is! “Jean wants to change, become serious, he doesn’t see other girls.” All the more reason to give this way-too-clever Jean the time to develop his character far away from you, and hope that he will see, on the contrary, other girls. Pretty, serious, hardworking—do you fear the comparisons?

In a few months, I hope you will laugh about ever having written the words, “crazy despair…never, never…my only love.”

Wait. Remain, in your own eyes and in the eyes of others, the way you are. Refuse to “have fun with whoever.” It’s not a pretty thing, a young woman without restraints. Besides, I’m not worried about you. You’re not among those for whom pleasure can substitute for happiness.

Colette (1873–1954) wrote many novels, including Gigi and Cheri, made into popular movies. She was also a prolific journalist and authored regular features for newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media, including this advice column for women.

Zack Rogow’s translations from French include work by André Breton, George Sand, and Marcel Pagnol. He received the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Award, and teaches in the low-residency MFA in writing program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of twenty books or plays.

Renée Morel is a translator and adjunct professor of French at City College of San Francisco. She lectures throughout the Bay Area on French culture, art, and civilization, from the Gauls to de Gaulle.