By Philippa Campsie

Place Colette, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Barbara Redmond

The Place Colette, named for the writer Colette (1874-1954) who lived nearby, is a good place to contemplate French novels and their heroines. And why would we do that? Well, because French fiction may well be an important key to the mystery of what makes Frenchwomen the way they are.

Whole books have been written about Frenchwomen’s special qualities, with oceans of ink spilt over the “scarf-tying gene” and the myth that they don’t get fat, and the fact that they always dress impeccably. Nobody ever looks at what they read, and the heroines who might serve as role models.

For example, consider the traditional heroines you probably read about when you were in your teens. They might include Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, Jo March from Little Women, or Anne of Green Gables—outspoken, tomboyish, and spunky characters. They make mistakes and learn from them, they spend time with sisters and schoolmates, they are loyal to their families. The only one who seems particularly interested in her appearance is the disaster-prone Anne, who dyes her hair green by mistake and believes that happiness can be found in a dress with puffed sleeves.

French writer, Colette

Now who do we have in the French line-up? For a non-French person, the character who comes to mind immediately is Gigi, the almost-courtesan, surrounded by adults who are grooming her for a rather unconventional job. Of course, most of us know Gigi from the sanitized musical play and movie by Lerner and Lowe, but even so we can see that Gigi has no siblings or schoolmates to share confidences, and her lessons consist of learning how to serve food, dress beautifully, and converse with men.

Gigi is one of Colette’s creations, and Colette herself is a far cry from Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott (two spinsters) or or L.M. Montgomery (a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage to a morose Presbyterian clergyman). Colette married three times, and had various affairs. Some of the spicier bits of her books are simply drawn from her own life.

The story goes that Colette’s first husband, Henri Gauthier-Villars (known as Willy) ran a sort of literary sweatshop, in which he employed ghost writers to pump out material he could publish under his own name. Apparently he would lock Colette into a room until she had written a certain number of pages. It was a brutal but effective form of apprenticeship; for the rest of her life, Colette was able to produce reams of material on deadline under trying circumstances.

When she wasn’t writing, she was performing—one of her more celebrated roles was in a play called La Chair (The Flesh), in which a breast-revealing wardrobe malfunction was written right into the script. You just can’t imagine Louisa May Alcott in that situation.

Now we can’t come to a definite conclusion based on this single example (and we may well be overlooking much more influential books pitched at young Frenchwomen in their teens), but we do wonder if in trying to pin down why Frenchwomen are the way they are, it might be worth taking a peek at their bookshelves, not just their boudoirs.

A novel is un roman in French, and a writer is un écrivain or une écrivaine, although a woman writer might also be called une femme des lettres. In the 19th century, literary women were known in both French and English as les bas-bleus (bluestockings), although this term probably did not apply to Colette. In the 17th century, the term Les Précieuses (the Precious) was applied to a group of women who wrote elegant and very feminine romance novels; they were lampooned in a Molière play called “Les Précieuses ridicules.” Obviously, men really didn’t get it.

P.S. Of course, the French do have children’s books, such as Les malheurs de Sophie (The Trials of Sophie) written in the 1860s by the Comtesse de Ségur, about a little girl living in a French country house whose curiosity tends to get the better of her, rather like the spunky heroines in English books, but it was pitched at a younger audience.


Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (Author), Valerie Alderson (Editor). Oxford University Press (2009).

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.  Tribeca Books (2010).

The Collected Stories of Colette, by Colette (Author), Robert G. Phelps (Editor), Antonia White (Translator), Matthew Ward (Translator), Anne-Marie Callimachi (Translator). Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publisher (1984).

The Complete Anne of Green Gables Boxed Set, by L.M. Montgomery. Starfire; Reprint edition (1998).

VOCABULARY: French to English translations

Les bas-bleus: Bluestockings. 19th century literary women were known in both French and English as les bas-bleus.
Les Précieuses: The precious. Applied to a group of women who wrote elegant and very feminine romance novels.
Un écrivain/une écrivaine: (M/F) Writer.
Une fremme des letters: Woman writer.
Un roman: Novel.

Philippa Campsie

Philippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy. She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.

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The Child Madeline, by writer and educator Natalie Ehalt who shares her love of Madeline and brings a deserved respect for girls and children worldwide. Including excerpts from Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales, by Ludwig Bemelmans.

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Le Baisemain, a kiss of the hand, by Barbara Redmond who shares her story of the French-style kiss, considered by some out of fashion, and writes, “Gallantly, he bent down from the waist and reached for my right hand. He took my hand as though it were a fragile butterfly about to fly away. Poised, he raised it…” She wondered, was it the Chanel No.5 perfume?

Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.