Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette lived a life of angst and drama that put even the exploits of the most rebellious teenager to shame. She spent most of the late Nineteenth Century, and indeed much of the Twentieth, leaving a tsunami of scandal in her wake. Between writing books, she ran away to become a music hall performer, took female lovers and even had an affair with her stepson.
So, The Ripening Seed, Colette’s tale of frustrated teenage love in seaside France, promised to be a sexed up, continental version of the youthful melodrama of The Catcher in the Rye. ‘“Wah, wah, wah, no one understands me,” she wailed. “Stop ze crying, I do,” the farmhand said gruffly, absentmindedly yet suggestively stroking a baguette’- or at least that is how I imagined the plot going, but, come to think of it, that just sounds like Samantha Brick’s memoirs.
For the most part, Colette’s novella serves up relateably pathetic teenage protagonists, but the social setting was too far removed from modern teenage culture for me to get too involved. Vinca and Phil, our young lovers, are seized with the all-too-familiar confusion over their feelings and futures that characterises most young adult lives. However, what is not so understandable is Phil’s (spoiler alert) justification for beginning an affair with an older woman, which seems to rely on an antiquated concept of the role of a ‘mistress’. Then again, maybe it is just a ‘man thing’, as Vinca seemed as equally mystified as I was when she found out about it.
Another issue is just how perfect Vinca is. The underage girl has a Lolita-like beauty, and Colette’s salivation over it would probably lead to a call from a social worker today. Perhaps replacing lyrical descriptions of her sun-kissed calves in the water with her agonising over how she realised half way to the beach that she hadn’t shaved her legs in a week would make her more of a more realistic, sympathetic and modern heroine. While the impossibly perfect descriptions of the Breton landscape are enchanting, the odes to Vinca are a little less easy to stomach or believe.
Of course, I make these remarks in a different era to the one Colette was writing in, but being a teenager remains a difficult period. I would recommend any teenagers dipping their (Vinca-like or not) toe into Colette’s water to begin with Gigi, a novella centred around a young female character and has an emotional sincerity that has stood the test of time, and, unlike this review, there isn’t an ill-conceived French stereotype in sight.