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Colette: Chéri novels

A year or so after this book was published, Colette, then in her late forties, started an affair with her much younger step-son, Bertrand. This book prefigures that story. Léa de Lonval, who is forty-nine and a former courtesan, is living with Chéri, whose real name is Fred Peloux. Chéri is a spoiled and lazy twenty-five year old and the son of Charlotte, an old friend of Léa and also a former courtesan. Léa realizes that this might be her last affair, though she has been with Chéri for six years and tried to make a man of him, both physically (he is a weakling) and mentally. However, Chéri is to marry Edmée in an arranged marriage. Léa accepts this but is unsure of what it will mean to her. However, Edmée is”only” eighteen and Chéri finds her too young. The marriage does not work out well and, eventually, Chéri return to Léa, though, as she sadly finds out, not for good.

The first novel was set in 1912-1913, while the second one takes place after World War I. Edmée is involved in hospital work and in love with a doctor. Chéri, however, is drifting. He has no lover and no aim in life. Accordingly, he goes to visit Léa, hoping to recapture earlier times. Léa, however, is no longer a courtesan. She has more or less accepted old age gracefully. She has put on weight and her hair is short. Chéri is shocked. He goes and stay with another courtesan and looks at pictures of Léa when she was younger. But it is not going to work for him.

These two have been said to be Colette’s finest novels and she certainly tells an excellent story of a May-December romance as well as creates two interesting characters in Léa and Chéri. The second novel deals with what is a key theme in 1920s literature, the soldier returning from World War I and being unable to adapt to a changing world and his own fears. Whether Léa is Colette – and it seems clear that, at least in part, she is – does not matter, for Léa is a fine creation while Chéri’s inability to become a real man (a key theme in Colette’s work) is superbly done.

Publishing history

Chéri
First published in French 1920 by Fayard
First published in English 1930 by A. & C. Boni

La Fin de Chéri
First published in French 1926 by Flammarion
First published in English 1933 by Putnam