Break of Day by Colette

When I first read Colette, I was exactly the age when one dreams of multiple choices: (a) independence, (b) wild sex, and (c) a brilliant career. Colette’s feminist heroines flee from love, disillusioned with love, but they also derive pleasure from knowing they can have love.  Her sensual descriptions of nature remind us that nature is the source of beauty and eroticism: the exquisite imagery transforms the novels into prose poems.

Colette’s graceful novel Break of Day is a lyrical account of Colette’s retirement from sexual love in middle age. It is less dramatic than her earlier novels, but in a way it is bolder: who wants to admit to getting older? Published in 1928, Break of Day perfectly describes the reasons for Colette’s decision in her fifties to set aside sexual love for solitude. In my favorite of her novels, The Vagabond, a younger alter ego of Colette, the independent Renee, also rejects love. But Renee gets another chance at love in the sequel, The Shackle. Somehow, we understand both heroines: in Break of Day, the narrator is simply called Colette.

Where do you retreat in middle age to ruminate about your life? Colette bought a house at Saint-Tropez on the Cote d’Azur. She describes living in a hypnotically gorgeous Paradise with her cats. She gardens and contemplates nature. Most of us would like to move to Saint-Tropez, but don’t have the opportunity.

Colette reflects on her late mother, Sidonie. She begins the novel with an old letter from Sidonie, in which she declined an invitation to visit her daughter. “…I’m not going to accept your kind invitation for the time being at any rate. The reason is that my pink cactus is finally going to flower.” Colette is amused: the blooming cactus is a metaphor for Sidonie’s independence, strength, and beauty in old age. Colette writes: “Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power or a pain the keen edge of its bit, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: ‘I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter–that letter and so many others I have kept.”

A gorgeous illustration from a Limited Editions Club copy of Break of Day.

Now that she is older, Colette is happiest alone, watching the colors of the sky and the sea and marveling at the faery-like cats who consent to spend time with her. But she is not alone: she has an active social life. Painters and their mistresses gather at her house; they go on night picnics and dancing.

The most faithful guest is her neighbor, 35-year-old Dial, an antique dealer and decorator. He doesn’t talk much, but he has fallen in love with her. Age doesn’t matter to Colette, but she doesn’t feel strongly about him, and treats him casually. After an encounter with a jealous young woman, she gently rebuff shis love. Although she doesn’t want Vial as a lover, we feel her chagrin when she knows she is letting love go.

This reminds me slightly of Doris Lessing’s Love, Again, in which the heroine is in her sixties and attracts three younger men. But she knows love cannot last in old age, and she rages. And, indeed, we see her aged at the end of the book.

Colette laughs about the independence of her heroines. In real life she didn’t let love go so easily. “And I said to myself that… I should be thenceforward like the woman I have described many a time…. while I was painting this lonely creature, I would go to show my lie, page by page, to a man, asking him, ‘Have I lied well?'”

That’s how we all feel at times. Don’t you remember reading Colette when you were an aspiring artist, or a world traveler, or a Buddhist, or something? Love would never get in your way. Well…

A few years later after Break of Day was published, Colette knew love again: she married a younger man who stayed with her till the end of life.