In Burgundy, but worlds away from the grand-cru vineyards, lies a forgotten, bucolic village named Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. In 1873, my favorite writer, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, was born there. Known simply as Colette, the woman often referred to as France’s leading woman writer of her time, was anything but simple. The author of more than 50 novels, countless short stories, essays and articles, she also worked as a cabaret dancer, actress, mime and beauty consultant. A lover of men and women, Colette was passionate and free-spirited, irreverent and sensual.
“Men are impossible,” she wrote. And later, “Women too.”
Colette was also known to have “launched” Audrey Hepburn’s career when she chose the young actress to play Gigi, the central character of the 1951 Broadway show based on her novel, but I discovered the author thanks to my French mother’s passion for literature.
Colette’s lyricism, the melodic rhythm of her prose and her epicurean descriptions of nature marked me. “My mother’s keen sense of smell recognized on us,” she wrote about her childhood, “the wild garlic from a faraway gulch or the mint of the marshes hidden in the grasses.”
When I heard last year that Colette’s family home in the village had been renovated and was open to the public, I set to explore the landscape of her youth, letting the author be my guide.
It took less than two hours by train to reach the town of Joigny from Paris, and a half-hour drive through, “Forests smelling like strawberries and roses, ponds resembling clearings with their green backdrops, prairies full of water.”
It was market day in Saint-Sauveur and the cluster of stone houses, with their terra cotta roof tiles, held vendors touting white asparagus, the first cherries and live laying hens. But one slate roof stood out on Rue Colette, a witness to the bourgeois status of the author’s family home. There, she was born and lived until the age of 18 when her parents’ financial ruin forced them to rent out the beloved home and sell its contents at auction.
Throughout the author’s work, the house and its gardens were central characters, both in their physicality and as a metaphor for the childhood paradise lost.
“Perhaps you’re thinking, as I tremble on the reclaimed doorstep, ‘It’s just an old house . . .’ Come in. Let me explain.”
After reading “Claudine at School,” “Claudine’s House” and “Sido,” it was surreal to walk through what felt like a home not a museum. The table set in the dining room, the pot of hot chocolate next to Colette’s mother’s bed awaiting the gourmand spider asleep in the beams, the “centenary” wisteria. Surely the family would walk in any minute. Every single detail from wallpaper to books to light fixtures and flower beds was inspired by her writings.
“With the help of artisans who agreed to work with ancient techniques, we have recreated the late 19th-century decor of Colette’s happy childhood,” said Frédéric Maget, director of La Maison de Colette, who spearheaded the whole project. “Visitors travel back in time through Colette’s world.”
Later that afternoon, I climbed to the top of the village to visit the actual Colette Museum, housed in a 17th-century castle and known for its square, 11th-century donjon; “The Saracen tower, thick and low, with its ivy sheath,” wrote the author.
It was uncanny to hear her low voice, piped into the vast rooms, as I plunged into the photographs that chronicle the various chapters of her life, but most moving perhaps was the reconstitution of her bedroom in the Palais-Royal building in Paris. There, paralyzed by arthritis, she spent the last 16 years of her life on what she called her “couch-raft.”
As if following my own crumb trail, the next day I walked the “literary path” through the village, checking the homes that find their place in her writing. Colette loved good food, especially the authentic (and sometimes heavy) dishes of provincial French cooking. I know she would have approved of my ducking into the local bakery to grab a fluffy, golden gougère, the delicious cheesy puffs of the region. Later, I headed to the village school, an austere building where her old classroom has been transformed in an early 20th-century scene. From the charming inkwells on each desk to old notebooks and uniforms, once again I expected little Colette to appear.
I was ready to hike her beloved forests so I headed to the “Church without a bell tower,” and passed the ancient Petit Saint Jean public washhouse , imagining women gossiping as they knelt next to the water. Only a few steps away, and the countryside swallowed me to the chimes of the soft breeze in the trees. After about 45 minutes, I emerged in front of the Church of Moutiers-en-Puisaye, a building so minuscule it could have passed for a dollhouse. But inside, the restored medieval murals painted with local ocher spoke of artistic and biblical grandeur.
Colette loved the naive pottery of her region. “Paunchy jugs, brazenly sexual, were kneaded and fired at La Bâtisse,” she wrote, so my next stop was to that pottery studio where I admired its massive kiln dating from the 13th century. There, the same family has molded the local clay for twelve generations. I was able to resist filling my bag with treasures, but on a later day, when I saw the ceramics baked in the studio of the fairy-tale Chateau de Ratilly, built around 1270, I bought stunning simple stoneware bowls for my mother.
Only a few miles away stood Guedelon, a massive construction site surrounded by woodlands where a group of idealistic historians started building a castle 20 years ago, using medieval techniques. Here and there, groups of kids watched, mesmerized, as young adult workers demonstrated their various skills. Once again, this region offered to travel through time.
Struggling to follow the GPS on my way back to Saint-Sauveur through meandering side roads, I suddenly found myself facing a galloping herd of mooing cows led by three men and two dogs. I pulled over and watched them pass the car, the rhythm of their hoofs seeming to sound the heartbeat of rural Puisaye.
Later, I stood in front of Colette’s former home with its gray shutters and because of the slope, its “Limping stoop, four steps on one side and six on the other.” In 1922, she wrote, “House and garden are still alive, I know it.” Almost a century later, it lives again.
Bigar is a New York writer. Her website is sbigar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @sylviebigar.
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