The Pure and the Impure by Colette (1932)
By Francis Booth | On January 31, 2022 | Updated August 28, 2022 | Comments (0)
The Pure and the Impure by Colette, a strange work first published in 1932, feels less like a novel and more like a series of loosely stitched together character sketches. Indeed it is just that, of the gay and lesbian demimondaine societies in the Paris of Colette’s time. This deep dive into The Pure and the Impure is excerpted from Text Acts: Eroticism in 20th-Century Literature, volume 2* by Francis Booth. Reprinted by permission.
All but one of the characters are unnamed but are presumably real people that Colette knew. Janet Flanner, who was Paris correspondent for The New Yorker from 1925 onwards, and published plenty of her own sketches of Paris society, said of The Pure and the Impure:
“She used her customary semi-fictional formula to report on the behavior, the mores, reflexes, instincts of women, especially as sentient, desiring creatures drawn to similarities and even to substitutes. Colette, as author, confronts the reader at the same time in a somewhat fierce intimacy, with her personal remembrances, observations, and exact images, all dealing basically with the phenomenon of eroticism.
Colette’s understanding of the male sex amounted to an amazing identification with man per se, to which was added her own uterine comprehension of women, more objective than feminine. One can think of no other female writer endowed with this double comprehension whereby she understood and accepted the naturalness of sex wherever found or however fragmented and re-apportioned. She seemed to have a hermaphroditic duality in her understanding and twofold loyalties.”
Colette is indeed equally at home in the society of adulterous older women, gay men, and transgender women in this book, as no doubt she was in real life. Given that it was published only four years after Radclyffe Hall’s banned and despised The Well of Loneliness, which does not contain any references to sex or sexuality – the furthest it goes is a one-sentence description of a kiss between two women – it seems amazing that Colette’s book was ever published, though it was written in French and published in Paris.
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More about Colette
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Pushing male censors to the limit
It almost seems as if Colette is trying to push every button that would make male censors apoplectic. Close to the beginning, there is a scene of female orgasm: the male censors, even if they admitted that there was such a thing, would hate to see it in print, especially as it takes place in an opium den; drugs and female sex in one scene — horrors!
“The narrow staircase of polished wood creaked under some footsteps, which then sounded on the balcony above me, where could be heard the rustling of silk, the light impact of pillows thrown upon the echoing floorboards, and silence closed in again. But from the depths of this very silence a sound imperceptibly began in a woman’s throat, at first husky, then clear, asserting its firmness and amplitude as it was repeated, becoming clear and full like the notes the nightingale repeats and accumulates until they pour out in a flood of arpeggios …
Up there on the balcony a woman was trying hard to delay her pleasure and in doing so was hurrying it towards its climax and destruction, in a rhythm at first so calm and harmonious, so marked that I involuntarily beat time with my head, for its cadence was as perfect as its melody.”
But wait — there’s worse. We then discover that the woman in question, Charlotte, was not only ‘rather plump and resembled the favourite models of Renoir,’ but that she was ‘probably forty-five years old.’ What? says the censor, going red in the face: even plump, middle-aged women have orgasms?
Apparently, they do, but that is not even the worst of it: it turns out the man involved in the orgasm was a fair-haired boy, much younger than her. And then, just when the censor is about to pass out from apoplexy, the narrator reveals the shocking truth: the woman faked the orgasm to please the boy.
“I recalled the romantic reward she had granted the young lover, the almost public display of pleasure she had made in that nightingale lament, those full notes reiterated again and again, precipitated until their trembling equilibrium broke in a climax of torrential sobbing … I considered the young lover’s happiness was great when measured by the perfect dupery of the woman who thus subtly contrived to give a weak and sensitive boy the very highest concept of himself that a man can have.”
Which is the more outrageous for the male, patriarchal, misogynistic censor: showing a woman having an orgasm with a boy, or showing a woman faking that orgasm? ‘Am I, then,’ she says later, ‘going to find myself, in the first pages of a book, declaring that men are of less use to women than women are to men? We shall see.’ We do and they are.
Writing freely about female sexuality
Having now made sure that the censor is dead of a heart attack, Colette feels free to talk freely and in great depth about female sexuality, lesbianism and homosexuality. She even feels free to use the ‘c’ word (le con in French; just to remind you that con is a masculine noun, as are le vagin, le clitoris and l’orgasme).
She is talking here with the British-born, French-speaking Sapphic poet Renée Vivien, the only character in the book who is referred to by her real name, as she was already long dead. They are talking about a male poet. Vivian says, ‘I don’t want to hear any more about him or his verses tonight. He has no talent …’
One of the few straight men Colette knows, whom she calls Damien, is a womanizer, a Don Juan; like all men of this type, he is never satisfied by a woman, never feels any form of partnership or equality with them; he has ‘the same concept of a lover that used to be a characteristic of young girls, who could not imagine a warrior except with his weapon drawn or a lover except one ready at any moment to prove his love.’
He tells her that, ‘on that score the women I’ve known have never had any reason to complain. I educated them well. But as for what they ever gave me in exchange…’ The narrator wonders:
“… what would he have said had he ever met the woman who, out of sheer generosity, fools the man by simulating ecstasy? But I need not worry on that score: most surely he encountered Charlotte, and perhaps more than once. She produced for him her little broken cries, while she turned her head aside, and while her hair veiled her forehead, her cheek, her half-shut eyes, lucid and attentive to her master’s pleasure… The Charlottes of this world nearly always have long hair.”
Having begun the narrative in an opium den, the narrator tells us that, for her, sex is no more dangerous a habit than smoking tobacco, either for men or for women: ‘The habit of obtaining sexual satisfaction is less tyrannical than the tobacco habit, but it gains on one. O voluptuous pleasure, O lascivious ram, cracking your skull against all obstacles, time and again!’
Many of Colette’s circle were women who dressed and acted in the most masculine way possible; after World War I they were very few young men in society and, perhaps subliminally, many cultured and educated lesbians in a certain, closed, secluded part of Paris society, and also of British society, as chronicled by Radclyffe Hall.They filled the void as best they could, though that was not always enough. In the breaking down of class barriers that followed the War, these secluded societies found it far more difficult to hide themselves.
“How timid I was, at that period when I was trying to look like a boy, and how feminine I was beneath my disguise of cropped hair. ‘Who would take us to be women? Why, women.’ They alone were not fooled. With such distinguishing marks as pleated shirt front, hard collar, sometimes a waistcoat, and always a silk pocket-handkerchief, I frequented a society perishing on the margin of all societies.
Although morals, good and bad, have not changed during the past twenty-five or thirty years, class consciousness, in destroying itself, has gradually undermined and debilitated the clique I am referring to, which tried, trembling with fear, to live without hypocrisy, the breathable air of society… The adherents of this clique of women exacted secrecy for their parties, where they appeared dressed in long trousers and dinner jackets and behaved with unsurpassed propriety.”
Many of these cross-dressing women had their girlfriend, their protégée, their petite amie, ‘rather rude young creatures, insinuating and grasping. Not surprising, this, for these ladies in male attire had, by birth and from infancy, a taste for below stairs accomplices.’
But not all of Colette’s acquaintances are comfortable with these cross-dressing women. One says to her, ‘you see, when a woman remains a woman, she is a complete human being. She lacks nothing, even insofar as her amie is concerned.
But if ever she gets it into her head to try to be a man, then she’s grotesque.’ For Colette, the only thing of which she disproves is ‘Sapphic libertinage;’ for her, fidelity rather than sexual gratification is the most important thing.
“Two women very much in love do not shun the ecstasy of the senses, nor do they shun a sensuality less concentrated than the orgasm, and more warming. It is this unresolved and demanding sensuality that finds happiness in an exchange of glances, an arm laid on a shoulder, and is thrilled by the odour of sun-warmed wheat caught in a head of hair. These are the delights of a constant companionship and shed habits that engender and excuse fidelity.”
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Text Acts, Vols. 1, 2, &3 is available on
Amazon U.S.* and Amazon U.K.*
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Colette on Proust
Colette knew Marcel Proust slightly and read all of his works. She doesn’t disapprove of his emphasis on homosexuality, but strongly objects to his portrayal of women. She feels, and indeed demonstrates later in the book, that she has an intimate understanding of the homosexual man, but that he does not have the same understanding of women.
“Ever since Proust shed light on Sodom, we have had a feeling of respect for what he wrote, and would never dare, after him, to touch the subject of these hounded creatures, who are careful to blur their tracks and to propagate at every step their personal cloud, like the cuttlefish.
But – was he misled, or was he ignorant? – when he assembles a Gomorrah of inscrutable and depraved young girls, when he denounces an entente, a collective tea, a frenzy of bad angels, we are only diverted, indulgent, and a little bored, having lost the support of the dazzling light of truth that guides us through Sodom.
This is because, with all due deference to the imagination or the error of Marcel Proust, there is no such thing as Gomorrah. Puberty, boarding school, solitude, prisons, aberrations, snobbishness – they are all seedbeds, but too shallow to engender and sustain a vice that could attract a great number or become an established thing that would gain the indispensable solidarity of its votaries. Intact, enormous, eternal, Sodom looks down from its heights upon its puny counterfeit.”
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Short and Sweet Quotes by Colette
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The language of passion
Colette seems to have been welcomed into the gay male society of Paris, though mainly as an observer. If anything, she considers them more well-adjusted than lesbian society, especially the transgender lesbians who are obsessed with masculinity: gay men are not obsessed with women.
“They allowed me to share with them their sudden outbursts of gaiety, so shrill and revealing. They appreciated my silence, for I was faithful to their concept of me as a nice piece of furniture and I listened to them as if I were an expert. They got used to me, without ever allowing me access to a real affection.
No one excluded me – no one loved me. I owe a great deal to their cold friendship, to their fierce critical sense.
They taught me not only that a man can be amorously satisfied with a man but that one sex can suppress, by forgetting it, the other sex. This I had not learned from the ladies in men’s clothes, who were preoccupied with men, who were always, with suspect bitterness, finding fault with men.
My strange homosexual friends did not talk about women, except distantly and condescendingly… Absent yet present, a translucent witness, I enjoyed an indefinable piece, accompanied by a kind of conspiratorial pride.
I heard on their lips the language of passion, of betrayal and jealousy, and sometimes of despair – languages with which I was all too familiar, I had heard them elsewhere and spoke them fluently to myself.”
Colette certainly spoke and wrote the languages of passion, one of the first and still one of the best women to do so.
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Contributed by Francis Booth, the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England.