1920 CLUB: Chéri by Colette

Reading books from 1920

Collaborative Book-Blogging

THE 1920 CLUBHere I share my thoughts on Colette’s Chéri, so naturally, I shall begin by quoting from Chaucer’s The Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale, Canterbury Tales (circa 1387): “For bet than never is late”. Or to express it in more modern parlance: better late than never.

I should explain. This post was due to appear at some point between the 13th and 19th April for Karen and Simon’s 1920 Club. Unfortunately, although I read the book and made copious notes during the designated period, I neglected to write my analysis, until now, almost three weeks after the event. In my defence, I should like to point out that such laxity was partly the result of a coronashutdown-induced writing lethargy (in the fullness of time, this condition will probably be given a snappy medical title and appear in The Lancet), and did not occur because I disliked or was bored by the novel – quite the reverse, I’m pleased to report.

I therefore send a squillion apologies to the fabulous hosts of this popular reading jolly, who have recently revealed their next event, the 1956 Club, will take place from 5th to 11th October 2020. 

The Book 

“…she lunched in solitary bliss, with a smile for the dry Vouvray and for the June strawberries, served with their stalks, on a plate of Rubelles enamel as green as a tree-frog after rain.”

CHERISidonie‐Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), the French author widely acknowledged as the first literary feminist (though she always insisted on her political antifeminism), based much of her fiction on personal memories. She wrote this novella as she was turning 47 and it is rumoured to be based on her own experiences.

Chéri is the pet name for Fred Peloux, a thoroughly spoiled, petulant and idle 25-year old man-child, described as having “hair with the blue sheen of a blackbird’s plumage” and with a penchant for pearls. His 49-year-old mistress, Léa de Lonval, is a “richly kept courtesan”, still beautiful but nearing the end of her “successful career”.

This absurdly moody playboy is the son of Léa’s friend-cum-rival, Charlotte Peloux, and she has devoted her middle years to furthering his erotic education. Their relationship could hardly be described as romantic in the fluffily over-sentimental sense of the word, and they frequently glare at each other with “open hostility”, but both in their own ways are devoted to each other – she captivated by his youthful ardour and beauty, he beguiled by her passion and worldly sophistication. It appears to me their affection stems from a combination of sexual desire and maternal longing.

After six years together, the time has come for Chéri to commit to an advantageous marriage, leading the lovers to realise how deeply connected they have become. Their relationship must now end but secretly neither one of them wants this to happen. As we follow them through the final few weeks of their affair, it becomes apparent their bonds will not easily be severed.

Chéri is something of cautionary tale in that it exposes the tragedy of self-delusion and the cruelty of time. Colette described it as her most “moral” work, and critics aplenty have declared it a masterpiece – indeed, no one could deny it was one of her most ambitious works. It was, however, considered scandalous in its day.

Penned in Colette’s typically impressionistic style, this opulent Belle Époque-steeped tale depicts the city during one of its most glamourous, culturally exciting periods – an era so far removed from our current life under lockdown, it may as well be set on a different planet. The novel is a witty, sensual, perceptive, and psychologically shrewd account of middle-age indulgence, which transports one to the salons and boudoirs of turn-of-the-century Paris.

Published in France in 1920, my 2001 Vintage edition was translated by Roger Stenhouse. It was followed by a sequel, La Fin de Chéri (The Last of Chéri), in 1926.

I’ve had other naughty little boys through my hands, more amusing than Chéri, more likeable, too, and more intelligent. But all the same, never one to touch him.”


In addition to the 1920 Club, this is my thirteenth choice for The Classics Club.

Categories: Readathons / Challenges, Translated Literature

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27 replies

  1. Lovely review Paula! I adore Colette and Cheri is such a rich novel. I can completely relate to the writing lethargy – its a weird time…

    • Thank you so much, Madame B – it’s kind of you to drop by when you’re flat-out reading novellas. There’s nothing lethargic about your work rate at the mo. I agree, Colette was unique and really rather wonderful. 🤗

  2. Likewise, probably my favourite “classic” author, and one I haven’t read. I just read The Shackle which was interesting, I read it because it’s one of the books that appears in Vivian Gornick’s latest book ‘Unfinished Business’ a book of her favourite rereads, in which The Vagabond and The Shackle feature.

  3. I’ve been experiencing ‘coronashutdown-induced writing lethargy’ too! 💙 Great review. 💙

  4. Aww what a lovely review!

  5. Lovely review, Paula – and I’m glad you made it to the club, if a little late! I’ve linked to your post and I’m so glad you loved this Colette!

  6. No need to apologize for lateness, Paula. I think most of us are experiencing some kind of reading/writing block right now. Thanks for the review.

  7. This was an interesting review about what I think was a good book. I agree with you about the mother/son dynamic present, and I did wonder if that was linked with Colette’s own affair with her step-son. I’m interested to know what you think about the Edmée (Fred/Cheri’s new wife), especially in the scene where Chéri asks her if he makes love to her well, and Edmée asks if his lovemaking isn’t just some kind of alibi. What do you think she was refering to with alibi? I was also wondering if you are going to read the sequel. I really enjoyed the book and her writing style. At the same time the ending was so perfect and I don’t feel it’s right to continue a story when it ended the way it did.

  8. I’ve never read anything by Colette, though I’m sure I have something by her here somewhere! Not Cheri though, and it does sound tantalising. (I also read for the 1920s club but best left unsaid!)

    • I found Cheri a pleasant distraction – plus it’s fairly short. Like you, Sandra, I’m reading the books but failing to follow up with posts. Not to worry, I’m sure I’ll catch up eventually! 😂

  9. Such a tempting review, Paula. It’s years since I read any Colette. Thanks for the nudge.

  10. This is one I’ve been meaning to read for ages, so the club was perfect. I didn’t know it was rumoured to be based on her own experience: how interesting! She’s not an author I know very well, but I’m looking forward to exploring a little more in the future. And looking forward to the film, now, too! (Colette, not of Cheri, if indeed there is a film version of it.)

    • Yes, I too would like to see the film. She was a fascinating person. There was at least one film version made of Cheri – the one I’m aware of was released back in the noughties and starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend.

  11. Very good review. I’m also glad I wasn’t the only one late. You certainly did a thorough job!


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