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Rose Higham-Stainton: ‘Colette—Mirror-Play’

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Salon de la rue des Moulins, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1894) [Source: Sartle.com]

You enter through a cold glass door, inhaling manufactured flora laced with root gum and plastic that reaches the back of your throat; a room that smells of the faded lavender of angelica, the waxy rose of Geranium, extract of vanilla unnecessarily braced with resin. Powders are re-applied; you catch your reflection; there is the hum of tongues, muffled by a corporal red carpet, the chime of glasses and smell of acidified milk on silverware.

You are Colette. You came in from the cold, you have told us, in the opening line of Mirror-Play—a perfectly Colette vignette of two and a half pages—though you do not like it here, in this Salon de Thé .

You are seated, and from this place you observe and write one of your fleeting, miniature worlds out of two women—the brunette and the blonde—at a nearby table. Among the furs and sequins and feathers, theirs is a story of watching and being watched—the envious looks enhance her just as summer rain polishes the enamel on a kingfisher. Theirs is a story of vanity—what pleasure these two well-bred peacocks give to the eye! Theirs is a story of competition and imitation, pitted in friendship. The more beautiful despises the most docile one slightly and the latter, you write, cruelly, not without a jealous shudder, imitates her, adapts herself, corrects herself….’ You paint them animalistic—pigeon, peacock, pug, carnivorous mouth—and manicured. Theirs is a sore and wounding femininity, desperate and bound and rouged for—.

A man appears, you tell us. Were they expecting him? I think so. And so it begins.

Not quite Olympian in scale or weaponry but certainly violence of a kind, made of manners, the thrust of a bosom or a chin.

I’m putting my money on the brunette and I’m losing, you say, laconically, over the steam of your tea.

You see her almond-shaped nail gleam close to her elongated eye.

You lose. And the brunette loses, despite her dress of ash and flame, her white face, her pink forefinger, her round breast which reveals an independent strength beneath the dress. And in her bid to save the situation, she risks, in imitation, wrinkling her nose, blinking her eyes and making faces. And so it closes with this mirror moment—in her final futile plea, she loses her own reflection.

You know this game—you narrate it as if you’re playing it, as if you approve of the resplendent dark and the delightful fair haired, bound as they are by competition, across the pressed tablecloth, and now and then introduce something out of the picture—the blonde’s undertones of pungent ink, the brunette’s tics. But you told us from the outset that this brunette, this blonde and I are not going to spend our lives together. You are observing their folly—that duality learnt and redressed—not taking part. She plunges a tortoiseshell trident into her hair.

In the transient places of the opera box, hotel lobby, dining room, in The Other Woman, The Other Wife, The Secret, The Portrait—those other versions of ourselves—you are crafting moments of realisation that lay bare our neuroses and secrets. They function like sharp inhalations—these concentrated, cut down versions of our lives that don’t demand we redecorate, unpack our boxes, bed in, but float on the perfumier's tails. Yet with every in and out, in and out that feeds our beating heart—our conscious heart—these become our truest stories.

Extracts from Colette, ‘Mirror-Play’ in The Other Woman - Collected Stories, translated by Margaret Crosland (Hamlyn Paperbacks, Feltham, 1983), pp.86-88.

Rose Higham-Stainton writes creative nonfiction, criticism and prose that interrogate representations of femininity and explore women's creative practice. Her writing is held in the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths College and has been published in PIN-UP Magazine, MAP Magazine, NOIT Issue 5, The Pluralist, Girls on Tops; and featured in exhibitions including the Ashtray Show 3, at 4COSE . She recently contributed to an anthology of new nature writing titled Field Work edited by Sarah Lowndes (published by UEA Publishing, June 2020) and was Co-Editor of the self-organised student-run and RCA-funded anthology Attention (January 2020). Her 2020 thesis was titled Three Graces, and Voids and is a reappraisal of femininity and resistance through the prism of the Three Graces from Greek mythology. You can find her on Instagram here.