How else could it end?  Fred or Cheri as he was known by those who knew him intimately, was the pampered though neglected son of Charlotte Peloux, one of the last survivors of La Belle Epoque, a dwindling circle of fin de siecle good-time girls, most of whom had  lost their allure but retained their memories and a vicious knowing sarcasm.    

At the age of 19, Cheri was a stunningly beautiful if somewhat effeminate young man but was already bored with life.  His mother neglected him emotionally but had seen to it that he’d had completed his education  with ample opportunity to experiment and debauch with a surfeit of pretty and eager young women.  H’e had all he could possibly want except love and nothing meant anything anymore.  He was bored.  Life had become meaningless.  He had no purpose.  Before the age of 20, he  was ready to retire.  Then he met Lea.

Lea de Lonval, unlike her dwindling band of colleagues, had retained her allure.  With care and hard work, she had kept her swan neck, her bright blue eyes and her youthful figure.  She was successful, famous and rich.  She had invested wisely and lived in the grant style.  Above all, she had avoided the misfortune of falling in love.  Bored with gossip and backbiting of her group and no longer needing to attract customers to maintain her opulent life style, she wanted one last fling with a beautiful young man while she could still achieve that. 

Cheri and Lea’s affair went on for six years.  He moved in with her.  They got used to each other.  They bickered like an old married couple. 

But Charlotte had other plans for Cheri.  She had made a match with Edmee, the deprived orphan daughter of another grande horizontale, Marie Laure.  The betrothal was more a business contract between the mothers than any love match.

Cheri had not reckoned on giving up his comfrtable existence with Lea.  How could he?  She had become his mother, lover, soul mate.  For the first time in his life he had known love.  And although what started as an exploitative relationship, the same applied to Lea.  At the time when most women had given the expectation of love. Lea had fallen and she could not tolerate a relationship where Cheri drifted between her and Edmee.

Cheri married.  Lea went to Biarritz for the season, amused herself with a younger man. but upon hearing Cheri had left his young wife, she returned.

Cheri was desperate.  The loss of Lea and love added an intolerable anguish to his meaningless.  He called on her at midnight.  He had come back.  Like a mother with an errant child, Lea arranged everything.  They would go south together, she would buy the tickets, even draft the letter he would write to Edmee.  But Cheri felt trapped.  He felt controlled.  He saw the lines around her mouth and eyes. Lea was becoming an old woman.  Not only that, he felt  disillusioned by her ruthlessness towards Edmee. 

‘I always thought of you as a good person.  Don’t take that away from me’

‘If I’d been really good, I’d not have kept you to myself.  I’d have made a man of you.’

Cheri left.  And within a year, La Belle Epoque was swept away by the tidal wave of war.  Cheri went to fight and returned a hero.  His wife Edmee,  bought a house which she converted to a  hospital and fell in love with her surgeon. 

Cheri tried to re-establish the life he had known before the war.  He looked up Lea, was appalled at how much she had let herself go, how little she cared.  

In a way, they had both lost the only honorable thing they had even had in their lives, the love that comes along only once. Capsized in some irreversible tragedy,  Cheri despaired.  He could not love anybody else and he could not bear the pain alone. So he lay on the couch, took out his service revolver, pressed it to his head and squeezed the trigger. 

There was no other way.   

 

Colette, the author of ‘Cheri’ and ‘Le fin de Cheri’ captures the poignancy of romantic love like no other.  She’s been there, of course.  And Michelle Pfeiffer is a wonderfully nuanced Lea in last year’s film version with Rupert Friend as a throughly louche Cheri. 

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