The Chanel Sisters: A Novel
“A lovely, gorgeously set, romantic story sure to charm lovers of historical fiction with its joie de vivre and savoir faire.”
In Judithe Little’s beguiling The Chanel Sisters, the road to personal fulfillment starts with a dream. Sisters Gabrielle, Julia-Berthe, and Antoinette have much to overcome. They are left to fend for themselves pre-pubescence, when their mother dies and their father, known widely as a rootless “seducteur,” deposits them at an Aubazine, France, orphanage with false promises but never looks back.
Stifled and trapped by rigid nuns, as they mature, the sisters are schooled in a Catholic school class system dividing the payantes and necessiteuses. They are a charity case ever aware of their lowly station. Youngest sister and narrator, Antoinette, known as Ninette, describes the Pensionnat’s disparity: “We charity cases had different tables, different classrooms, different uniforms. We all wore black shirt-waists and skirts, but whereas the payantes were new and crisp, the fabrics smooth and expensive, ours were ill-fitting and had a thin, oily sheen from wear, hand-me-downs faded from too much washing.”
Gabrielle, planting the seeds of what becomes the girls’ future, rocks the boat by taking needle and thread and teaches Ninette how to restitch the uniforms. Ninette remarks, “We didn’t have to accept the lot we were given. Not ill-fitting uniforms. Not anything else,” then presciently, “This was about more than the fit of a skirt or blouse. This was about the future, about the power I’d never felt before, all because of the cut of cloth and the placement of stitches.”
The sisters’ paternal grandparents live nearby in Clermont-Ferrand, and upon the sisters first holiday visit, they align with their relative, Adrienne, who is Gabrielle’s contemporary and who they come to love as a fourth sister. The worldly Adrienne expands the sheltered sisters’ horizons, and when she introduces them to French author Decourcelle’s popular magazine series The Elegantes, which is set among French, high society, the sisters begin to dream. Inspired, Ninette observes: “I knew who I wanted to be, but I didn’t ever think about how exactly I would get from here to there. In Decourcelle, the heroines always got their happy endings.”
In The Chanel Sisters, Julia-Berthe makes disappointing, life-altering choices that sees her reduced to living with their grandparents, while bold Gabrielle defies convention. Leaving school before Ninette, Gabrielle and Adrienne take positions in the big city as seamstresses for fashionable ladies and, following her passion for singing, Gabrielle aspires to the stage. Though insufficiently talented, she nonetheless amasses admirers and becomes known eponymously for a song about a little dog she popularized, titled, “CoCo.”
By the time Ninette leaves school at age 19 to join Gabrielle and Adrienne in the bigger world, Gabrielle has set the stage through her scandalous relationship with a young “bon vivant” named Etienne who becomes her benefactor, and soon, from Gabrielle’s vision, the two sisters become hat makers and embark on redefining women’s popular fashion. At variance with the excessive times, Ninette describes Gabrielle’s vision: “Gabrielle didn’t hate excess because she couldn’t have it but because it really was too much. Excess didn’t equate to flattering,” she says. “Money didn’t equate to taste. Although the ladies of la haute thought so, it felt powerful knowing something they did not.”
Gabrielle, having released the shackles of their unfortunate past, is now confident in her success and states to Ninette, “Our past is a weight. A rope around our necks. Telling us, telling the world, what and who we’re supposed to be.” Gabrielle vows, “We choose our own past. The past doesn’t control us. We control it.” Throughout the story, Gabrielle and Ninette’ s acumen grows, and along with it, a reputation that leads them far afield from their impoverished upbringing.
It is the summer of 1914, and Gabrielle and Ninette own a Paris boutique. When they open another in Deauville, Ninette says, “Around us, everyone was rich. Everyone was beautiful. In the mornings, the boutique filled with the most stylish Elegantes who bought hats and clothing like they were candy.” Then came the war. Germany declares war on Russia and France is next. As frivolous conditions in France change, the women of Deauville volunteer at hospitals but, Ninette reports, “They might be volunteering at a hospital, but they still needed to look chic.” Consequently, “They brought their uniforms to Gabrielle, who knew how to make something from nothing, turn the inelegant into the elegant through a strange alchemy of design, fit and proportion.” In summary, she says, “They needed the clothing of Gabrielle ‘CoCo’ Chanel.”
The Chanel Sisters is a multi-layered, elegantly crafted story with enthralling attention to historic detail. It is a lovely, gorgeously set romantic story sure to charm lovers of historical fiction with its joie de vivre and savoir faire; a rags-to-riches adventure that adds depth of field to a woman who became a household name.