Catherine Pozzi was born in 1882, the first child of Samuel and Thérèse Pozzi. At the time of his marriage Samuel had agreed that their children could be brought up in the Catholic faith; Thérèse was a practicing Catholic, as was her mother. Catherine’s grandmother played a large part in her upbringing and in her early life; she was very often present in the apartment in the Place Vendôme, and when the Pozzi family moved to the Avenue d’Iéna in 1899 she moved with them.
Professor Lawrence Joseph, in his Preface to Catherine’s Journal 1913-1934, published in 1987, outlines her education. In large part she was self-educated. Larry Joseph writes:
‘Elected Senator for the Dordogne in 1898, and appointed to the Commission charged with reforming the baccalauréat examination, Samuel Pozzi advocated a secular curriculum, based on living languages and sciences and designed to prepare the student for an active role (in society). But his modernism did not extend to the education of women: Catherine, schooled at first in a mediocre establishment for young girls of the upper classes, had subsequently to be content with a private tutor just twice a week. However, it was not so much her tutors as her governesses who taught her English and German, both of which she later spoke fluently. At times, she avenged herself of the inequality of which she was a victim by composing for her brother Jean, who followed at the lycée Condorcet a rigorous course of study that would lead him to a diplomatic career, beautifully structured dissertations. She, who had no access to the same teaching (as her brother) nevertheless acquired as an autodidact, extensive knowledge of the classics by learning Greek and Latin, a wide understanding of a variety of scientific disciplines, and even diplomas.’ She gained her baccalauréat at the age of 37.
Catherine throughout her childhood had a complicated relationship with her father. As the distance between Samuel and Thérèse grew, Catherine found herself having to take sides, and while she adored and admired her father, the side she took was usually that of her mother and grandmother. Catherine was more exposed too to the Catholicism of those two women than were her two younger brothers, Jean (born 1884) and Jacques (born 1896).
In her 1927 novella Agnès, Catherine Pozzi drew on her remembrance of her childhood to create the fictional environment of her main character. The novella, republished in 1988, also has a preface by Lawrence Joseph, Emeritus Professor of Smith College and a leading authority on the life and work of Catherine. In this preface he explains:
‘The family structure of Agnes is also that of Catherine Pozzi. Like Count Vincent (Agnes’s father in the novella) the seductive Doctor Samuel Pozzi, eminent surgeon, senator, collector, poet and traveler, led a life independent of his family, who separately occupied two floors of an elegant apartment building in the Avenue d’Iéna. Neglected by her father, Catherine feels that this was also true of her relations with her mother – any image of a maternal figure is completely absent from Agnes. Looking back, it is the figure of the grandmother who stands out most forcefully. But for Catherine, the presence of her grandmother in the Avenue d’Iéna household did not compensate for the absence created by the social whirl in which her parents lived.’
Larry Joseph believes that Catherine incorporated much of her remembrance of Thérèse as a mother, as well as of Marie-Félicie (her grandmother), into the fictional grandmother of Agnes.
In 1907, at the age of 25, following a violent argument with her father, Catherine left France and went to study in Oxford, where she undertook some provisional study in which she performed well enough to allow her admission to higher studies in the autumn term commencing that year. But, returning to France for the summer and announcing her plans to her family, she was subject to tears and pleas from her mother, to which she succumbed, and she did not return to complete an Oxford degree.
In 1908 she became involved with Edouard Bourdet, four years younger than herself; she had known him and his family for some years. Edouard rented a bachelor pad in the rue de Grenelle, and invited Catherine. She was initially at a loss for words at his audacity, but eventually took herself to the rue de Grenelle, emerging not however as Edouard’s mistress but as his fiancée. They were married in January 1909 and in October of that year their only child, Claude, was born. The marriage however was never a success and ended in 1920.
At the age of 10, Catherine began the journal writing that she would maintain until the end of her life, although she was always reluctant to publish any of her writing while she lived. In the last forty years all the journals have been published, with annotations and prefaces, as the literary work of Catherine Pozzi has become more widely appreciated; Agnès has also been republished. Six poems, considered by many literary critics to be of rare beauty, were published only in 1935, after her death.
In 1920 Catherine met the poet, essayist and philosopher Paul Valéry, and almost immediately the two began an affair that would last eight years. He was married, with three children, and would not leave his wife for Catherine, but they continued with a passionate, turbulent, often violent relationship that was nevertheless highly productive in terms of their work, especially his. However, there were deep basic differences between them; in the words of Lawrence Joseph: ‘Catherine Pozzi had a need to believe, Paul Valéry to doubt.’ The relationship ended definitively in 1928.
In 1912 she had the first symptoms and signs of tuberculosis, then an essentially incurable disease. She underwent the usual sojourns in Germany and Switzerland and the condition went into remission. But after the breakup with Valéry the bacillus reasserted itself, and she died from the ravages of TB in 1934.
Lawrence Joseph has devoted much of his professional career to the life and oeuvre of Catherine Pozzi. The creators of this website have been very appreciative of his help in our research and writing about Samuel Pozzi. We are also delighted to reproduce on our site Larry’s 1988 article Catherine Pozzi's "Agnès": Writing as Self-Construction which will provide our readers with a rich trove of information about her life and work. His bibliography also supplies a wide range of further reading for those seeking to know more of Catherine Pozzi.