Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette)
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Colette (January 28, 1873 – August 3, 1954) was a French author whose original name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. In her lifetime, she was as known for her writing as she was for her scandalous lifestyle. Her mother, Sido, was her greatest inspiration. She allowed the young Colette to drink deeply from the well of life to gain experience and express her individuality.
Her novels and stories featuring strong females were often based on her own experiences, and were bold and sexually expressive. It almost goes without saying that they were rather scandalous for their time, though the public loved them.
Strong females and honest sexuality
In 1900, Colette began publishing the series of Claudine stories that defined the teenage girl of the era, exploring her sexual and mischievous sides. The problem was her first husband, Willy, whose real name was Henry Gauthier-Villars.
Fourteen years Colette’s senior, the marriage was a disaster, Not only did Willy compel her to write the Claudine stories, but then published them under his name. Claudine at School (1900) was the first of the efforts to be published and was an immediate success. More Claudine books followed. When Colette began to rebel at the scheme, Willy would lock her in a room until he felt she had produced a sufficient number of pages.
During the music hall years, around 1906
See also: 9 Facts about Colette, Prolific and Passionate French Author
Freed from the nefarious Willy
At last, Colette broke free of her destructive marriage in 1906, and her spirit soared. She published Retreat from Love (1907), her first solo novel. Still, her first years of freedom were marked with financial struggle. Colette worked as a journalist and moonlighted as a music hall performer, all the while continuing to write fiction. Their divorce didn’t officially come through until 1910.
During this period, she conducted a series of affairs with women. In 1907 she shared an onstage kiss with Mathilde de Morny (known as Missy), with whom she was involved. The scene caused a near-riot, and though they continued their relationship for several years longer, they had to conduct it on the quiet. Throughout this tumultuous period, she kept the lessons she gleaned from her complicated, possessive mother, Sido — to be resilient and independent.
Colette’s music hall years were the basis of her 1910 novel The Vagabond (La Vagabonde), which she was known to have said was her personal favorite of her works.
More marriages, and a child
Colette had her first and only child, a daughter, at age forty. The girl was named Colette, but acquired the odd nickname Bel-Gazou. It has been said that Colette was an abominable, neglectful mother.
She married her daughter’s father, Henry de Jouvenel, a journalist and politician, with whom she was mismatched. The marriage failed quickly and led to divorce, but not before she seduced her sixteen-year-old stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel. She was then forty-seven.
At age fifty-two, what started as a heated affair with Maurice Goudeket, who was sixteen years her junior, became a lasting, sweet relationship defined by mutual devotion. Goudeket became Colette’s third husband. When France fell to Nazi Germany during World War II, Goudeket, who was Jewish, was arrested in 1941 by the Gestapo. Through Colette’s intervention he was released after a few months, but the prospect of another arrest (which incredibly, didn’t come to pass) caused her a great deal of anguish.
A prolific life of letters
Colette’s love life was passionate and volatile, but nothing stopped her from a voluminous output of writing. She was also a practicing journalist in the midst of her writing career.
Gigi, perhaps her best-known works (which inspired a popular film), is a story of a French girl training to be a courtesan, but who falls in love with a wealthy gentleman. Its stage adaptation, created by her American friend Anita Loos, was greeted with critical acclaim, starring then-unknown Audrey Hepburn playing the main character. It was also made into a popular 1958 film with Leslie Caron in the title role.
Other masterpieces, in addition to the aforementioned Claudine books and The Vagabond, include Mitsou (1919), Chéri (1920), which inspired the 2009 film starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Le Blé en Herbe (1923; translated as Ripening Seed), and Sido (1929), an homage to her mother.
Like her role model George Sand, Colette enjoyed posing in men’s attire
See more classic women authors in men’s clothing
Inspired by George Sand
Colette was an admirer of her fellow Frenchwoman, George Sand. As with Sand’s oeuvre, it was the vagaries of love, with its joys, complications, heartaches, and sensual pleasures that gave Colette a bounty of material to work with. Colette was incredibly prolific, yet reflected on her countrywoman with envy and awe:
“How the devil did George Sand manage? That sturdy woman of letters found it possible to finish one novel and start another in the same hour. And she did not thereby lose either a lover or a puff of the narghile [hookah], not to mention a Story of My Life in twenty volumes…”
No slouch in the output department, Colette was nonetheless self-critical: “Writing is often wasteful. If I counted the pages I’ve torn up, of how many volumes am I the author?”
Colette page on Amazon
According to the biography Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman: “As Colette redefined the conventions of loving and aging, she continued to write with Olympian vitality. Her principal subject was the bonds of love; her one true faith was the consoling power of sensual pleasure.”
In the postwar years, Colette had achieved the stature of a public figure, but suffered from arthritis and rarely left her Paris apartment. Her husband, Maurice Goudket, cared for her. She began to favor memoir as a way of reflectng on her life as she aged. Goudeket helped her on the work of her Oeuvres complètes (Complete Works; 1948–1950).
To say that Colette was prolific is an understatement. In addition to her vast output of novels, plays, stories, she also produced film and radio scripts and even an opera libretto (L’enfant et les sortilèges by Maurice Ravel).
Upon her death in 1954, Colette was one of the world’s most renowned women of letters and was given a state funeral, the first for a woman in France. She is buried at the Père-Lachaise cemetery.
During the course of her lifetime, Colette received a number of significant literary honors, including election to the Belgian Royal Academy (1935) and the Academie Goncourt (1945 and 1949). In 1948, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and was made a Grand Officer of the Legion d’Honneur in 1953.
Even while still alive and writing, biographers and fellow authors held varied views on her work, some considering her an important figure, while others dismissing her as somewhat lightweight. Since her death, she has been consistently recognized as an important female voice, and certainly, one of the notable literary figures of France. Even before her death, Katherine Anne Porter wrote in the New York Times that she was “the greatest living French writer of fiction; and that she was while Gide and Proust still lived.”
The first English-language biographical film about her life, simply titled Colette, focuses on her Claudine years and relationship with Willy. It was released in 2018 and stars Keira Knightly and Dominic West. Watch the trailer here.
See also: The Vagabond by Colette, a favorite among her novels
Visit Colette’s childhood home, La Maison de Colette
Colette moved residences at least 14 times in her lifetime, but the home for which she seemed to have the fondest memories for was her childhood home. There she was born to Sido, the strong and possessive mother who so inspired her. The house remained vivid in her memoires, perhaps symbolizing a much longed-for paradise lost. La Maison de Colette, located in the village of St.-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in northwest Burgundy, has been open to the public since May 2016.
More about Colette on this site
Colette was incredibly prolific; this list represents her most widely translated and read novels, though produced numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction.
- The Claudine stories (1900-1904)
- The Vagabond (1910)
- Mitsou (1919)
- Chéri (1920)
- The Last of Chéri (1926)
- Sido (1929)
- The Other One (1931 translation of La Seconde, 1929)
- The Pure and The Impure (1931)
- Gigi (1944)
- Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman (1999)
- Earthly Paradise: An Autobiography (collected from Colette’s writings, 1975)
- Colette: A Taste for Life by Yvonne Mitchell (1975)
Stage and film adaptations (selected)
Visit Colette’s Home
- La Maison de Colette – St.-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Burgundy, France
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