Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette)
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Colette (January 28, 1873 – August 3, 1954) was a French author whose full original name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. In her time, she was as known for her writing as she was for her performing and scandalous lifestyle. As a child, her mother Sido was her greatest inspiration. She allowed the young Colette to drink deeply from the well of life to gain experience and individuality.
Her novels and stories featuring strong females were often based on her own experiences, and were more sexually expressive than most fiction of her time.
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: Her first husband, Willy, took the credit as well as the earnings for these popular stories.
Willy, whose real name was Henry Gauthier-Villars, was much older than Colette. The marriage was a disaster — not only did he 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.
Freed from the nefarious Willy
Once she divorced the nefarious Willy, Colette published Retreat from Love (1907), her first solo novel. Once she broke free of her husband, her sprit soared. Colette worked as a journalist and moonlighted as a music hall performer, all the while continuing to write fiction. This was also the period in which she conducted a series of affairs with women. All the while, she kept the lessons she gleaned from her complicated, possessive mother — to be resilient and independent.
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, but not before she seduced her 16-year-old stepson; she was then forty-seven. It wasn’t until she was in her early fifties that she met her match.
At age fifty-two, what started as a heated affair with Maurice Goudeket, who was much younger than she, became a lasting, sweet relationship characterized by mutual devotion. Goudeket’s arrest by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France was Colette’s greatest source 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 a practicing journalist in the midst of her writing career. In many ways, she followed the footsteps of her fellow Frenchwoman, George Sand, whom she admired. It was the vagaries of love, its joys, complications, heartaches, and sensual pleasures that gave her a bounty of material to work with.
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 with 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, include Chéri (which inspired the 2009 film starring Michelle Pfeiffer), The Vagabond (the author’s personal favorite), The Ripening Seed, and Mitsou. Sido was an homage to her mother.
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.”
Colette page on Amazon
Colette conducted her life with no regrets, and disdained the restraint with which society held female expression. In her later years, Colette suffered from arthritis and rarely left her Paris apartment. In 1948, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Memoir became a favored literary form as she reflected on her life as she grew older.
To say that Colette was prolific is an understatement to describe her vast output of novels, plays, stories. Less known is that 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.
See also: The Vagabond by Colette, her favorite among her novels
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
- Musée Colette – St.-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Burgundy, France
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