9 Facts about Colette, Prolific and Passionate French Author

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette

Colette (1873 – 1954), the French author (born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) was as known for her writing as for her scandalous love life in the course of her prolific career. 

Rejecting society’s rules for female expression and sexuality, she overcame notoriety to be regarded as one of the most treasured authors in the canon of French literature. 

Colette was no angel and certainly had her flaws in a full life of great accomplishment as well as of scandal.


From mid-career on, and beyond her lifetime she’s consistently been recognized as one of France’s most notable literary figures. Even today, her rebellion against societal norms for women and owning of her sexuality would be admired as progressive. In her time, she was nothing short of  radical!

A 2018 feature film, simply titled Colette, celebrates the author’s life and literature. Before you see this critically acclaimed film, which focuses on her early years as a writer, explore these fascinating facts about Colette to get to know her. Better yet, read her books, many of which have been translated into English. The most widely read include the Claudine series, as well as Gigi, The Vagabond, and Chéri.

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COLETTE (2018 film)

Dominic West stars as Willy and Keira Knightley as Colette in Colette, a Bleecker Street release.
Credit: Robert Viglasky / Bleecker Street

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Colette stars Keira Knightly as the author and features Dominic West as her nefarious first husband, Willy. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2018 and was released in the U.S. in September 2018. It will be in wide release in the U.S. on October 12, and in the U.K. in January 2019.

The BBC said of this film: “She might have been born in the late 19th Century, but Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette is a heroine for our times: a fearless, creative woman who challenged the patriarchy in stuffy Parisian society, in supposedly liberal artistic circles, and in her own bedroom.” Watch the trailer here.

 

Her husband took credit for her early fiction

In 1900, Colette began publishing the semi-autobiographical series of Claudine stories that defined the era’s teenage girl, exploring her sexuality and unconventional ways. The problem: her first husband, the nefarious Willy (Henry Gauthier-Villars), took the credit as well as the earnings for these popular stories.

Claudine at School (1900) was the first of the efforts to be published and was an immediate success. More Claudine books followed. When Colette resisted Willy’s control, he locked her in a room and compelled her to write until she had produced enough pages for his liking.

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Colette - 1907, in her dance hall days

Colette in her music hall years
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She worked as a music hall performer

When Colette finally broke free of Willy in 1906, she had no access to the substantial earnings of the Claudine books, because her debauched husband held the copyrights. She struggled to make a living as 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. In 1907 she shared an onstage kiss with Mathilde de Morny (known as Missy), with whom she was in a relationship. The scene caused a near-riot, and though they continued their relationship for several years longer, they had to conduct it on the quiet.

 

She was a neglectful mother

Colette had her first and only child, a daughter, at age forty. The girl was named Colette but acquired the odd nickname Bel-Gazou (“beautiful babbling/chirping”). It has been widely acknowledged that Colette was an abominable, neglectful mother. She married her daughter’s father, Henry de Jouvenel, a journalist and politician, a union that faltered quickly.

 

She seduced her teenage stepson

At age forty-seven, Colette seduced her 16-year-old stepson Bertrand de Juvenel, which led to the  1924 divorce from his father. Though it has been conjectured that the affair was the basis of the novel Chéri, this wasn’t the case; rather, it inspired the novel Le Blé en Herbe (Green Wheat)

Interestingly, some years later Bertrand de Jouvenel had an affair with American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn from 1930 to 1934. It is believed that they would have married, but de Jouvenel’s wife refused to grant him a divorce.

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Cheri by Colette

Colette page on Amazon

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Her work inspired two Hollywood films

The 1944 novel Gigi is a story of a French girl training to be a courtesan who falls in love with a wealthy gentleman. The stage play starred newcomer Audrey Hepburn and was adapted by Colette’s American friend and colleague Anita Loos. It was also made into a popular 1958 film with Leslie Caron in the title role.

Chéri, the story of the love affair between a young gigolo and an older woman, inspired the 2009 film starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

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colette en pantalon (colette in a suit)

You might also enjoy:
Classic Women Authors in Men’s Clothing

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She was inspired by fellow Frenchwoman of letters George Sand

In many ways, Colette followed the footsteps of her fellow Frenchwoman, George Sand, whom she admired. Like Sand, Colette’s work addressed the vagaries of love, with its joys, complications, heartaches, and sensual pleasures. 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…”

Like George Sand, Colette was adept at self-criticism: “Writing is often wasteful. If I counted the pages I’ve torn up, of how many volumes am I the author?” And like her literary predecessor, Colette enjoyed posing in men’s clothing.

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Colette at her desk

Short and Sweet Quotes by Colette

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She found true love at age fifty-two

At fifty-two, Colette embarked on a torrid affair with Maurice Goudeket, sixteen years her junior. Against all odds, their love blossomed into an enduring and affectionate relationship, the likes of which she had always longed for. 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.

 

She was given a state funeral upon her death

In her later years, Colette suffered from arthritis and rarely left her Paris apartment. She was cared for by her husband, Maurice Goudeket. 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. 

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Maison de Colette

Maison de Colette, Jardin. Photo: Nicolas Castets

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Colette’s childhood home is now a museum

Colette moved residences at least 14 times in her lifetime, but the one 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 a vivid and much longed-for symbol of a lost paradise.

Maison de Colette, located in the village of St.-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in northwest Burgundy, has been open to the public since May 2016.

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