The Muses of Musingly:
Simone de Beauvoir called her “the only great woman writer in France”.
Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette – actress, novelist, drama critic, political writer, fashion critic and author of a column on cooking. Fiercely disciplined and hugely productive – publishing nearly 80 volumes of fiction, memoirs, journalism and drama. She married three times, had male and female lovers and for a time supported herself as a mime artist, dancing semi-nude in music halls throughout France.
Her greatest strength as a writer was an ability to evoke the sensory sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and colours of her world (Germaine Greer called her the greatest garden writer of all time); all recorded in the books of her life:
“Love is my bread and my pen” (Colette)
On Childhood: “My Mother’s House” 1922 (originally entitled “La Maison de Claudine”) and “Sido,” in 1929
A bright, carefree child Colette was born and raised in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, in Burgundy. Her father, a retired Army captain with a wooden leg, dabbled in science and the arts, and her mother, Sido, was an unconventional but refined woman (of mixed African and Creole ancestry). The semi-genteel Colette family were always outsiders but Collette writes of a perfect childhood in a flowering garden surrounded by nature and lavishing, maternal love.
On Marriage: the “Claudine” novels, Claudine à l’école (1900; Claudine at School), Claudine à Paris (1901; Claudine in Paris), Claudine en menage (1902; republished as Claudine amoureuse, translated as The Indulgent Husband), and Claudine s’en va: Journal d’Annie (1903; The Innocent Wife).
Colette’s bucolic, innocent life changed the day she fell in love with Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”, above ) in 1891, when she was nineteen. Thirteen years her senior, and already a well established man of ‘belles-lettres’ in Paris, Colette thought him debonair and dashing.
The couple moved to Paris and Willy introduced her to the world of Parisian salons and the demimonde; Paul Valéry, Claude Debussy, Toulouse-Lautrec, and José Maria de Hérédia and a young and unknown Marcel Proust. Fin de siècle Paris was enchanted with Colette’s guileless country manners and her spontaneity (as when, for instance, she made sorbets out of jam and snow from the windowsill). Not long after their marriage, Willy discovered Colette’s talent for writing. Locking her in a room he forced her to write— the Claudine novels – then published the work as his own. The books and product spinoffs (Claudine cigarettes, chocolates, clothing) were huge sellers. He also claimed they were a “modern couple”, each free to pursue their own relationships. For wily Willy this included a string of mistresses (actresses, studio models, waitresses). Colette was jealous, but she had admirers of her own—and as she was bisexual, her flirtations were with both men and women. At one point Colette and Willy they were both lovers of the same woman, Georgie Raoul-Duval.
On Acting: La Vagabonde (1910; The Vagabond) and L’Envers du music-hall (1913; Music-Hall Sidelights).
Colette’s most notorious period followed. Now began her admiration for lives lived on a sexual edge, the consciously chosen risqué tastes, the risk of physical danger. She drank it all in – surrounded by Parisian entertainers, courtesans, aristocratic lesbians and fin-de -siecle gay aesthetes. Their fetishes she got, her understanding of gender far ahead of its time; she met “Missy”—Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeulf, a lesbian who dressed like a man with boots, a cane, and top-hat, had lots of money, and was wild about Colette. The two became lovers and, in November 1906, Missy helped Colette move out from Willy’s into a flat of her own.
In 1907 the two acted together in the mime-play Rêve d’Egypte at the Moulin Rouge, in which they exchanged a long kiss. Two women kissing in public was a heady thing in 1907, even in Paris; it started a riot in the theater and the police threatened to close the Moulin Rouge if it happened again. When Missy’s shocked family cut off her income, Colette had to make her own living—not as a writer but an actress. Willy owned the rights to the Claudine novels, and publishing new books was a shaky and uncertain way to make a living. And so Colette spent much of 1907-1911 working as a mime in the company of Georges Wague and Christine Kerf—in music halls in Paris and on tours through other major towns in France and Belgium. Their most successful production was probably La Chair, in which Colette bared a breast – and subsequently became the subject of scandal, praise, cartoon caricatures and humorous poems.
On Writing: The Shackle (L’Entrave, 1913), Chéri and its sequel, The End of Chéri (La Fin de Chéri, 1926), Le Blé en herbe (1923, Green Wheat), La Naissance du Jour (1928; The Break of Day)
Salvation from the music hall came in the form of Henry de Jouvenel, the editor of Le Matin. Success with The Vagabond (it was short-listed for the Prix Goncourt) bought Colette’s writing more attention, soon her stories and columns were published in the paper. And by the spring of 1911, Colette and Jouvenel were in love.
Colette tried to settle and conform; winding down her theatrical activities to work as a journalist and taking on the role of wife and mother at the age of 40. The couple married in 1912, and in 1913 had a daughter named Colette, nicknamed “Bel-Gazou.” Professional success continued; in 1917 she oversaw an Italian adaptation of The Vagabond, La Vagabonda for which she wrote the screenplay. But Jouvenel proved to be another womanizer and Colette a distant mother. Soon the marriage floundered in more extra-marital affairs.
But Colette now entered an era of her greatest literary success; starting with Chéri (1920) and its sequel, The End of Chéri (La Fin de Chéri, 1926) Quasi-autobiographical these novels both glorified and condemned the excesses of the 1920s. Chéri examined love between an aging woman, Léa, and a very young man, Cheri – reflecting an affair with her own 16 year-old stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel.
The success of Chéri saw Colette hailed as France’s greatest woman writer. She was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1920. In 1922 she returned triumphantly to the stage, playing Léa in dramatic version of the best-selling Chéri.
On Feminism: Ces Plaisirs (1932; “Those Pleasures,” later published as Le Pur et l’impur [1941; The Pure and the Impure]), La Chatte (1933; The Cat) and Duo (1934), Gigi (1944)
Her later work looked at married life, sexuality, and the problems of a woman’s struggle for independence but she was not considered a feminist literary icon like Anaïs Nin or Virginia Woolf. Her sharp tongue (“I’ll tell you what the suffragettes deserve: the whip and the harem,”) and the tendency of her female characters to be overpowered by their love for a man alienated her from the feminists of the time. Indeed they were poles apart — the suffragettes buried their sexuality to stand up equally to men, but for Colette the only real power was in the bedroom. She was much too playful, teasing, and sensual for her angrier literary sisters.
She married again (a Jewish jewel merchant, Maurice Goudeket, 17 years her junior), had a facelift, surrounded herself with cats and grew fat. Increasingly she retreated, her work more nostalgic rather than questioning. Today critics claim her writings artificial, a construct of a fertile imagination, rather than a document of women’s life.
Whatever she was brave, modern and risqué. When she died at 81, in 1954, she received the first state funeral the French Republic had ever given a woman. But her legacy is perhaps the ‘subtlest, most sustained literary examination of love and sex that we have.’
“Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette” by Judith Thurman
Colette’s France: Her Lives and her Loves by
Featured Image: Marcel Vertès – Colette (1873-1954)