More than 60 years after her death, Colette (1873-1954) remains one of France’s most famous female writers, a source of fascination and joy.
Her books, many of which borrowed generously from her own life, are still popular, while a biopic of her life, ‘Colette’ starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West, had its premiere at the Sundance Festival – and has been slated for a limited release in the US in September 2018, before reaching Europe in early 2019.
Born in the provincial backwater of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye (Yonne, Bourgogne) Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette received a remarkably thorough education for a young woman of that era, going to school from the age of six until she was 17.
Colette, her sister and two brothers enjoyed a tranquil, happy childhood; her mother, fiercely feminist and atheist, adored her and taught her literature, while her father taught her the basics of journalism.
Her parents had been quite well off but their fortunes dwindled and by 1891 the family had to move out of their comfortable home into a smaller house in Châtillon-sur-Loing, where Colette met notorious libertine Henry Gauthier-Villars – commonly known as ‘Willy’.
Fourteen years her senior, he was in the area to deliver his illegitimate son to a wet nurse when he met Colette. It is easy to imagine how attractive he must have seemed to an innocent girl from the countryside, and even easier to imagine how attractive she must have been to such a compulsive seducer.
They were married in 1893 and moved to Paris, where Willy was well-known; a writer, musical critic and fashionable man-about-town. He was also involved in various extra-marital relationships, and despite Colette’s jealously never had any intention of reforming his ways.
It was well-known that much of his work was written by other people, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he encouraged Colette to write a spiced up series of coming-of-age novels loosely based on her own upbringing – Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married and Claudine and Annie – but omitting any mention of Colette’s mother and adding a salacious amount of lesbian erotica.
As soon as they were written, Willy promptly published them under his own name.
When she found out, Colette was furious, and in 1905 she left her husband. But, as he had claimed copyright of her books, she had no access to the (handsome) royalties they were generating.
To earn a living, she turned her hand to risqué music-hall performances wearing skimpy costumes, which she called oriental pantomimes. These appearances were scandalous for the time; at one point she was banned from performing completely nude except for a tiger skin.
Desperate for money, she started touring, sometimes appearing as Claudine in scenes from her books, earning a pittance and often hungry and unwell.
Her novel La Vagabonde (1910) deals with this period of her life, exploring the theme of female independence in a male-dominated society. She also had various amorous relationships with women, sometimes appearing with them on stage. An on-stage kiss with Mathilde de Morny caused a near-riot and resulted in the pair having to keep their relationship under wraps although it continued for another five years.
In 1912 she married Henry de Jouvenel, a politician and journalist, and the following year her daughter Colette de Jouvenel was born.
Henry gave her work as a journalist and during the war she continued writing and publishing criticism and articles. In 1920 she published Chéri, the tale of an older woman’s affair with a much younger man. She also met her stepson Bertrand for the first time.
He was only 16 and she was 47. Her second husband had proved no more faithful than the first, and perhaps that was one reason she seduced his son.
She and Bertrand embarked on what was possibly the most profound love of Colette’s life. It continued even after she and his father were divorced in 1924, survived at least one engagement and finally ended in 1925 when he married Marcelle Prat. They saw each other only occasionally afterwards, although 30 years later Bertrand visited her as she was dying.
The year of Bertrand’s marriage, Colette married her third and last husband, Maurice Goudeket, who was 16 years her junior.
She continued writing throughout the 30s, her books mainly dealing with sex and marriage, and often criticising the conventional lives of women.
By this time she was well-respected as a writer, often acclaimed as France’s greatest novelist.
During World War Two she stayed in Paris, where her husband, who was Jewish, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941. He was released after a few months, but the pair spent the rest of the war worrying that he might be arrested again. During the occupation she wrote two volumes of autobiography, Journal à Rebours (1941) and De Ma Fenêtre (1942) which were published in English in 1975 as Looking Backwards.
Her novella Gigi, about a young girl being groomed to become a prostitute who falls in love with and marries her much older, wealthy lover, was published in 1944. The musical film version, staring Leslie Caron, won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1958. Colette never saw it.
She continued to write, often reflecting on the challenges of writers drawing inspiration from their own lives, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. She died in 1954 at the age of 81.
The Catholic Church refused to give her a religious service because of her divorces, but she received a state funeral and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Since then, her reputation has grown even more illustrious. The 30 books she wrote are still central to many a syllabus, and she is now recognised as an important female voice in literature.
“We miss Colette,” said Samia Bordji, director of the Centre d’études Colette.
“She was one of the world’s first truly liberated women. Middle-class women at that time didn’t work, but she did. She made a career, and was one of the first women to break into journalism, too. She did lots of things that women didn’t do. Her mother said she was 300 years ahead of her time.”
Colette famously said she just wanted to be able to do anything she wanted.
“She shocked and upset people, she was deliberately provocative, she was proud of it, in a way. She earned her living and her freedom through her own efforts, her courage, her resistance, her ability to shrug off insults and disapproval.
“She declared that her own morals were better than those of most of the people who wanted to teach her morals.”
If she was living today, Colette would be doing things we can’t even imagine, Ms Bordji said. “Many people are closed-minded about women. Willy, who was a media star when he met Colette, would have sunk into obscurity if he hadn’t married her because no-one cares if men are libertines.”
Colette’s misadventure with maternity is also well documented. “She had a child at the age of 40 which at that time was extraordinary.
“She hated being pregnant and was the first to say that she had no maternal instincts, which was not an acceptable idea back then – and even now, women are often pilloried for not wanting children. There are many women who regret having children, but it still isn’t acceptable to say so. Colette talked about things we still don’t talk about today.”
Colette said that love knows no ages. “When she started an affair with a man 30 years her junior, of course it was scandalous, but look at attitudes today and the fuss people make about the age-gap between President Macron and his wife.
“That’s why we need her today. We miss her, we need a role model like Colette who shows that anything is possible; anything is allowed for a woman.”