Colette Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111201534-Colette.jpg Colette Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Colette’s work has been called the finest naturalist expressionism of the early twentieth century. Her gift for conveying sensations, emotions, and ambience produces the very personal style that her nom de plume so immediately calls to mind.

Early Life

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born in Saint-Saveur-en-Puisaye, France, a Burgundian village in the Yonne region, on January 28, 1873. Her father, Jules-Joseph Colette, a retired army captain and the local tax collector, was something of a village character. Her mother, Adèle-Eugénie-Sidonie (Sido) Landoy, was extremely fond of pets and books. Sidonie-Gabrielle (Colette) was the fourth of her mother’s children (two were the issue of a previous marriage, to Jules Robineau-Duclos). A special relationship existed between mother and daughter. Until Sido’s death in September, 1912, Colette wrote to her long letters, chronicling in detail her sometimes Bohemian activities. For this reason, the relationship has been characterized as literary as much as it was familial.

Colette spent the first two decades of her life in the provinces. In 1890, the family left Saint-Saveur-en-Puisaye, after experiencing a financial reversal, and moved to Châtillon-sur-Loing in the nearby Loiret district. There, the family took up residence in the house of Doctor Achille Robineau-Duclos, Sido’s second child. The next year, Sidonie-Gabrielle became engaged to Henri Gauthier-Villars, who referred to her simply as “Colette.” Thus, she gained what would become her famous pseudonym. In May, 1893, the couple were married at Châtillon-sur-Loing. Gauthier-Villars, nearly fifteen years Colette’s senior, moved in Left Bank literary circles where he was known by his professional pseudonym of Willy. After honeymooning in the Jura, the couple settled in the Rue Jacob, Paris.

Colette always professed to hate writing, and her literary career was certainly launched under a form of coercion. Her husband came across a notebook of her schoolgirl reminiscences and astutely judged that with a little spice they would make a successful book. The result was Claudine à l’école (1900; Claudine at School, 1956). The novel, which was published under Willy’s name, quickly sold fifty thousand copies.

Life’s Work

So closely was Colette associated with her heroine—once, that is, she became known as the true author—that a reference work published in 1942 actually includes an entry for her under the name Gabrielle Claudine Colette. The success of Claudine at School led to a series of Claudine novels based upon Colette’s memories of her childhood in Burgundy and her life immediately thereafter—Claudine à Paris (1901; Claudine in Paris, 1958), Claudine en ménage (1902; The Indulgent Husband, 1935; also as Claudine Married, 1960), and Claudine s’en va (1903; The Innocent Wife, 1934). Willy signed his name to these as well, giving no formal indication of collaboration (indeed, it was a collaboration in which one partner primarily did the work, and the other exploited it). For this reason, Willy and Colette Willy are sometimes listed as additional pen names for Colette. Willy was music critic for the Écho de Paris, and, in 1903, he and Colette wrote a music column called “Claudine au Concert” (“Claudine at the Concert”). In the same year, Colette received her first lessons in the art of mime. Colette and Willy were constantly in need of money, so, to increase her income, she went on the stage, miming in the suggestive melodramas then popular in the music halls. During one of these performances, she bared her bosom. As a result, tales of her “nude dancing” became a part of the Colette legend. At the turn of the century, books about the animal world were enjoying a vogue and, in 1904, Colette, always an animal lover, published a book entitled Dialogues de bêtes (Creatures Great and Small, 1957). The author’s name appeared as Colette Willy, and, so far as the public knew, this was the first book she had ever written. In 1905, Colette left Willy, and they were divorced the following year. Willy had used her and been unfaithful to her. Colette had written those scabrous portions of the Claudine books, which caused some people to regard them as unfit for young readers, at Willy’s insistence. Yet he had also introduced her to the literary world and forced her to write. She had discovered her great gift and had learned to use it.

Colette worked steadily as a performer from the age of about thirty-three until she was forty, touring across Europe while continuing to write a book a year. During this period, suggestions of lesbianism were associated with her name and persist to this day. She performed in several mime dramas with Madame de Morny (known as “Missy”), the divorced wife of the Marquis de Belboeuf. Missy would play the part of a man and was, in fact, masculine in appearance. After her separation from Willy, Colette often stayed with Missy at the latter’s home in Paris and in her villa at Le Crotoy. In January, 1907, they acted together in a play, and their prolonged and passionate kiss during the premiere performance scandalized the audience at the Moulin-Rouge. There had been broad hints of homoeroticism in the Claudine books, but these were perhaps more the product of Willy’s spice than of autobiography. Some...

(The entire section is 2250 words.)

Colette Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (kaw-leht), one of the most famous French women writers of her era, was born in the Burgundian village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, where she and her brother, Léo (born 1868), grew up in a provincial country house full of books and animals, surrounded by a magnificent garden. Sido, Colette’s mother and the principal influence on her life, had a vast knowledge of plants and animals. In this atmosphere Colette developed a sensitivity toward nature, a quality she always associated both with innocence and with her mother’s home.

In 1890 the family moved to Châtillon-Coligny. There Colette met Henri Gauthier-Villars, or Willy, a bohemian publicist and raconteur whom she married in May, 1893. Some scholars have postulated that Colette’s life and writing were dominated by the opposing forces embodied by Sido, who represented innocence, and those embodied by Willy, who represented experience.

In 1900 her first novel was published as Claudine at School under her husband’s pen name, Willy. Soon thereafter Willy began the practice of locking Colette in her room for four hours each day with an assigned number of pages to write. In 1904 she published Creature Conversations, her first book written under the name Colette Willy, a pseudonym she used until 1923. The book, composed of dialogues between her cat and her dog, was the first of several works based on animal themes.

Problems in her marriage, depicted by Colette in My Apprenticeships, led to the couple’s separation in 1906 and to their divorce in 1910. In 1906 Colette began performing in music halls to earn a living. A fictionalized chronicle of those years can be found in The Vagabond, The Shackle, and...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Colette Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The four stages in the life of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette are marked by her close associations with, first, her mother and, subsequently, each of her three husbands. Her devotion to her mother, along with the tensions that existed between them, is recorded at length in Sido (1929; English translation, 1953), the title being the name by which Adèle-Eugénie-Sidonie Landoy Colette was known. Captain Jules-Joseph Colette was Sido’s second husband and the father of Colette. He died in 1905, Sido in 1912. Sido was strong of will and firm in her convictions and prejudices. Colette recalls both her strong reactions to challenge and her gentle hand braiding her daughter’s hair in a setting of peace and serenity. During her childhood and adolescence, Colette developed a poet’s appreciation of her rural environment in Burgundy and her private garden. She was twenty years old in 1893 when she married a friend of the family, Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as “Willy” both professionally and personally. It was with Willy that her literary career began.

With Willy’s guidance, Colette produced writings that were published under Willy’s name. These included the four Claudine novels, which would appear as a single book in 1923, and two other books. Eventually, she achieved enough independence to publish under the name Colette Willy and, after her final divorce in 1907, under the single name Colette. Willy’s dominance had contributed less to Colette’s dissatisfaction with him, and divorce from him, than his infidelities and sexual excesses had. Following her separation from Willy, Colette lived for about six years with Mathilde de Morny, called “Missy,” a woman of the aristocracy who had been the Marquise de Belbeuf. She and Missy enjoyed a homosexual relationship and a penchant for participation in theatrical mimes, in one of which Colette’s...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

Colette Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

For a woman who was to become something of a symbol of feminism, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born into the most unlikely surroundings. Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye was a small village in Burgundy, and little Sidonie grew up as a country girl—she retained a strong Burgundian accent until her death. Her mother, whose tremendous influence on Colette’s life cannot be overestimated, was Adèle-Sidonie Landoy Robineau-Duclos, referred to by her second daughter as “Sido,” whose first husband, Jules (by whom she had two children) died in 1865. In the same year, his widow married Captain Jules-Joseph Colette, who had been invalided out of the army in 1860 and had come to Saint-Sauveur as a tax collector. Sido bore two more children, a...

(The entire section is 1117 words.)

Colette Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (kaw-LEHT) was born in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, a small town in southwest France, on January 28, 1873, to Jules-Joseph Colette and Adèle-Sidonie Landoy Robineau-Duclos. Jules-Joseph was a retired army captain turned tax collector, and his new profession led the family to Saint-Sauveur-en Puisaye. At first things went well, and Colette enjoyed a happy childhood in her easygoing, freethinking family. Jules-Joseph, however, was too easygoing; he was not very industrious, and he did not have much of a head for business. In 1890, the family was forced to sell its house and move in with Colette’s older brother Achille Robineau-Duclos, a doctor in a nearby village.

It was there, in 1891, that...

(The entire section is 1114 words.)

Colette Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Colette’s state funeral was a symbol of the popularity that her works had gained by the time of her death. Her numerous works of fiction were accessible and highly readable, yet they presented a unique perspective on everyday human problems and experiences. From the girlish figures of Claudine and Gigi to the lonely old women such as Léa, from finely drawn tragic figures such as Chéri to the almost human Saha, Colette’s characters are memorable individuals. Her twists on conventional love stories are imaginative and frequently more complex than their superficial simplicity and light tone would suggest.

(The entire section is 101 words.)