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.
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.
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.)