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...
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animal lover, published a book entitledDialogues 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 biographers state flatly that Colette had lesbian relationships with Missy and other women as well. Other biographers suggest that these relationships were far too emotionally complex to be characterized adequately by that term. Although Colette wrote about her own life for all of her life, this, like so much else about her, remains problematical. One result of her theatrical experiences was La Vagabonde (1911; The Vagabond, 1955), which has been called her first masterpiece.
In 1909, she met Henri de Jouvenel, editor of Le Matin, and by the next year was regularly contributing articles to that newspaper. She fell in love with Jouvenel and was living with him in Passy, a suburb of Paris, when she discovered, in the autumn of 1912, that she was pregnant. As a result of this unexpected occurrence, the lovers were married the following December. In July, 1913, Colette, at the age of forty, gave birth to her only child, Colette de Jouvenel. When war came in 1914, Colette worked as a volunteer night nurse in Paris, then spent two months at the front, where her husband was serving. Afterward, she wrote a series of articles about the experience for Le Matin. Colette’s only full-length novel from the war years was Mitsou: Ou, Comment l’esprit vient aux filles (1919; Mitsou: Or, How Girls Grow Wise, 1930). This sentimental story of an actress who falls in love with a soldier on leave was a great popular success.
In 1920, Colette published her greatest novel, Chéri (English translation, 1929). Chéri is an eighteen-year-old boy whose worldly education is directed by Léa, a fashionable Parisian courtesan and his mother’s best friend. After a long relationship that they thought afforded only mutual pleasure, Chéri and Léa make the horrifying discovery that they are in love. The situation is an impossible one. Léa is middle-aged, on the very point of growing old, but she has made any other woman unthinkable for Chéri. Compared to her, his youthful bride seems bland and arouses no appetite in him. During the 1920’s, with the help of Léopold Marchand, Colette adapted Chéri and The Vagabond for the stage. In 1922 and 1925, she acted the role of Léa, and in 1926 she appeared in The Vagabond. Also in 1926, she wrote the libretto for a Maurice Ravel opera, and La Fin de Chéri (The Last of Chéri, 1932) was published. In 1924, her marriage to Henri de Jouvenel had ended in divorce.
Colette continued to work tirelessly in journalism. She served for a time as literary editor of Le Matin and wrote dramatic criticism for Le Journal. Though never really comfortable in the world of the cinema, she wrote scenarios for films in 1933 and 1934. During this same period, she opened a beauty institute in Paris and conducted more than thirty demonstrations in provincial towns in the art of makeup. On April 3, 1936, she married her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, in Paris.
She had been for many years France’s foremost woman of letters and a spate of public honors came to her. In September, 1920, she had been named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur; in November, 1928, she was promoted to Officier de la Légion d’Honneur and in February, 1936, to Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur. Also in 1936, she was received into the Belgian Royal Academy of Literature (Colette had long had Belgian ties; Sido’s two brothers had settled in Belgium in 1840 and had made names for themselves in journalism). In May, 1934, she was elected to the famed Académie Goncourt, and in October, 1949, she was elected its president. In 1953, she became Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur.
Although her last work of fiction, Gigi (1944; English translation, 1952), appeared during the Occupation, Colette continued writing into old age. By the time of her death, she had been writing for more than fifty years and had produced at least that many books, of all sorts. On August 3, 1954, she died in Paris. The last great honor conferred by her countrymen was a state funeral, the first ever accorded a woman. A surprisingly large throng filed by the flag-draped catafalque, since Paris is traditionally abandoned by its inhabitants in August. The ceremonies were marred, however, by the nonparticipation of the Catholic church. The Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris denied Colette the Roman Catholic burial rite on three grounds: she was twice divorced, she had not practiced the faith for many years, and she had not received the last sacraments. For this decision, he received much criticism, the most notable coming from the Catholic convert Graham Greene. In an open letter in Le Figaro littéraire, Greene politely took the archbishop to task by reminding him that everyone baptized a Catholic had the right to be accompanied to the grave by a priest, and that right could not be forfeited. So Colette died as she had lived, passionately loved and admired by many thousands but the object of controversy.
Many who knew Colette have testified to her personal magnetism, citing particularly her triangular face, shrewd blue-gray eyes, and rich warm voice. She deflected questions about her writing and her life by saying that she had put her life into her books, and the books were there to be read. At first, she was considered an instinctive, natural writer. Her evocation of the details of provincial life—the soil, the plants, the animals—is highly sensuous and has a quality not commonly found in French writing about nature. She stated that a part of her had always remained provincial and bourgeois. The strong, vibrant women and weak men in her books are totally convincing, while giving no suggestion that they have been created for the purposes of feminist argument. Chéri is the great amatory novel in twentieth century French literature. By the middle of her career, this instinctive writer had developed a fine classical style, upon which critics have frequently commented. When she became the grande dame of French letters, she was, as a professional actress, well qualified to play the part. She was, in short, an original, whose writing cannot be described by means of stock phrases. In discussing Chéri and The Last of Chéri, the English novelist John Braine says to the aspiring writer: “Colette’s domain is the world of the senses. . . . Most novelists, compared with her, seem to inhabit a sparse bare world where the only physical pleasure is sex. I can think of no other novelist from whom you can learn so much.”
Crosland, Margaret. Colette: A Provincial in Paris. New York: British Book Centre, 1954. A very appreciative biography, written while Crosland was much under the spell of Colette’s personality. During her preparation of the book, Crosland often visited Colette and her third husband in their Palais-Royal apartment. She states in the introduction that one of her purposes is to convince others of Colette’s greatness.
Crosland, Margaret. Colette: The Difficulty of Loving. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. A critical biography that analyzes the subject’s work as well as her life. Janet Flanner, long a commentator on the French scene, contributes an interesting introduction. A chronology and a bibliography of works by and about Colette are appended.
Kristeva, Julia. Colette. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. A scholarly critique of Colette’s life and work by the famous semiotician.
Marks, Elaine. Colette. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1960. An examination, insofar as possible, of the relationship of Colette’s works to her life. Marks begins from the premise that Colette’s books totally lack analogues in philosophy and politics. They are informed by a highly personal moral admonition, summed up in the term regarde—look, experience, feel.
Mitchell, Yvonne. Colette: A Taste for Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. This biography makes the argument that, although some of her readers found her choice of subject matter objectionable or even depraved, Colette was instinctively deeply moral. She accepted no arbitrary hierarchies, choosing instead to be led by the life force and her five senses. A chronology, a bibliography, notes, and an index—all extensive—are provided.
Richardson, Joanna. Colette. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984. Richardson represents hers as the first full-scale biography of Colette to be written in English. It is based upon Colette’s published work, the mass of secondary sources, and the subject’s papers, lately made available at the Bibliothèque Nationale.