(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Herbert Lottman’s Colette: A Life begins with an interesting question: To what extent was Colette the writer identical to Claudine, the character she created in her notorious early books? As a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl in a small, rural French town, Claudine takes great interest in her own sexual impulses and in the sexual activities of others. She notices the growing attachment between the headmistress and her assistant, with whom Claudine herself is passionately in love; the infatuation of the assistant’s young sister for Claudine; and the approaches the medical inspector makes to schoolgirls like Claudine, when he is not, according to rumor, in bed with the headmistress. According to this biography, when she was at school, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who was to be the writer called simply “Colette,” appeared to be more interested in pranks than in sexual titillation. Moreover, the real Colette seems merely to have imagined the schoolroom scandals in her book. The character of the medical inspector, for example, was based on a political enemy of her father, a respectable doctor who in real life was never accused of making attempts on the virtue of schoolgirls.

Lottman makes it clear that differentiating between Claudine the fictitious character and Colette the young writer is even more difficult because there are so many versions as to the kind of collaboration that produced the four books about Claudine. When she was twenty, Colette married Henri Gauthier-Villars, an editor and critic fourteen years older than she, who was in the habit of assigning books to other writers, amending their manuscripts to include insulting portraits of his enemies, and then publishing the books under his own name. Evidently Henri (“Willy”) saw possibilities in his new bride’s humorous anecdotes about her school days. Whether he wrote Claudine à l’école (1900; Claudine at School, 1956) from her notes or whether he simply published under his own name a book that his wife had actually written, Willy took the credit for this work. His domination over his young wife, however, was to be short-lived. Once she got to Paris and into Willy’s sophisticated circle, Colette matured rapidly. Even though Paris adored Colette, who was assumed to be the true Claudine, even though everyone wanted to read the next three titillating Claudine novels as they emerged from Willy’s book factory, one a year, and to see the Claudine play when it was produced, Colette moved closer and closer to rebellion. As Lottman points out, she took no pride in works that were only partly hers. Indeed, three decades later, Colette expressed profound dislike for the Claudine books. She was destined for artistic, as well as personal, independence.

In 1904, Colette published the first work in which Willy had no hand. By 1905, she and Willy had separated, Willy to become the protector of another young woman, Colette to begin the explorations into art and into sensuality that would occupy her life.

In his carefully documented biography, Lottman makes it clear that Colette’s creativity functioned on two levels at once, one being publication or performance, the other her actual life experiences, which were reported in the press, discussed, and revised by Colette herself until they, too, became a kind of fiction. For example, both Colette and Willy were fascinated with lesbianism, which was a major activity at the school they invented for the first book on which they collaborated. At Colette’s own school, however, it seems likely that such love affairs were no more than schoolgirl crushes, imaginary, not actual, encounters. Nevertheless, Colette soon progressed from literature to life. During her marriage, there were some tentative relationships with women, encouraged by Willy, who was curious as to her and his own reactions. After her separation from Willy, she had a passionate affair with Mathilde de Morny, the Marchioness de Belboeuf, or “Missy.” The relationship became the sensation of Paris. In the kind of publicity-seeking that was characteristic of her, Colette proclaimed their liaison in print, posed with Missy for magazine illustrations showing them as a loving couple, and performed love scenes in pantomimes at the Moulin Rouge. After near-riots, these performances were finally banned by the police. Ironically, as a result of his association with the now-notorious Colette, Willy lost his job on a conservative newspaper, even though he and his wife were separated at the time of the Moulin Rouge episodes.

Lottman seems uncertain as to whether Colette ever loved anyone with whom she was sexually involved. He suggests that her real interest was not in her partners but in the sensations that they aroused. Sometimes she re-created these episodes and described the accompanying sensations in her novels; sometimes she...

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was born on January 28, 1873, in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, a provincial town 120 miles south of Paris. Colette’s father, Captain Jules Colette, had lost a leg in battle; the town tax collector, he nourished unfulfilled literary ambitions. Her mother, Adele Sidonie Colette (nicknamed Sido), was an avid reader who taught Colette to read at a very early age and provided her with a steady supply of novels. (Colette recalled that she was seven years old when she started on Balzac.)

Colette’s life changed permanently when, at the age of twenty, she married Henry Gauthier-Villars, a man then in his early thirties. Gauthier-Villars was a Parisian wit, a music and drama critic and sometime editor known to all as Willy (pronounced Vili), his favorite pen-name. A debauched Svengali with a genius for self-promotion, he presided over a “novel factory": He hatched ideas for books, gave the outlines to hacks to execute, and touched up the resulting manuscripts, to be published under his name. In such fashion—the exact details of their collaboration are still in dispute—Colette’s first book was written, with Willy credited as author. Based on Colette’s memories of Saint-Sauveur, CLAUDINE IN SCHOOL was immensely popular, initiating a series of books about the irrepressible Claudine.

In time Colette broke free from Willy and eclipsed him entirely. Writing well, it is said, is the best revenge. Herbert Lottman’s narrative of her long and extraordinarily productive life is somewhat slow-moving, but the intrinsic fascination of the story he has to tell and its exotic cast of characters will keep the reader absorbed. Above all one gets a vivid sense of Colette herself—her intensely physical appetite for life, her energy, her shrewd insight into her own emotions, which she ruthlessly mined for her autobiographical fiction. The text is supplemented by notes, an index, a list of Colette’s works, and some wonderful photographs.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, December 15, 1990, p. 798.

Chicago Tribune. February 20, 1991, V, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, December 15, 1990, p. 1725.

Library Journal. CXV, November 1, 1990, p. 91.

The New Republic. CCV, November 18, 1991, p. 45.

New Statesman and Society. IV, March 8, 1991, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, February 24, 1991, p. 28.

The Observer. March 10, 1991, p. 60.

Publishers Weekly. CCLVII, December 14, 1990, p. 59.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 8, 1991, p. 10.