Profiles of Courage

Colette: Irreverent Writer and Free Woman

 

“We never look enough,” she lamented,

“never exactly enough, never passionately enough.”

 

 

Who is Colette, the real French writer and performer at the centre of the biopic starring Keira Knightley?

What I first loved about Colette is he life-long refusal to be confined to any box her contemporary society wanted to her to fit in. She was a writer and also a mime, an actress, a journalist, a beauty entrepreneur. She was married three times and had a lesbian affair in-between marriages. She was a hermaphrodite when women were still considered to be minors their entire lifetime. It was not until 1914 that a woman earned the legal status of adulthood. Until then, her husband still managed her assets, she couldn’t sign contracts, and she had no access to higher education.

 

 

Colette scandalized the Belle Epoque crowd of Paris with her lesbian affairs and men clothing when Society was barely tolerating pants for women. Her husband, who was 15 years her senior, would take credit for her Claudine book series, a massive hit in 1900 France. She was eccentric and daring. A bohemian and a business woman. A lesbian and a mother. Who was Colette, the French avant-garde renaissance woman?

Here is the story of a woman ahead of her time, who came into her voice and body when female  independence was a societal sin.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born on January 28, 1873 in Puisaye, a tiny town in Burgundy. Her mother, Sidonie Landoy, a very intelligent, energetic, and cultured woman for her time was born in Paris in 1835. She married Robineau-Duclos, a kind farmer who later died and left “Sido” a widow. She then remarried Colette’s father, Jules-Joseph Colette.

A soldier in the Crimea war and the Italian war consecutively, Colette’s father was seriously injured in battle, and had his left leg amputated. He was an attentive, galant, also energetic man. The young Colette quickly developed a love of knowledge as the bohemian family had a very large library in their home, something not so common in a middle-class family during the 19th century.

Her dad nicknamed her “Gabri”. He opened her to the world of books and her mother transmitted her love of freedom, her passion for all expressions of life, and her reverence for nature. Colette’s happy and a bit wild childhood instilled in her a natural love for animals, a steady sense of observation, and a deep sense of sensuality. Sensuality was second nature to her. She loved being in nature, in the woods. She earned her middle school certificate with excelling notes in writing and subsequently began writing short stories. The late 1880s turned out to be really hard for the Colette family as they had to sell a lot of their furniture after an accountant mismanaged her mother’s inheritance.

When she was 14, she fell in love with her father’s friend, Henri Gauthier-Villars, also knowns as Willy, a widow with a child from his defunct wife. He was 14 years older than Colette and came from a wealthy family: his father was the founder of one of the largest publishing houses of scientific books in France. He worked with his father before moving into the field of journalism and literature. Will was very intelligent and well-learned: he could even write essays in latin. He had always wanted to become a romantic novelist but his imagination was lacking and became more of a technical writer. He resorted to an intimate literary circle of writers who would write lightweight novels for him.

In 1891, Willy proposed to Sidonie but the engagement lasted a long time because his family wanted him to marry a wealthy heiress. Young Sidonie had no dowry. They married two years later in Mai 1893…in a humble ceremony. They didn’t go on a honeymoon because Willy was without a dime to his name at the time. The young married couple made an artistic home in Paris. So impressed with his mundane circle and lifestyle back in the city of lights, she began to become one of them, going out with the most elitist artistic circles that included Proust, Ravel, Debussy. She was learning the Parisian art of masking her true persona, masquerading to impress and garner attention, the subtle of dissimulating the self that did not serve the mood she was in.

 

According to Judith Thurman, author of Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, “the more popular the books got, the more the couple quarreled over adding her name as an author. They eventually agreed to “Willy and Colette Willy.” Publishers wouldn’t remove his name from the series until well after his death in 1931.”

 

 

Shortly after moving to Paris, Colette quickly discovered that her husband was having regular extramarital affairs, something he considered to be a “sport of good hygiene”. One of his mistresses even gave him a child and wrote Colette a letter to enlighten the new bride.
After contracting a serious infection in 1894 that would keep her in bed for over two months, Colette rediscovered her inclination towards writing. She started writing articles as a musical critic under the name of Colette Gauthier-Villars. She wrote them in collaboration with Willy, who immediately saw her talent, and taught her to hone it with exactitude, rigor, and discipline. She never really enjoyed the act of sitting down to write. She preferred socializing, cooking, gardening, the sexual liberty of living in the countryside — but her talent was real.

Here comes the famous Claudine series…the book that was originally written the pen name of her exploiting husband. The books took Paris by storm even though Colette wouldn’t get credit for it until many years later their apparition. 

In 1894, Willy, fascinated by her memories as a young girl told her to start writing all her memories from elementary school, even the most daring details…”the funds are low,” he said. They needed money and he saw unusual talent in his wife; fictional writing skills he only dreamt of having. She was bored in Paris anyway so she decided to complete the manuscript. In 1899, Willy revised, edited, and signed the manuscript with his own name: “If it is edited, then I shall sign it. It will sell. We are going to be rich my dear!”

The book, Claudine, became an overnight success as soon as it was published: it sold 40,000 copies its first month. A year after Claudine, Willy forced Colette to return to writing. She started working on CLAUDINE IN PARIS. It became a successful play directed by Willy. Colette cut her hair short as to look like the actress who played Claudine. She started a nation-wide trend without knowing it. 

In 1903, Colette wrote a column as a musical critic in a Parisian newspaper, Gil Blas. That same year, she left Willy to go live with some friends. She finally wrote the first book that would be under her own name, Colette Willy. In 1905, she started taking dance and acting lessons as she wanted to provide for her “own meal, her own dress, her own rent.” She had suffered too much from being stuck under the wing of her husband. That’s when met an important woman in her life, Mathilde de Morny, French noblewoman and artist. Also known as “Missy”, de Morny was a virile lesbian, smoked the cigar, and had undergone surgery to remove her reproductive organs and breasts. During the ten years they were together, Missy and Colette never left each other’s side. Colette had found someone who understood her solitude and her artistic soul. Missy also offered her a certain protection that she had never felt before. Colette was already famous thanks to Claudine, her marital denouements, her relationship with Missy, her physique and talent of mime so it was easy for Colette to get theatrical gigs.

 

 

 

When Colette and Missy kissed on stage after performing Rêve d’Égypte at the Moulin Rouge in 1907, the police were called in to control the crowds and riots caused by the scandalous kiss. 

 

 

 

In September 1907, Willy sold the rights to the “Claudine” series and his marriage to Colette was formally dissolved. Already rich with experiences, the 33-year-old libertine was stepping into the limelight of her meteoric career.

In December 1912, she married the second of her three husbands, Henri de Jouvenel. She gave birth to their daughter the following Summer, that she named Colette. The young girl would be raised by a nanny in a castle in the Correze region of France and rarely saw her mother growing up. Over the next fifteen years, Colette divorced de Jouvenel, toured around Europe producing plays, writing several books, and fell in love again with Maurice Goudeket, a journalist and writer who would later become her third husband. They lived together for ten years before officializing their union — he was 46 and she 62. He was Jewish and was caught by the Gestapo in 1941. And although Colette negotiated his freedom in 1942, he had to stay hidden in a maid room until the liberation in 1945.

In the Summer months of 1942, Colette wrote Gigi, a novel that tells the story of a young Parisian girl being groomed for a career as a courtesan and her relationship with the wealthy cultured man named Gaston who falls in love with her and eventually marries her. Just as previous Colette novellas, the woman conquers the world and wins over men. She completes the novel in 1944 and it was adapted for a play on Broadway in 1951.

 

 

When bound to a wheelchair along the Monaco seafront, Colette spotted a waifish beauty wearing a one-piece black swimsuit. “Voilà ma Gigi!” she reportedly exclaimed to her husband. “She seemed to have a line drawn around her, the way some only children have,” Loos later said. “Whatever she did, she stood out.” There was only one problem: young Audrey Hepburn had never spoken onstage before. But with her inimitable, child-like charm, she was immediately acclaimed by critics: “Her quality is so winning and so right that she is the success of the evening,” gushed The New York Times.

 

 

 

During the last few years of her life, severe arthritis confined Colette to her “bed-raft”, a lit-radeau, a table specially designed to fit over her bed (a la Frida Kahlo). She died one sultry morning in August of 1954. She was 81. She was the first woman in France to receive an official state funeral.

 

 

References:

Thurman, Judith. Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (Ballantine Books (October 31, 2000). 

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