Snippets of French History: great writers. Colette.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Colette, although quite an ordinary first name in France, it was in this case the family surname) was born in Burgundy in January 1873. She has gone down in history as one of the “greats” because she was the first French woman to be given a state funeral; she was very active in writing about the rights of women in a world dominated by men; she wrote over 30 novels and novellas as well as many journalistic pieces, and essays. Her best-known novel is “Gigi”. I recall devouring her books when I was in my teens – about 500 years ago.
Sidonie was born in to a comfortably-off family. Her father was a tax collector and she was close to her mother. As far as I am aware she was an only child. She stayed at school till she was seventeen, which was unusual for those days. Mismanagement of money meant that the family was poor by the time Sidonie left home to marry, aged twenty, in 1893.
Her husband was Henri Gauthier-Villars, otherwise known as “Willy”, an already well-established author fifteen years older than his bride. Willy was a notorious philanderer and libertine, and he introduced Colette to the risque intellectuals and artists of Paris. He encouraged her to try out lesbian relationships – which she did. During her years with Willy, Colette wrote four stories, “Claudine a l’Ecole” (Claudine at school), “Claudine a Paris”, “Claudine en Menage” (translated in to English as Claudine Married, though it in fact means Claudine in her own household) and finally “Claudine s’en Va” (translated as Claudine and Annie, though it means Claudine Leaves).
The marriage was doomed to failure and the couple separated in 1906 after over twelve years together. Unhappily, Colette’s four Claudine books were written and published under Willy’s name and she had no rights to any of the income from them.
Almost destitute she went in to acting, making barely enough to stay alive. She moved in to an apartment with a fellow actress, with whom she had a long-lasting lesbian relationship.
In 1910 Colette decided to use her surname as her nom-de-plume and thenceforth was always known simply by that name. She wrote “La Vagabonde”, which was about women in a male-dominated society. It was hugely successful.
In 1912 she married Henri de Jouvenal and they had a daughter who they named Colette, which was a nice touch. However, the marriage fell apart in 1924 when Colette (Sidonie, that is) had a blatant affair with her sixteen year-old stepson, her own child’s half-brother. Her book “Cheri” (darling) recounts elements of the affair.
In 1925 Colette married her third and final husband, Maurice Goudeket, who was sixteen years younger. They lived in Paris through the war. Infact, Maurice was Jewish and was arrested by the Gestapo, but Colette was by now very influential and had friends in the right places. She secured his release and – unbelievably – they remained in Paris but the constant fear of the Gestapo coming back took its toll on her.
Colette is recognized as an important voice in women’s writing, their rights and sexuality and their role within society. In old age she became crippled with arthritis and was devoutly cared for by Maurice. She died in her apartment in 1954, aged eighty-one.
by Catherine Broughton
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