It’s the birthday of the French novelist Colette, (books by this author) born Sidonie Gabrielle Colette in Saint-Sauver-en-Puisaye, France (1873). She is best known as the author of Cheri (1920) and Gigi (1945), but Colette published over 50 novels in her lifetime, many of them autobiographical.
Colette’s first books are known as the Claudine series, and they were published under the name “Willy,” which was the pen name of her first husband. These books follow the improper adventures of a young French woman. According to one story, her husband would lock Colette in a room until she had written enough words. This treatment, while cruel, also meant that Colette wrote four novels in four years.
Colette began working in the music halls of Paris when she divorced her husband. She became the talk of Paris for baring a breast on stage. She caused a riot at the Moulin Rouge for doing a pantomime of sexual intercourse during a sketch. It was also during this time that Colette began having affairs with women, as she would do between marriages throughout her life. She became involved with her manager, a woman known as “Missy,” who was also a niece of Napoleon III.
When World War I broke out in Europe, Colette began working as a freelance journalist, but she also converted her home into a hospital for the war wounded. She remarried and gave birth to a daughter, who later claimed that her parents had neglected her. Colette also had a mysterious relationship with her stepson, and many people speculated that they had an affair. The publication of Cheri in 1920 only fueled that speculation. It is the story of an aging woman engaging in an affair with a young, inexperienced man.
The publication of Cheri also brought Colette great fame as a writer. By the end of the 1920s, Colette was widely regarded as France’s greatest woman writer. She became the first woman admitted to the prestigious Goncourt Academy, and in her later years, she achieved the same legendary status as Gertrude Stein, the American expatriate living in Paris.
In 1935, Colette married her third husband, a pearl salesman who had lost his business in the Depression. He was Jewish and as a result had difficulty finding work. Colette supported him financially and helped him hide when Germany occupied France in World War II. Colette’s most famous novel, Gigi, was published in 1945, when she was 72 years old. Three years later the novel was adapted into a film, and in 1958 it was adapted into a popular musical.
When Colette died in 1954, she was given a state funeral, and thousands of mourners attended the service.
Colette said, “By means of an image we are often able to hold on to our lost belongings. But it is the desperateness of losing which picks the flowers of memory, binds the bouquet.”
Several CML patrons include Colette’s autobiography, Earthly Paradise, on their Top Ten List. I’ve just purchased it for the library. We also have Secrets of the Flesh, a recent well-reviewed biography of Colette by Judith Thurman.