Walking past the Moulin Rouge on the evening of January 3, 1907, passers-by encountered riots bleeding onto the streets of Paris. The cause of this unrest: an onstage kiss between French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and her lover Mathilde de Morny, an aristocrat otherwise known as “Missy.” Opening night proved to be the only performance of Egyptian Dream, as police promptly shut the production down.
The writer at the center of this scandal—a woman who used the patronymic Colette to command respect—was a trailblazer of French literature. She published more than 30 books, reported on the front lines of World War I, received a Nobel Prize nomination and served as the first woman president of the prestigious Académie Goncourt literary organization. Known for her depictions of female sexuality and astute yet lighthearted social commentary on the everyday lives of young women, Colette was a figure ahead of her time.
“Unlike many other women writers in all countries, she never campaigned, never attacked or defended any cause of public interest,” wrote biographer Margaret Crosland in 1973. “Her aggressive strength was used in describing the varying tensions in personal relationships, evoking the material world as she saw it, adding the descant of her memory, perfecting an instrument of style, resisting any attempt to make moral judgments.”
Born in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in Burgundy on January 28, 1873, Colette spent much of her early life close to home. Raised by a mother on whom she was overly dependent and a father she felt she never truly knew, Colette attended “a secular public school as part of the first generation of girls formed by the secular instructional revolution of the 1870s,” says Patricia Tilburg, a historian at Davidson College and the author of Colette’s Republic: Work, Gender and Popular Culture in France, 1870-1914. Comparatively, most of the writer’s literary contemporaries attended private Catholic schools.
Tilburg adds, “[Colette’s] literature from the first decade of the 20th century spoke to that new generation of French women.”
In 1893, Colette moved to Paris, where she would eventually form a freer, more androgynous identity. The change in venue wasn’t entirely her choice. To help solve her family’s financial troubles, Colette married Henry Gauthier-Villars, a writer 14 years her senior better known by the pen name Willy. His literary talents were largely a facade, with ghostwriters producing much of the content attributed to him.
As early as 1894 or 1895, financial instability led Willy to recruit his new wife as one of these ghostwriters. “You should put some memories about the primary school on paper,” he reportedly told her. “Don’t be afraid of piquant details, I might perhaps be able to make something of them.” While initially dismissive of Colette’s drafts, Willy later rediscovered the journals she had written and took them to a publisher. These manuscripts became Colette’s first novel, Claudine at School. Published in 1900, the book was an immediate hit, winning accolades for its realistic portrayal of a schoolgirl in the throes of puberty.
The Claudine character represented a new, subversive form of femininity; as Wash Westmoreland, director of the 2018 biopic Colette, told History Extra in 2019, she was “really the first sort of feisty, female teenage voice in literature.” By the publication of the fourth Claudine novel in 1903, many critics presumed that Colette, who was familiar to the public as Willy’s wife, was the author of the series due to its semi-autobiographical tone. One such critic, Rachilde (a friend of Colette’s), made subtle references to this suspicion in a review of Claudine, writing, “Here is a true book. … Claudine is not a novel, not a thesis, not a diary. … She is the total woman screaming at the top of her voice about her puberty, her desires, her will and, yes, her crimes.”
According to Crosland, Willy’s main contribution to the four Claudine novels was to “soften and ‘feminize’ what his wife had written.” Yet the series was published under his name, giving him the profits and rights to Colette’s creation. Somewhat ironically, Tilburg points out in her book, “in 1907, the same year that Colette’s husband sold all rights to the Claudine novels without her consent, a law was passed in France giving married women control of their earnings.” (Colette successfully sued to reclaim sole authorship of the Claudine series after Willy’s death in 1931, but following her own death in 1954, Willy’s son with another woman, Jacques Gauthier-Villars, petitioned to restore his father’s name to the books’ title pages.)
As Claudine’s popularity grew, Willy placed increasing pressure on Colette, supposedly locking her in a room until she had written the next installment. He also launched an extensive range of Claudine-themed products, from perfume to lingerie to cigarettes.
Colette herself, says Kathleen Antonioli, a scholar of French literature at Kansas State University, was a “marketing genius.” She became a semi-celebrity, “very aware of the power of reputation,” able to market Claudine through exploits like walking the streets of Paris while dressed as the character.
Antonioli adds that Colette “biographically and politically distanced herself very explicitly from feminism,” maintaining her popularity among the literary elite, “even within right-wing publications,” and ensuring her work “sold well [to] readers across a political spectrum in France.”
As Tilburg explains, “[Colette] wrote for ‘New Women’ at the turn of the century—not by promoting feminist political action and suffrage, which she actually demonstrated some disdain for, but [by presenting] a new vision of what women’s lives, particularly middle-class women’s lives, could be in France in this period.” (The New Woman was an independent, free-spirited and sexually adventurous ideal that emerged at the end of the 19th century.)
Willy’s exploitation of Colette, combined with extramarital affairs on both their parts, took its toll on their marriage. The pair separated in 1906, prompting Colette—who received no royalties for the Claudine books—to pursue a career on the stage as a way of asserting her financial independence.
Around the time of the separation, Colette embarked on a passionate affair with Missy, a niece of Napoleon III and perhaps the illegitimate granddaughter of Nicholas I of Russia. Like Colette, who included an openly lesbian relationship between a school headmistress and her assistant in the Claudine novels, Missy defied societal conventions, dressing as a man and “very much [embracing] masculinity” as an identity, Westmoreland told History Extra.
Missy’s aristocratic status protected the couple, who managed to live together in relative peace despite the stigma associated with same-sex relationships during the early 20th century. It was only after their kiss at the Moulin Rouge that Missy and Colette were forced into secrecy.
While Colette continued writing during this period, her main focus was theater, particularly the art of mime. In November 1907, she starred in The Flesh, a pantomime in which she bared her left breast on stage, prompting her mother to ask, “How do you dare pose practically naked?” Blending both of her creative passions, Colette wrote stories set behind the scenes of music halls, “giving a voice to the underpaid women performers who featured so often from a male perspective in paintings and novels of the time,” noted Diana Holmes, an expert on French women writers at the University of Leeds in England, in an essay for the Conversation in 2019.
Colette and Willy officially divorced in 1910. That same year, the writer published her first novel under her own name, The Vagabond. Colette’s relationship with Missy ended in 1911. She went on to wed twice more, first in 1912 to Henry de Jouvenel, editor of the newspaper Le Matin, and then in 1935 to Maurice Goudeket, a businessman and writer whom she remained married to until her death in 1954.
It was in the 1920s that Colette was first recognized as a significant figure in the French literary canon. As Antonioli says, “People always liked and admired Colette, but after [World War I], with this need to consolidate French identity, Colette really becomes a classique,” or classic.
The 1920s and ’30s were the “most prolific and innovative” of Colette’s career, writes Bethany Ladimer in Colette, Beauvoir and Duras: Age and Women Writers. Her 1920 novel Chéri, which sold 30,000 copies by the fall of its first year in print, centered on Léa de Lonval, a courtesan in a sexual relationship with a man almost half her age. In a clear example of art mirroring life, the book came out around the same time as Colette’s affair with her 16-year-old stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel.
According to Tilburg’s book, “Colette’s life and work in this period … made claims for sexual, financial and social autonomy that harmonized with the demands of the New Woman.”
Colette’s second marriage ended in 1924, in part due to her affair with de Jouvenel’s son. She began writing for a variety of newspapers, magazines and journals, publishing over 1,200 articles, the majority between the 1920s and ’40s. During World War II, she attracted criticism for collaborating with the Nazi-installed Vichy regime and publishing a novel filled with anti-Semitic slurs.
The war years also saw Colette publish perhaps her best-known work, the 1944 novella Gigi, which follows a Parisian girl training to become a courtesan while embarking on a relationship with a wealthy man named Gaston.
Gigi became especially popular after its adaptation for the stage in 1951, with Audrey Hepburn in the title role. A 1958 film adaptation featuring Leslie Caron as Gigi went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Reflecting the frank manner in which Colette wrote about relationships and sexuality, the movie finds Gigi unashamedly asking Gaston, “Do you make love all the time?”
It is Chéri and Gigi that perhaps capture the adult Colette best. In these novels, she explores the everyday issues that women face, from their relationships with men to their fears about aging and isolation. Discussions of female desire, whether it be for men, sex, financial independence or general autonomy, are a staple of her literature, as is the presence of fully fleshed-out female characters. Describing Chéri’s mother, for instance, she writes:
For a moment, in the eyes of her son, Madame Peloux took on her true character, which is to say that he judged her at her worth, appreciated her as she was, fiery, devouring, calculating and reckless all at once, like a great financier, capable of taking delight in her cruelty like a humorist.
Colette died on August 3, 1954, at age 81. While the Catholic Church refused to mark her death on account of her status as a two-time divorcee, she became the first woman author in France to receive a state funeral. Goudeket, for his part, honored his late wife with a plaque at her home that reads, “Here lived, here died Colette, whose work is a window wide open on life.”
While Colette never personally identified as a feminist, even going so far as to say that suffragists deserved “the whip and the harem,” she owes much of her contemporary fame—particularly in the United States—to the feminist movement. Her focus on women’s issues and everyday struggles ensured her inclusion in feminist anthologies. The English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal 1949 book, The Second Sex, mentions Colette 21 times, making her the most-cited writer in the text. As Antonioli argues, “Colette doesn’t get to decide if she was a feminist or not.”
Colette’s legacy has endured well into the 21st century. Rue Colette, a street in her hometown of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, features her signature on a sign. Her childhood home opened to the public in 2016 after an extensive renovation. Most recently, Keira Knightley portrayed the writer in the 2018 film Colette, which co-starred Dominic West as Willy and Denise Gough as Missy. Antonioli goes so far as to suggest that “Colette is better known [today] than many of her male contemporaries,” particularly in the U.S. She adds, “In the last year alone, there have been two new translations of Chéri and La Fin de Chéri.”
It is Colette’s 1907 performance with Missy that is “an iconic moment” for Tilburg, capturing her years on the stage, during which “she [was] really living a life with radical import.”
To summarize Colette’s appeal in another way, as journalist and author Janet Flanner did in the introduction to Crosland’s 1973 biography:
Colette wrote only about what she knew. When she began, what she knew was in truth only her own life. So that is what she almost exclusively wrote about. … Her imagination was used in the creation of her style of writing what she wrote, which was her fortunate limitation and the definition of what eventually became her recognized and singular authentic literary genius.