Authors: Colette

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Novelist

January 28, 1873

Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Burgundy, France

August 3, 1954

Paris, France

Biography

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, one of the most famous French women writers of her era, was born in the Burgundian village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, where she and her brother, Léo (born 1868), grew up in a provincial country house full of books and animals, surrounded by a magnificent garden. Sido, Colette’s mother and the principal influence on her life, had a vast knowledge of plants and animals. In this atmosphere Colette developed a sensitivity toward nature, a quality she always associated both with innocence and with her mother’s home.

In 1890 the family moved to Châtillon-Coligny. There Colette met Henri Gauthier-Villars, or Willy, a bohemian publicist and raconteur whom she married in May 1893. Some scholars have postulated that Colette’s life and writing were dominated by the opposing forces embodied by Sido, who represented innocence, and those embodied by Willy, who represented experience.

Colette

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(Library of Congress)

In 1900 her first novel was published as Claudine at School under her husband’s pen name, Willy. Soon thereafter Willy began the practice of locking Colette in her room for four hours each day with an assigned number of pages to write. In 1904 she published Creature Conversations, her first book written under the name Colette Willy, a pseudonym she used until 1923. The book, composed of dialogues between her cat and her dog, was the first of several works based on animal themes.

Problems in her marriage, depicted by Colette in My Apprenticeships, led to the couple’s separation in 1906 and to their divorce in 1910. In 1906 Colette began performing in music halls to earn a living. A fictionalized chronicle of those years can be found in The Vagabond, The Shackle, and Mitsou. During her years on the vaudeville circuit she formed a romantic liaison with the marquise de Belboeuf (better known as Missy). In 1910 Colette met the future statesman Henri de Jouvenal, whom she married in 1912, the same year her beloved Sido died. Her daughter was born in 1913. When World War I broke out in Europe, Colette did volunteer work as a night nurse; she later was awarded membership in the Legion of Honor for her wartime activities.

During the 1920s Colette published some of her best literary works. These included My Mother’s House, Chéri, and The Last of Chéri. In the mid-1920s, after her divorce from Jouvenal, she met Maurice Goudeket, a pearl broker, to whom she was married in 1935. Although debilitating arthritis confined her to bed in 1942, during World War II she wrote two volumes of nonfiction, translated together as Looking Backwards. Her last work of fiction, Gigi, appeared in 1944; her last major book, The Blue Lantern, was published in 1949. Colette died on August 3, 1954. She was the first Frenchwoman to be given a state funeral with full honors.

All Colette’s novels and many of her short stories are devoted to an analysis of the relationship between men and women. She believed that the needs of men and women were both different and incompatible, that no real communication between the sexes was therefore possible, and that love and independence are, particularly for women, mutually exclusive. Whereas in many of her novels it is the woman whose independence is forfeited, in Duo, a late novel, the struggle between the sexes results in the man’s death.

A theme closely connected with sexual combat is Colette’s conviction that women rather than men are centered, connected to nature, and have a “taste for survival”—that is, a capacity to adapt to reality, absorb life’s shocks, and carry on with their lives. All of Colette’s woman protagonists live in the present. Lea in The Last of Chéri and Camille in The Cat, for example, face the collapse of their lives and adjust to the future. Chéri and Alain, however, attempt to recapture a lost past and enter a “kingdom of adult childhood” whose idyllic nature is modeled on Colette’s life in Sido’s home at Saint-Sauveur.

Nearly all Colette’s novels are short, feature crisp dialogue, and follow a standard form. Indeed, Chéri is often lauded as a model neoclassical novel. Colette seldom experimented with structure or technique in fiction, believing that the way to express abstract ideas such as truth or beauty is through precise descriptions of physical details filtered through sensation, impression, and memory.

Author Works Long Fiction Claudine à l’école, 1900 (Claudine at School, 1956) Claudine à Paris, 1901 (Claudine in Paris, 1958) Claudine en ménage, 1902 (The Indulgent Husband, 1935; also known as Claudine Married) Claudine s’en va, 1903 (The Innocent Wife, 1934; also known as Claudine and Annie) La Retraite sentimentale, 1907 (Retreat from Love, 1974) L’Ingénue Libertine, 1909 (The Gentle Libertine, 1931; also known as The Innocent Libertine) La Vagabonde, 1911 (The Vagabond, 1954) L’Entrave, 1913 (Recaptured, 1932; better known as The Shackle) Mitsou: Ou, Comment l’esprit vient aux filles, 1919 (Mitsou: Or, How Girls Grow Wise, 1930) Chéri, 1920 (English translation, 1929) Le Blé en herbe, 1923 (The Ripening Corn, 1931; also known as The Ripening Seed) La Fin de Chéri, 1926 (The Last of Chéri, 1932) La Naissance du jour, 1928 (A Lesson in Love, 1932; also known as Break of Day) La Seconde, 1929 (The Other One, 1931) La Chatte, 1933 (The Cat, 1936) Duo, 1934 (English translation, 1974; also known as The Married Lover) Le Toutounier, 1939 (English translation, 1974) Julie de Carneilhan, 1941 (English translation, 1952) Gigi, 1944 (English translation, 1952) Seven by Colette, 1955 (includes short fiction) Short Fiction Les Vrilles de la vigne, 1908 (The Tendrils of the Vine, 1983) L’Envers du music-hall, 1913 (Music-Hall Sidelights, 1957) La Chambre éclairée, 1920 La Femme cachée, 1924 (The Other Woman, 1971) Bella-Vista, 1937 (English translation, 1996) Chambre d’hôtel, 1940 (Chance Acquaintances, 1952) Le Képi, 1943 Gigi, et autres nouvelles, 1944 La Fleur de l’âge, 1949 (In the Flower of the Age, 1983) Paysage et portraits, 1958 The Stories of Colette, 1958 (also known as The Tender Shoot, and Other Stories) Contes des mille et un matins, 1970 (The Thousand and One Mornings, 1973) The Collected Stories of Colette, 1983 Drama Chéri, pb. 1922 (with Léopold Marchand; English adaptation, 1959) L’Enfant et les sortilèges, pb. 1925 (opera; music by Maurice Ravel; The Boy and the Magic, 1964) Gigi, pr., pb. 1952 (with Anita Loos; adaptation of her novel) Nonfiction Les Heures longues, 1914–1917, 1917 Dans la foule, 1918 Le Voyage egoïste, 1922 (Journey for Myself: Selfish Memoires, 1971) La Maison de Claudine, 1922 (My Mother’s House, 1953) Sido, 1929 (English translation, 1953) Histoires pour Bel-Gazou, 1930 Ces Plaisirs, 1932 (better known as Le Pur et l’impur, 1941 The Pure and the Impure, 1967) Paradis terrestres, 1932 Prisons et paradis, 1932 La Jumelle noire, 1934-1938 Mes apprentissages, 1936 (My Apprenticeships, 1957) Mes Cahiers, 1941 Journal à rebours, 1941, and De ma fenêtre, 1942 (translated together as Looking Backwards, 1975) Flore et Pomone, 1943 Nudité, 1943 Trois . . . Six . . . Neuf, 1944 Belles saisons, 1945 Une Amitié inattendue: Correspondance de Colette et de Francis Jammes, 1945 L’Étoile vesper, 1946 (The Evening Star, 1973) Pour un herbier, 1948 (For a Flower Album, 1959) Le Fanal bleu, 1949 (The Blue Lantern, 1963) Places, 1970 (in English; includes short sketches unavailable in a French collection) Letters from Colette, 1980 Animal Vignettes and Dialogues Dialogues de bêtes, 1904 (Creature Conversations, 1951) Sept dialogues de bêtes, 1905 (Barks and Purrs, 1913) Prrou, Poucette, et quelques autres, 1913 (Other Creatures, 1951) La paix chez les bêtes, 1916 (revision of Prrou, Poucette, et quelques autres; Cats, Dogs, and I, 1924) Douze dialogues de bêtes, 1930 (Creatures Great and Small, 1951) Chats, 1936 Splendeur des papillons, 1937 Chats de Colette, 1949 Miscellaneous Œuvres complètes de Colette, 1948–1950 (15 volumes) The Works, 1951–1964 (17 volumes) Bibliography Crosland, Margaret. Colette: A Provincial in Paris. British Book Centre, 1954. A very appreciative biography, written while Crosland was much under the spell of Colette’s personality. During her preparation of the book, Crosland often visited Colette and her third husband in their Palais-Royal apartment. She states in the introduction that one of her purposes is to convince others of Colette’s greatness. Crosland, Margaret. Colette: The Difficulty of Loving. Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. Critical biography analyzes the subject’s work as well as her life. Janet Flanner, long a commentator on the French scene, contributes an interesting introduction. Supplemented with a chronology and a bibliography of works by and about Colette. Cummins, Laurel. “Reading in Colette: Domination, Resistance, Autonomy.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 20, no. 2, 1996, pp. 451–65. Argues that when Colette’s characters engage in reading, a dynamic of domination and resistance is established; the father’s censoring intervention debilitates, but the mother’s model of reading as dialogue and resistance empowers. Eisinger, Erica Mendelson, and Mari Ward McCarty, eds. Colette: The Woman, the Writer. Pennsylvania State UP, 1981. Collection of essays is divided into sections on Colette’s early development as a writer, the relationship between gender and genre in her work, and her exploration of a feminist aesthetic. Contributors draw extensively on feminist scholarship and on studies of the ways female writers use language and relate to their roles as women writers. Includes an informative introduction and an index. Francis, Claude, and Fernande Gontier. Creating Colette. Steerforth Press, 1998–9. 2 vols. Comprehensive biography of Colette. The first volume chronicles the first forty years of her life and stresses the importance of her African ancestry and maternal family background in understanding her work. The second volume covers the years from 1912 to her death in 1954. Includes bibliographical references and index. Gilmour, Jane. Colette's France: Her Lives, Her Loves. Hardie Grant Books, 2013. A charming illustrated biography of Colette that explores the landscapes and houses where Colette lived but lacks academic analysis of her works. Holmes, Diana. Colette. St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Notes how Colette’s fiction deals with female sexuality, domestic life, and the problems of working women in a man’s world. Argues that Colette’s stories need to be judged by female critics and asserts that the stories are open-ended and thus innovative for their time. Huffer, Lynne. Another Colette: The Question of Gendered Writing. U of Michigan P, 1992. Chapters on Colette’s maternal model, her use of fictions and “phallacies,” her handling of sexual performance, and her role as writer. Includes notes and bibliography. Kristeva, Julia. Colette. Translated by Jane Marie Todd, Columbia UP, 2004. Scholarly critique of Colette’s life and work. Kristeva, a Parisian professor of linguistics, examines Colette’s life from a psychoanalytical perspective, maintaining that Colette’s “writing itself appears as a substitute for erotic pleasure and the text as a fetish.” Ladenson, Elisabeth. “Colette for Export Only.” Yale French Studies, no. 90, 1996, pp. 25–46. Discusses lesbian desire in Colette’s fiction; argues that lesbian episodes in Colette’s work have been distorted by American critics who have suggested lesbianism where bisexuality would have been more appropriate. Lottman, Herbert. Colette: A Life. Little, Brown, 1991. The twenty-four photographs included in this text help to bring to life the pursuits and notoriety of Colette. Particularly valuable as complements to this reliable but rather matter-of-fact and sketchy biography are the photographs of Colette and Willy at table, Colette and her bulldog Toby-Chien, Colette in her Egyptian Dream theatrical costume, Sido at sixty, Henri de Jouvenel, Bel-Gazou, and two views of Colette with Maurice Goudeket. Lottman’s list of Colette’s works in the chronology of their publication is useful, but he omits the posthumous publications. Marks, Elaine. Colette. Rutgers UP, 1960. An examination, insofar as possible, of the relationship of Colette’s works to her life. Begins from the premise that Colette’s books totally lack analogues in philosophy and politics, asserting that they are informed by a highly personal moral admonition, summed up in the term regarde—look, experience, feel. Mitchell, Yvonne. Colette: A Taste for Life. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. Biography makes the argument that, although some of her readers found her choice of subject matter objectionable or even depraved, Colette was instinctively deeply moral. She accepted no arbitrary hierarchies, choosing instead to be led by the life force and her five senses. Includes a chronology, a bibliography, notes, and an index—all extensive. Phelps, Robert. Colette: Earthly Paradise. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966. Phelps, who has elsewhere compiled the best collection of Colette’s short fiction in English translation, has in this collection put together an autobiography of Colette “drawn from the writings of her lifetime.” The eighteen pages of his foreword and chronology contain a superb introduction to Colette’s career. The materials of the text are judiciously selected and arranged; they include translations of segments of Belles saisons and Les Heures longues. Richardson, Joanna. Colette. Franklin Watts, 1984. The first full-scale biography of Colette written in English by a scholar steeped in French literature. Richardson had access to Colette’s papers and cooperation from her family. Includes illustrations, notes, and bibliography. Rogers, Juliette M. “The ‘Counter-Public Sphere’: Colette’s Gendered Collective.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 111, 1996, pp. 734–46. Argues that although Colette claimed she was apolitical, her works are often grounded in social practices and familial relationships of French everyday life in the time in which she wrote. Argues that Colette incorporates feminist notions of the development of identity through a concept of community, a gendered collective that defines itself against society as a whole. Sarde, Michèle. Colette: Free and Fettered. Translated by Richard Miller, William Morrow, 1980. Study of Colette’s life and work. Bibliographical appendixes are thoroughly practical, including posthumous publications and the translator’s additions, with considerable assistance from the Gibbard chronology, of available English translations. Southworth, Helen. The Intersecting Realities and Fictions of Virginia Woolf and Colette. Ohio State UP, 2004. Argues that although the two authors lived in different countries, there were similarities in their lives, literary styles, and the themes of their works. Places the two subjects within the context of a group of early twentieth century artists and writers and describes Woolf’s contacts with France and Colette’s connections with British and American writers. Stewart, Joan Hinde. Colette. Twayne, 1996. Provides discussion of how Colette emerged as a writer, her apprenticeship years, the erotic nature of her novels, and her use of dialogue. Includes chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography. Strand, Dana. Colette: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne, 1995. Explores Colette’s treatment of mothers and daughters, women and men, gender role playing, old age, morality, reality, and the artist. A separate section explores her view of herself as a writer, and a third section includes commentary by her important critics. A chronology and bibliography make this a very useful research tool. Strand, Dana. “The ‘Third Woman’ in Colette’s ‘Chance Acquaintances.’” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 29l, 1992, 499–508. Argues that in “Chance Acquaintances” Colette fashions a story that, despite a male plot structure, veers significantly from the masculine model. The writer who becomes the reluctant confidant of the wayward husband in the story is Colette herself, whose perspective reveals the inadequacies of generally accepted gender differences. Thurman, Judith. Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Presents an admiring but nevertheless candid account of the life and times of Colette, helping to place her work in a larger context. Wescott, Glenway. Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism. Harper and Row, 1962. Chapter 4, “An Introduction to Colette,” is reprinted from Short Novels of Colette (1951) and from Westcott’s introduction to Break of Day. Chapter 5, “A Call on Colette and Goudeket,” and chapter 4 provide valuable observations of the methods and person of Colette. Chapter 5 is quite moving in its details of the reception that Wescott received from a very ill Colette only two years before her death. During the visit, Colette said that The Pure and the Impure was her best book.

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