Last reviewed: June 2017
January 28, 1873
Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Burgundy, France
August 3, 1954
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
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.