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The life of French writer Colette

PUBLISHED: 10:40 22 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:40 22 February 2018

French writer Colette in 1906 during her music hall career © La Maison de Colette

French writer Colette in 1906 during her music hall career © La Maison de Colette

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Famous as the author of Gigi, French writer Colette attracted much controversy during her long life

Colette's childhood home in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye © Memnom / CC BY-SA 4.0Colette's childhood home in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye © Memnom / CC BY-SA 4.0

From her birth in 1873 in Burgundy until she died in 1954 in the heart of Paris, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette lived many lives. Celebrated writer of around 80 works, Gigi, The Vagabond and more; journalist and reviewer; music-hall star; even beautician. Colette is perhaps best known for living precisely as she pleased.

Colette was born in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in the Yonne department. Her beloved mother Sidonie, or Sido, had an enormous influence on Colette’s life, and appears, along with her siblings and childhood home, in her writing. “It was her mother who taught her the importance of really looking, of observing,” explains Elisabeth Ledroit, director of the Musée Colette.

When the family ran into financial trouble and lost their house, Colette, aged 18, moved in with her brother, a doctor. The future looked difficult – she was intelligent and beautiful but penniless. Enter Henry Gauthier-Villars, a journalist writing under the name of Willy. They married, and Colette was whisked to Paris where she met writers, artists, politicians and libertines – a world that she was soon to make her own.

Her husband soon noticed Colette’s literary talent, and made her write the famous Claudine novels – which would have brought her literary renown sooner if Willy had not insisted on having the books published under his name. He not only kept the credit, but the royalties too.

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Colette in 1907 © Leopold-Emile Reutlinger / Public domainColette in 1907 © Leopold-Emile Reutlinger / Public domain

She left him in 1906, and became a performer in the capital’s music halls – as one of the characters says in her 1910 novel, The Vagabond, the story of a divorcee who becomes a dancer: “What else could I do? Needlework, typing, streetwalking? Music hall is a profession for those who have never learned one.”

Later when her talents had truly made her name, Colette was caught up in the financial crisis of the 1930s. In an effort to fill holes left by falling book sales, Colette launched a cosmetics business, working with a chemist to create her own products. “It was very professionally done,” explains her biographer Gérard Bonal, co-author of Colette and Colette Intime. “She toured France, visiting 30 towns to demonstrate her products, and setting up a room in Saint-Tropez.” The enterprise didn’t last, but Colette simply moved on to the next idea.

She also tried her hand at advertising, writing copy and often appearing in photographs endorsing products. Was she concerned that people would say she was selling out? Not at all. “She simply didn’t care what people said about her,” says Bonal.

Her attitude was the same in love. “She was completely ahead of her time,” says Ledroit. She married twice after her divorce. Her marriage to Henry de Jouvenel, with whom she had a daughter Colette de Jouvenel, broke up after she seduced her teenage stepson. She had numerous relationships with women, most notably, Mathilde de Morny, or Missy.

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Colette’s life spanned the belle époque and both world wars, and she was no stranger to hardship and worry. Her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, who was Jewish, was arrested in 1941 and, although he was subsequently released, the anxiety of living with the Nazi occupation was huge.

Colette died on 3 August 1954 in her apartment in the Palais-Royal, aged 81. She was given a state funeral, and burial at Père Lachaise cemetery, having been, it would seem, faithful to her own words: “I love my past. I love my present. I’m not ashamed of what I’ve had, and I’m not sad because I have it no longer.”

If you want to discover more about Colette...

The Maison de Colette in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye © Memnom CC BY-SA 4.0The Maison de Colette in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye © Memnom CC BY-SA 4.0

La Maison de Colette, Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye

The bourgeois house where Colette lived until the age of 18 has been lovingly restored and is open for guided visits between April and October.

Musée Colette, Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye

This museum dedicated to the life and words of Colette is housed in the château of her home village.

Les Jardins de Colette, Corrèze

Flower-filled themed gardens in Varetz, near Brive-la-Gaillarde, which knit together literature and nature, and reflect the different areas where she stayed and worked.

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