Sidonie Gabrielle Colette
Colette's world was one of the senses. She wrote with equal authority about flowers and insects, the life of the demi-monde, and the pleasures of the table.
Born in 1873, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, was a child of France's Third Republic, a period in which bourgeois respectability was often at odds with the strange passions which seem to arise at the end of centuries. By her own account, her childhood was happy. She was the youngest of four, the two eldest being children of her mother’s first marriage. All the children tended to be solitary creatures, and much of Colette’s early life was influenced more by her parents, and by the natural world of plants and animals, than by her peers. Much of her writing was influenced by these early years, and many of her beautiful essays can be found in the volume entitled The Earthly Paradise, edited by Phelps.
Colette's marriage to the older, sophisticated, Henry Gauthier-Villars was not a match approved of by her parents. However, Colette was a determined young woman and she married Villars, known more commonly as “Willy” when she was twenty, and went off to live with him in Paris. Willy was chronically unfaithful to his young wife, even in the first year of their marriage, and in Paris, among Willy’s circle, Colette found herself in an alien world. Willy kept a "factory" of poor writers who churned out pages of both fiction and nonfiction to which he put his own name. Though she had never written anything before, Willy urged Colette to try her hand at it. Schoolgirl memories, he suggested, and racy, if possible. Colette obliged with "Claudine at School," which Willy eventually published under his own name. It was an immediate sensation, and he began to press Colette for more. Colette wrote four Claudines for Willy, as well as "Minne" and "Les Egarements de Minne." Finally in 1904, four years after the publication of the first Claudine, Colette published "Dialogues de bêtes" under the name "Colette Willy" which she would use as a pen name for nearly a decade.
In 1907 Colette applied for a legal separation. In order to support herself, she kept writing, but it was difficult to make a living that way, especially as most of her books had been published under Willy's name. She derived a regular income from stage work, though she was never more than an adequate actress. In 1910, she divorced Willy and in the same year met Henri de Jouvenel, who would become her second husband. Although at the time she met Jouvenel, she was romantically involved with several people, by autumn of 1911, she was living with de Jouvenel. They were married in late 1912 and Colette de Jouvenel was born on July 3rd, 1913 and would be Colette’s only child. Indications are that Colette was not a very good mother despite her unquestionable love for her daughter. In late summer of 1914, de Jouvenel was called up for military service. Colette took a job as a nurse, but in June of 1915, she moved to Italy where she spent much of the next eighteen months. In the war years and their aftermath, Colette's reputation as a writer was assured, for not only did she become literary editor of "Le Matin," but she published a great deal including "Chéri," the novel which is arguably her best-known work. In 1920, she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
That Jouvenel gave her reason for jealousy is a matter of record. That she deceived him with his son, Bertrand, is almost certainly true. The stresses of the relationship proved too much, and in late 1923, she and Jouvenel separated. She and Bertrand were a couple, but eventually she did send him away. She had met Maurice Goudeket who would become her third husband.
Colette's third marriage endured. Maurice was devoted to her, and through the last years of her life, he was her companion, cared for her when she became crippled with arthritis and was her "best friend." The last years of Colette's life brought her ample rewards for her work. She was promoted to Officier, Commandeur and finally Grand Officier of the Legion of Honor. Her work was reprinted, translated, filmed, adapted for the stage. When the second World War began, Maurice, who was Jewish, was arrested by the Germans. It took a great deal of effort on the part of Colette and her friends to have him released, and eventually he went into hiding. Colette kept on writing straight through the war and produced "Julie de Carneilhan," "Gigi" – the work which she is perhaps best known in the United States – and others. And on May 2, 1945 she was elected to the Academy Goncourt. Many sources say that she was the first woman to receive this honor. In her last years, confined to her home by her debilitating arthritis, she relied upon friends to visit her with news and a little good cheer. She continued to write until her death on the 3rd of August, 1954. She was given a state funeral and was buried in Père Lachaise.
Colette’s strength as a writer came not only from her ability to capture the sensory qualities of the world she was writing about, but also from her ability to understand people, to understand their motivations and deepest desires. She was an intensely perceptive woman equally comfortable backstage at a cabaret or seeking out the secrets of snails in the garden. Her body of work is extraordinary. It is no wonder that she remains one of the most beloved writers of the twentieth century.