I think my only earlier connection with the writer Colette was watching the 1958 musical film Gigi. It stars Leslie Caron and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is based on a 1944 novella by Colette about a young Parisian girl being groomed for a career as a courtesan. She has a relationship with the wealthy cultured man named Gaston who falls in love with her and eventually marries her. It was also a play that starred the yet unknown Audrey Hepburn, and then another play based on the film (Lerner and Loewe) which is described as the “unexpurgated 1973 stage musical” that was not a hit on Broadway but was still revived on Broadway in 2015.
My more recent contact with Colette came through watching a 2018 biography film, Colette, directed by Wash Westmoreland and starring Keira Knightley.
I read that the film was “inspired” by her early “Claudine” novels: Claudine at School; Claudine in Paris; Claudine Married; Claudine and Annie. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was pushed by her first husband, Willy, to ghostwrite novels based on her own youth.
My wife, who studied in France and taught French, said that she read those novels when she was in high school.
“Were they any good?” I asked.
“They seemed pretty good when I was 16.”
So I thought I’d give one a chance and I got the audiobook of Claudine at School. She was right. It would be a pretty good book if I was a 16-year-old girl in high school. In the novel, Claudine is smart, cultured, sarcastic, and a little ahead of her schoolmates and teachers. It is a somewhat flirtatious tale that probably was considered more than that in 1900.
That book and its sequels were published with her husband, Willy, listed as the author. The books were very popular and should have made Colette immediately a well-known author. But she only becomes recognized as a writer in her own right with her book about her music hall experiences, The Vagabond (La Vagabonde, 1910), which was published under her name.
The young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette began an affair with Willy (the pen name of Henry Gauthier-Villars) and he brought her to Paris as his bride. He considered himself to be a “literary entrepreneur” and employed a number of ghostwriters to write for him and asked Colette to write for him too.
Colette wrote a draft of Claudine à l’école based on her own life, but Willy rejected it. Still, when he is in debt, he took out the draft, suggested revisions which she made, and the novel was published. He did not expect it to be a bestseller. Not surprisingly, but surprising at that time, it attracted a large female readership. Delighted, Willy tells his publisher a sequel is almost finished. There is no sequel. Willy buys a country house with his new money and his anticipated wealth. He locks Colette in a room there and forces her to write. She initially objects but ends up writing Claudine à Paris which is another bestseller.
Colette’s books are often described as racy or erotic. In real life, Colette had a lesbian affair with Georgie Raoul-Duval. When the jealous Willy finds out, he also has an affair with Georgie. This inspires Colette’s next novel, Claudine en ménage (translated as Claudine Married).
Though the Claudine books earned a lot of money, the copyright belonged to Willy. Colette and Willy separated in 1906 and divorced in 1910. She made her living on stage in music halls across France. She even portrayed Claudine in sketches from her novels. But her earnings were minimal and she was often hungry and ill.
She had a number of relationships with other women, something that had actually been encouraged by Willy. One of those affairs was with the gender-ambiguous Mathilde de Morny (who was born female but presented as the male “Max” and sometimes as the female “Missy”). They prepared an act and a 1907 onstage kiss between Max and Colette in a pantomime entitled “Rêve d’Égypte” caused a near-riot at the Moulin Rouge. The outrage made Willy believe that her books’ sales would crash, so he sold all the rights to the Claudine books for 5,000 francs without Colette’s knowledge.
That was when Colette decided to divorce him. Willy told an employee to burn the Claudine manuscripts, but the man returned them to Colette instead. She turned to journalism and photography and chronicled this period of her life in La Vagabonde which is about women’s independence in a male society.
Colette’s numerous biographers have proposed widely differing interpretations of her life and work over the decades. Initially considered a limited if talented novelist, she has been increasingly recognized as an important voice in women’s writing.
“The Summer I Read Colette” by Rosanne Cash
from Songs Inspired by Literature