Biography of Colette, French Author

One of France's Most Famous Women of Letters

Black-and-white photo of Colette sitting at a writing desk with her pen in hand
Colette at her writing desk, circa 1940.

 Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Colette (January 28, 1873 – August 3, 1954) was a French author and nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature. Prior to becoming one of the most famous contemporary French authors, she had a colorful career on the stage and wrote stories under the pen name of her first husband.

Fast Facts: Colette

  • Known For: French writer
  • Full Name: Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette
  • Born: January 28, 1873 in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, France
  • Died: August 3, 1954 in Paris, France
  • Parents: Jules-Joseph Colette and Adèle Eugénie Sidonie (née Landoy) Colette
  • Spouses: Maurice Goudeket (m. 1935–1954), Henry de Jouvenel (m. 1912–1924), Henry Gauthier-Villars (m. 1893–1910)
  • Children: Colette de Jouvenel (1913-1981)
  • Selected Works: The Claudine series (1900-1903), Chéri (1920), La Naissance du Jour (1928), Gigi (1944), Le Fanal Bleu (1949)
  • Selected Honors: Member of the Belgian Royal Academy (1935), President of the the Académie Goncourt (1949), Chevalier (1920), and Grand Officer (1953) of France's Légion d'honneur
  • Notable Quote: “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.”

Early Life

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in the department of Yonne, Burgundy, in France in 1873. Her father, Jules-Joseph Colette, was a tax collector who had previously distinguished himself in military service, and her mother was Adèle Eugénie Sidonie, née Landoy. Because of Jules-Joseph’s professional success, the family was financially secure during Colette’s early life, but they mismanaged their wealth and wound up losing a large portion of it.

Colette wearing a bonnet and a scarf wrapped around her neck
A young Colette, circa 1900.  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From ages 6 to 17, Colette attended a local public school. This was, ultimately, the extent of her education, and she did not receive any more formal education after 1890. In 1893, at the age of 20, Colette married Henry Gauthier-Villars, a successful publisher who was 14 years her senior and had a reputation among the libertines and avant-garde art crowds in Paris. Gauthier-Villars was also a successful writer under the pen name “Willy.” The couple were married for 13 years, but they had no children.

Claudine: Pseudonyms and Music Halls

During her marriage to Gauthier-Villars, Colette was introduced to a whole world of Parisian artistic society. He encouraged her to explore her sexuality with other women, and in fact, he chose the lesbian-tinged subject matter for a series of four novels that he had Colette write under his pen name Willy. Her first four novels, the Claudine series, were published between 1900 and 1903: Claudine à l'école (1900), Claudine à Paris (1901), Claudine en ménage (1902), and Claudine s'en va (1903). The coming-of-age novels—published in English as Claudine at SchoolClaudine in ParisClaudine Married, and Claudine and Annie—followed the titular heroine from her youth in a village to a position in Parisian salons. Debate over who really wrote these novels raged on for years. Colette was able to get Gauther-Villars’s name removed from them many years later, after a protracted legal battle, but his son had the byline restored after Colette’s death.

In 1906, Colette separated from her husband, but it would be another four years before the divorce was finalized. Because she had written the Claudine novels as “Willy,” the copyright—and all profits from the books—legally belonged to Gauthier-Villars, not Colette. In order to support herself, Colette worked on the stage for several years in music halls across France. On several occasions, she played her own Claudine characters in unauthorized sketches and skits. Although she was able to scrape together a living, it was often just barely enough to get by, and as a result, she was frequently ill and often went hungry.

Colette half-kneeling onstage in a sleeveless costume with a slitted skirt
Colette onstage at the theatre Mathurins in 1906.  Culture Club/Getty Images

During her years on the stage, Colette had several relationships with other women, most notably with Mathilde “Missy” de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, who was also a stage performer. The two caused something of a scandal in 1907 when they kissed on stage, but they continued their relationship for several years. Colette wrote about her experience of poverty and life on stage in her 1910 work La Vagabonde. After a few years on her own, in 1912 Colette married Henry de Jouvenel, a newspaper editor. They had their only child, a daughter named Colette de Jouvenel, in 1913. During World War I, Colette began working as a journalist, returning to writing in a different way, and she also developed an interest in photography.

Writing the Twenties (1919-1927)

  • Mitsou (1919)
  • Chéri (1920)
  • La Maison de Claudine (1922)
  • L'Autre Femme (1922)
  • Le Blé en herbe (1923)
  • La Fin de Chéri (1926)

Colette published the World War I-set novella Mitsou in 1919, and it was later made into a French comedy film in the 1950s. Her next work, however, made a much bigger impression. Published in 1920, Chéri tells the story of a young man’s long term affair with a courtesan nearly twice his age and the inability of the pair to let go of their relationship even as he marries someone else and their relationship sours. Colette also published a sequel, La Fin de Chéri (in English, The Last of Cheri) in 1926, which follows the tragic aftermath of the relationship depicted in the first novel.

It’s easy to see a few parallels between Colette’s own life and her novel. Her marriage to Jouvenel ended in 1924 after infidelities on both their parts, including her affair with her stepson Bertrand de Jouvenel, who was 16 at the time. Another work of this era, Le Blé en Herbe (1923), dealt with a similar storyline involving the romantic and sexual relationship between a young man and a much older woman. In 1925, she met Maurice Goudeket, who was 16 years younger than her. They married a decade later, in 1935, and they remained married until her death.

France’s Great Female Writer (1928-1940)

  • La Naissance du jour (1928)
  • Sido (1929)
  • La Seconde (1929)
  • Le Pur et l'Impur (1932)
  • La Chatte (1933)
  • Duo (1934)
  • Lake of Ladies (1934)
  • Divine (1935)

By the end of the 1920s, Colette was widely hailed as one of the great French writers of her time and something of a celebrity. The majority of her work was set in the near past, known as “La Belle Époque,” which covered roughly the 1870s up until the outbreak of World War I, and was famed as the height of French glamour, art, sophistication, and culture. Her writing was noted to be less concerned with plot than with the rich details of her characters.

Colette in a long-sleeved dress writing in a notebook
Colette at work, circa 1905. adoc-photos/Corbis/Getty Images 

At the peak of her fame and success, Colette focused her writing largely on exploring and criticizing the traditional lives and social restrictions imposed on women. In 1928, she published La Naissance du Jour (English: Break of Day), which was heavily autobiographical and drew on a semi-fictionalized version of her mother, Sido. The book dealt with themes of age, love, and the loss of both youth and love. A follow-up, 1929’s Sido, continued the story.

In the 1930s, Colette was slightly less prolific. For a couple of years, she briefly turned her attention to screenwriting and was credited as a co-writer on two films: 1934’s Lake of Ladies and 1935’s Divine. She also published three more prose works: Le Pur et l’Impur in 1932, La Chatte in 1933, and Duo in 1934. After Duo, she did not publish again until 1941, by which time life in France—and Colette’s own life—had changed significantly.

World War II and Public Life (1941-1949)

  • Julie de Carneilhan (1941)
  • Le Képi (1943)
  • Gigi (1944)
  • L'Étoile Vesper (1947)
  • Le Fanal Bleu (1949)

France fell to the invading Germans in 1940, and Colette’s life, like the lives of her compatriots changed with the new regime. The Nazi reign hit Colette’s life very personally: Goudeket was Jewish, and in December 1941, he was arrested by the Gestapo. Goudeket was released after a few months in custody due to the intervention of the German ambassador’s wife (a native Frenchwoman). For the rest of the war, however, the couple lived in fear that he would be arrested again and not make it home alive this time.

During the occupation, Colette continued writing, including output with clear pro-Nazi content. She wrote articles for pro-Nazi newspapers, and her 1941 novel Julie de Carneilhan included inflammatory anti-Semitic language. The war years were a time of focus on memoirs for Colette: she produced two volumes, titled Journal à Rebours (1941) and De ma Fenêtre (1942). However, it was during the war that Colette wrote her most famous work by far. The novella Gigi, published in 1944, tells the story of a teenager groomed to be a courtesan who instead falls in love with the friend she’s intended as a mistress for. It was adapted into a French film in 1949, a Broadway play starring an early-career Audrey Hepburn in 1951, a famous musical film starring Leslie Caron in 1958, and a Broadway musical in 1973 (revived in 2015).

Colette reads from a script while Audrey Hepburn leans on her and reads over her shoulder
Colette working with Audrey Hepburn in 1951. Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

By the time the war ended, Colette’s health was in decline, and she was suffering from arthritis. Even so, she continued to write and work. She published two more works, L'Etoile Vesper (1944) and Le Fanal Bleu (1949); both were technically fictional but largely autobiographical in their reflections on a writer’s challenges. A compilation of her complete works was prepared between 1948 and 1950. Fellow French author Frédéric-Charles Bargone (better known by his pseudonym, Claude Farrère) nominated her for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, but she lost to British poet T.S. Eliot. Her final work was the book Paradis terrestre, which included photographs by Izis Bidermanas and was released in 1953, a year before her death. That same year, she was made a Grand Officer of the French Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor), the highest civil honor in France.

Literary Styles and Themes

Colette’s works can be divided sharply into her pseudonymous works and her work published under her own name, yet a few traits are shared across both eras. While writing her Claudine novels under the pen name “Willy,” her subject matter and, to an extent, her style, was largely determined by her then-husband. The novels, which traced the coming-of-age of a young girl, included considerably titillating and scandalous themes and plots, including homoerotic content and “schoolgirl lesbian” tropes. The style was more frivolous than much of Colette’s later writing would be, but the underlying themes of women who found identity and pleasure outside of social norms would thread through all her work.

The themes found in Colette’s novels included considerable meditation on the social situation of women. Many of her works explicitly criticize the expectations of women and their hemmed-in societal roles, and, as a result, her female characters are often richly drawn, deeply unhappy, and rebelling against societal norms in some way or the other. In some cases, as with her novels from the early 1920s, this rebellion took the form of sexual agency in scandalous ways, particularly the pairing of older women with younger men in a reversal of the more popular trope (which is itself found in Gigi, though not quite to the same extent). In many cases, her works deal with women attempting to assert some degree of independence in a male-dominated society, with widely varied results; for instance, the female lead of Chéri and her younger lover both end up quite miserable after their attempts to buck societal convention, but the key to Gigi and her love interest getting a happy ending is Gigi’s resistance to the demands of the aristocratic and patriarchal society around her.

Colette at her writing desk, holding a cat and facing the camera
Colette with one of her beloved cats in 1935.  Imagno/Getty Images

For the most part, Colette stuck to the genre of prose fiction, albeit with some memoir and thinly-veiled autobiography thrown in for good measure. Her works were not lengthy tomes, but more often novellas that focused heavily on character and less so on plot. She did venture into screenwriting during the 1930s, but not to any enormous degree of success.

Death

By the end of the 1940s, Colette’s physical state had declined even further. Her arthritis severely limited her mobility, and she was largely dependent on the care of Goudeket. Colette died on August 3, 1954, in Paris. Because of her divorces, the French Catholic Church refused to allow her to have a religious funeral. Instead, she was given a state funeral by the government, making her the first French woman of letters to have a state funeral. She is buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris and the resting place of other luminaries such as Honoré de Balzac, Moliere, Georges Bizet, and many more.

Legacy

Colette’s legacy has shifted considerably over the decades since her death. During her life and career, she had a not-insignificant number of professional admirers, including several of her literary contemporaries. At the same time, however, there were many who categorized her as talented, but profoundly limited to one very specific type or subgenre of writing.

Over time, however, Colette has been recognized more and more as an important member of the French writing community, one of the foremost voices in women’s literature, and a talented writer of any label. Celebrities, including Truman Capote and Rosanne Cash, paid tribute to her in their art, and a 2018 biopic, Colette, fictionalized the early part of her life and career and cast Oscar nominee Keira Knightley as Colette.

Sources

  • Jouve, Nicole Ward. Colette. Indiana University Press, 1987.
  • Ladimer, Bethany. Colette, Beauvoir, and Duras: Age and Women Writers. University Press of Florida, 1999.
  • Portuges, Catherine; Jouve, Nicole Ward. "Colette". In Sartori, Eva Martin; Zimmerman, Dorothy Wynne (eds.). French Women Writers. University of Nebraska Press, 1994.