Sidonie Gabrielle Colette

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Sidonie Gabrielle Colette

The French author Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) was concerned with feminine independence in experiencing the joys and sorrows of love. She succeeded in translating a delicate sensibility into a vivid, sensual, and highly imagistic prose.

On Jan. 28, 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was born in a small Burgundian town, Saint-Sauveuren-Puisaye. In 1893 she married Henri Gauthier-Villars, a Parisian littérateur of doubtful talents and morals. Gauthier-Villars, or Monsieur Willy, as he was known, forced his young wife to produce novels that would satisfy his prurient and financial interests. Her first attempt, Claudine à l'école (1900), signed Colette Willy, was quickly a best seller. Three more Claudine novels (Claudine à Paris, Claudine en ménage, Claudine s'en va), Minne, and Les égarements de Minne were produced in the following five years.

The marriage did not fare as well. After divorcing Willy in 1906, Colette became a music hall mime and traveled the circuits with moderate success for six years. But the discipline of writing imposed by Willy continued to hold her. Before her divorce she had published Dialogues des bêtes (1904) under her maiden name, and she continued to sign in this way her subsequent works, La Retraite sentimentale (1907), Les Vrilles de la vigne (1908), L'Ingénue libertine (1909), and La Vagabonde (1911). In 1909 she produced and starred in her first play, En Camarades.

From 1910 to 1923 Colette was the literary correspondent for the newspaper Le Matin. In 1912 she married her editor in chief, Henri de Jouvenel, and the following year they had a daughter, Colette de Jouvenel, whom Colette called "Bel-Gazou" in her writings. Although the marriage ended after 12 years, these were especially full years for Colette. She published La Paix chez les bêtes (1916), a collection of animal stories, and Les Heures longues (1917), a collection of her articles and travel notes; with Mitsou (1919) and Chéri (1920), she entered into her maturity as a novelist and artist, producing a string of masterpieces of the love novel that was to end with Gigi (1944). The heroes and heroines of these novels, which include Le Blé en herbe (1923), La Fin de Chéri (1926), La Seconde (1929), Duo (1934), Le Toutounier (1939), and Julie de Carneilhan (1941), resemble in many respects those of Colette's early novels. Her preoccupations are still childhood, adolescent love, jealousy, love rebuked, and the search for absolute happiness in physical love.

In 1925 Colette met Maurice Goudeket, a young businessman turned journalist, with whom she was to have her longest and happiest liaison. They were married on April 3, 1935, and were not separated until Colette's death. During her later years Colette was progressively immobilized by arthritis, but she continued to record her impressions, recollections, and fantasies. She published De ma fenêtre (1942), L'étoile vesper (1946), and Le Fanal bleu (1949), all semiautobiographical works reflecting the years of World War II in Paris.

Official recognition came soon after the war. In 1945 Colette was elected to the Académie Goncourt, over which she presided beginning in 1949, and in 1952 to the Légion d'Honneur. She died in Paris on Aug. 3, 1954.

Further Reading

Two important critical studies of Colette's life and work are Elaine Marks, Colette (1960), and Margaret Davies's succinct Colette (1961). Also useful are Margaret Crosland, Madame Colette (1953), and Maurice Goudeket, Close to Colette (1957).

Additional Sources

Album Colette: iconographie, Paris: Gallimard, 1984.

Colette, Recollections: includes Journey for myself and The evening star, New York: Collier Books, 1986.

Crosland, Margaret, Colette—the difficulty of loving: a biography, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.

Dormann, Genevieve, Colette, a passion for life, New York: Abbeville Press, 1985.

Lottman, Herbert R., Colette: a life, Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.

Massie, Allan, Colette, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1986.

Mitchell, Yvonne, Colette: a taste for life, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Richardson, Joanna, Colette, New York: F. Watts, 1984, 1983.

Sarde, Michele, Colette: free and fettered, New York: Morrow, 1980. □