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Celebrating Colette, Champion of Sex and Debauchery

In honor of the 20th-century French writer's birthday, we look back at the sexy, unconventional life and work of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, known until her death in 1954 as "France's leading woman writer."
January 28, 2016, 7:25pm
Colette in 1907. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Many people have had love affairs with the 20th-century French novelist Colette, and mine began during my senior year in college. I had just gone through a horrific breakup when I stumbled upon one of her later novels, The Pure and the Impure. Published in 1932 and called "an investigation into the nature and laws of the erotic life" by the critic Judith Thurman, The Pure and the Impure is a chronicle of the love lives of decadent social misfits, including a domineering playboy, an affectionate cougar (and opium den owner), a cross-dressing lesbian, and a passive young alcoholic. Like most of Colette's work, The Pure and the Impure tells stories of unconventional relationships in which love is something to be feared and sex something to be revered.

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The idea that sensuality trumps heartbreak, which features heavily throughout much of Colette's work, resonated with me. Colette's desire for sexual independence ran deep; although she married three times, she never had a monogamous relationship and had countless affairs with members of both sexes, including her 16-year-old stepson when she was around 50. Despite turn-of-the-century Paris's reputation as being a glamorous, erotic free-for-all, , homophobia and sexism were still rampant outside intellectual avant-garde circles—all the more reason to consider Colette's rise to the title of "France's leading woman writer" by her death, at age 81, in 1954 so impressive.

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Colette wasn't only a novelist, but also a stage performer, a critic of fashion, drama, and politics, and the author of a cooking column. Oftentimes the talk of the town, she nearly had one of her plays shut down because she dared kiss her real-life girlfriend on stage during one of their acts.

Her mother, an Afro–Caribbean woman who once described marriage as a "heinous crime," encouraged Colette to be different, applauding her daughter's six-year Sapphic love affair with an aristocratic, cross-dressing descendent of Henry XV known as Missy. Colette's first series, the Claudine novels, chronicles a fictionalized version of the author's life from adolescence through her first marriage and affair with Missy. While dating Missy, Colette became disillusioned with her first marriage and separated from her husband, the "hack journalist" Henri Gauthier-Villars (known as "Willy"), of 13 years. Willy goes down in history as Colette's worst husband: He gave her gonorrhea and is rumored to have forced her to write the Claudine novels, locking her up in a room while she churned out pages, which were then published under Willy's name. (The "locking up" thing is disputed, according to Thurman's biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette; the copyright infringement is verifiable.) She eventually won the rights to her books back, but not before a period of low wages and lack of respect from the public due to her employment as a barely dressed vaudevillian and mime who, yes, kissed her girlfriend onstage. (She debuted at the Moulin Rouge.) Her 1910 novel The Vagabond details this period of her life, which was largely funded by Missy.

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In that novel, the main character, Renee, lives alone, fiercely protective of the life she has built for herself. She is not a rich woman, but is content with her modest living. After being pursued by a number of gentleman, she goes on tour to America to continue her personal and creative journey rather than marry a very wealthy suitor. Here, Colette makes a bold statement about the level of contentment that could be achieved through marriage: very little. The ideal life for many women made Colette apprehensive, and she used the character of Renee to convey her own skepticism of matrimony.

Though, of course, she continued to marry. Perhaps the most notable of Colette's affairs was with her second husband's son, Bertrand de Jouvenel. Bertrand was sent by his mother to Colette's seaside villa to pay his respects to the author, by then engaged in writing Cheri, a book about an older woman who has an affair with a much younger man. Colette promptly seduced the very attractive young man. The affair continued for a time, and when it ended, Colette said she had written the strikingly similar novel as a "premonition." Never short on scandal, Colette outed her affair to her husband and fought for Bertrand's company for years. Similar to Lea, the heroine in Cheri, she was forced to give up her lover to a much younger woman and eventually divorced Betrand's dad.

Colette was married for the third and last time to Maurice Goudeket, nicknamed "Mr. Goodcock" by a friend. Her final husband, 17 years younger, is said to have adored Colette. Although she kept many lovers, he accepted this, and remained loyal to her throughout. A Jew, during World War II he was taken into custody by the Gestapo, and although she worked for seven weeks to convince the wife of the German ambassador to release him, eventually succeeding, she also made contributions to several pro-Nazi newspapers.

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Colette never fought political battles openly; instead, she pursued them through her lifestyle and creative work. Whether she realized it or not remains unknown. Although Colette lived a fiercely decadent and independent life, she was somewhat of an anti-activist and did not find it worthwhile to fight for her rights as a woman, or for her comrades' rights as homosexuals and Jews (two groups that comprised much of her inner circles). Realizing that trying to open a closed mind is often a losing battle, she resigned herself to living without drowning in the political soup.

Instead, Colette managed to survive and often thrive as a creative figure largely because of her rich personal life. Her countless affairs, friendships with non-heteronormative figures, and independent nature were the fuel she ran on to create masterpieces. Although she staunchly avoided "feminism"—of the suffragettes she once said, "Do you know what they deserve?… The whip and the harem"—her life itself is a testament to the feminine, as well as to female power and autonomy.