For this week’s Femme Fatale Friday, I have chosen to discuss the French author Colette! She is a favorite of mine, and I adore reading her novels in the original French. Colette was a writer who began to gain notoriety in France after she got recognized for her work, which had previously been published under her husband’s name. She is known as one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Additionally, Colette received many recognitions that were then unheard of for women, making her a true trail-blazer!
She was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873. She went by her surname alone professionally. At age twenty she married her first husband, a successful writer named Henry Gauthier-Villars, who was commonly called “Willy.” It was him that first saw the potential in her ability to tell a story. Willy encouraged her writing, but when she wrote her earliest novels he took credit! After their divorce Colette would finally be able to take credit for her writing, eventually gaining recognition for these earliest works. These four early books are collectively known as The Claudine Novels, as they are all about the youthful adventures of the titular character.
It would take years for her to see money from The Claudine Novels, as Willy owned the copywrite. She spent the time directly following their divorce barely getting by as a stage actress, often playing a version of her famous Claudine character! But her resourcefulness allowed her to deal with and escape poverty, and live a full life. She had two other husbands, and many lovers and her life truly inspired her works!
She became both famous and infamous for her novels, as each featured frank descriptions of sexuality, drug use, and moral ambiguity! Colette not only wrote provocative content she also lived it. She experimented with lesbian relationships, and this was encouraged by Willy during their marriage, as he himself was known as a libertine. This would also inspire her to cross-dress in men’s clothing. As I already stated she performed as a stage actress, which in this era was seen as tantamount to prostitution!
In many ways, her novels can be seen as semi-autobiographical. In the four novels about Claudine, the reader learns about the early years of the titular character, starting with her school years. Colette largely based many of the Claudine tales on her own antics at school, and later for the subsequent novels on her first marriage. Cheri is a novel about a young man obsessed with an older middle-aged courtesan that he lost his virginity to, and this is mirrored by her own scandalous affair with her step-son! This was way before the concept of a MILF or a Cougar, making Colette way ahead of her times!
But there was one novel that Colette herself referred to as the closest thing she would ever write to an autobiography, and that book is The Pure and the Impure. This book features a myriad of decadence and scandal. It works as a series of conversations about sex, attraction, gender, and features opium dens. It is as beautifully written, as it is naughty!
Her best-known work is the novella Gigi, which was written in 1944. However, although it is a fantastic work, it is not her usual style. It is much more hopeful and sentimental than her other works, largely due to a feeling of a need for hope amid the ravages of the Second World War! The novella tells the tale of Gigi who grew up with the tradition of her family members being courtesans and professional girlfriends of wealthy men. Real love and commitment were not something accepted in her family, as men always leave. Essentially, it was about getting what you could out of men before they left! Gigi has a different take on this and decided she wanted to have real love, and it ends happily! This is the novella that would be turned into a stage play, musical, and then a big screen MGM movie musical. The movie musical is a lovely film starring Leslie Caron as Gigi! Colette herself had chosen Audrey Hepburn for the 1951 stage adaptation of Gigi. On a side note, another famous actress connected to Colette is Brigitte Bardot, as she described getting to audition for her in her memoir Initiales B.B.
Colette died in 1954, and since she was refused a religious funeral because of her divorces, she became the first woman in France to receive a state funeral. She is one of many famous artists to be buried in the world-famous Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris! I hope that you have enjoyed learning a bit about the amazing Colette, and some of her works. I feel that she is a great choice for Femme Fatale Friday, as she was powerful and rebellious as she paved the way for wild women everywhere! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is my favorite photo of Colette. I found the image on https://my18thcenturysource.tumblr.com/post/654080773699387392/june-is-pride-month-so-my-best-friend-her.
- The Complete Claudine Novels by Colette
- Cheri by Colette
- The Last of Cheri by Colette (Original Title La Fin de Cheri)
- The Pure and the Impure by Colette (Original Title Le Pur et L’Impur)
- Gigi by Colette
- Colette (2018)
- Gigi (1958)