Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

Apologies for the late post today but I was up at the crack of dawn to see my sister off to the airport and haven’t quite recovered! I finally got around to reading the above biography having bought it months ago. I thought it would be an appropriate book for my French sojourn a couple of weeks ago.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was a French writer, most well known for writing Cheri, Gigi and the Claudine series of novels. She was born in rural France in 1873 to a headstrong mother, who certainly shaped Colette’s feminist worldview, and a feckless father. When she was twenty years old, she married Henri Gauthier-Villars (also known as Willy), a writer and music critic almost fifteen years older than her, known for his wit and rakish lifestyle. Under his direction, Colette started writing the Claudine series of novels and they were first published under Willy’s name. Colette and Willy remained married until 1910, although both had many heterosexual and homosexual affairs, and the marriage was in effect over by 1906.

Colette went on to have many affairs, her lesbian affair with Mathilde de Mornay becoming the scandal of Parisian society, and she remarried in 1912 to Henri de Jouvenel, with whom she had one daughter. Colette was a neglectful mother and her daughter was mainly brought up by her nanny. The marriage ended in 1924 when Colette had an affair with her step-son Bertrand de Jouvenel.

After the first world war, Colette’s writing career was rejuvenated with the 1920 publication of her novel Cheri which tells the story of an ageing courtesan and her affair with her friend’s son. The novel has been filmed twice, most recently in 2009 with Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of the courtesan Léa. Gigi, a novella, was published in 1944 and was also filmed in 1958 as a musical with Leslie Caron in the title role.

A remarkable groundbreaking woman far ahead of her time, Colette was the first woman to be admitted in 1945 to the Academie Goncourt, the prestigious French literary society, and was later elected President of the Academie in 1949. She also courted controversy throughout her life with her many affairs which continued right into her seventies, her cross-dressing and experimentation with gender roles, and her fiercely independent streak.

Irving Penn's portrait of Colette

One thought on “Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

  1. Pingback: Paris was a Woman « Alex Donald's Multiverse

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