Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Women Who Dare - Colette (1873-1954) - in full Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

French novelist, belonging, in time, to the generation of such authors as Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, André Gide, and Paul Claudel. Colette's career spanned from her early 20s to her mid-70s. Her main themes were joys and pains of love, and female sexuality in the male-dominated world. All her works are more or less autobiographical but Colette intentionally blurred the boundaries between fiction and fact. She wrote over 50 novels and scores of short stories.

"By means of an image we are often able to hold on to our lost belongings. But it is the desperateness of losing which picks the flowers of memory, binds the bouquet." (Mes Apprentissages, 1936)

Sidonie-Cabrielle Colette was born in the Burgundian village of Saint-Sauveur-en Puisaye. She was the daughter of a retired army captain, Jules-Joseph Colette. He had lost a leg in the Italian campaign and worked as a taxcollector with local political aspirations. Colette's mother, Adele Eugenie Sidonie Landoy, known as 'Sidonie' or 'Sido', was an unconventional character, a down-to-earth personality, devoted to her pets, books, and garden. Colette spent a happy childhood in rural surrounding, the scene of her many novels. At the age of 20 Colette married the writer and music critic Henri Gauthier-Villars, ('Monsieur Willy'); he was 15 years her senior. Colette's biographers' have labelled her first husband as a literary charlatan and degenerate.

Encouraged to start a career as a writer Colette published in short period four CLAUDINE novels (1900-03) under her husband's pen name Willy. According to a famous story, he locked Colette in her room until she had written enough pages. The series of four novels depicted improper adventures of a teenage girl. The series was a huge success and inspired all kinds of side products - a musical stage play, Claudine uniform, Claudine soap, cigars, and perfume. However, Colette's own cosmetics shop went bankrupt. Tired of her husbands unfaithfulness, Colette broke free of him in 1905. After divorce in 1906 Colette became a music-hall performer at such places as La Chatte Amoureuse and L'Oiseau de Nuit. On stage she bared one breast. A talk of the town, Colette once mimed copulation in a sketch, which a riot at the Moulin Rouge. Colette's protector and manager, a woman known as 'Missy', was the niece of Napoleon III, the Marquise de Belboeuf. Missy committed suicide in 1944 - ruined and desperate. Among Colette's other friends and probably lovers were Natalie Clifford Barney, an American lesbian woman, and the Italian writer Gabriele d'Annunzzio.

In 1912 Colette married Henri de Jouvenel des Ursins, the editor of the newspaper Le Matin, for which she wrote theatre chronicles and short stories. Their daughter, Colette de Jouvenel, later told that she was neglected by her parents - her mother never wanted a child. Colette's relationship with her young stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel, was a source of gossips. In the novel CHÉRI (1920) she returned to the affair but depicted it from a point of view of a sexually unexperienced young man.

In 1910 Colette published LA VAGABONDE, a story about an actress who rejects a man she loves in order to live in an independent way. During World War I Colette converted her husband's St. Malo estate into a hospital for the wounded. After the war she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (1920).

The 1920s brought Colette enormous fame. She entered the world of modern poetry and paintings, which centered around Jean Cocteau, later her neighbor in Palais Royale. By 1927 Colette was frequently acclaimed as France's greatest woman writer. Especially Colette's insights into the behavior of women in love gained a sympathetic response from the reading public.

"'The great hat principle is that when you meet a woman on the street and her hat allows you to see whether she's a brunette, a blonde, or a redhead, the woman in question is not wearing a chic hat. There! ... Notice I'm not saying anything, I'll let you make up your own mind. Well?'" (from 'The Saleswoman' in Collected Stories)

Two central themes can be identified in Colette's mature works: the nature and the mother-daughter bond. LA MAISON DE CLAUDINE (1922) mythologized her childhood, LA NAISSANCE DU JOUR (1928) and SIDO (1929) celebrated Colette's carefree rural childhood, and the strength of her mother, whom the author rarely saw but wrote her many letters. The letters were destroyed by her brother after Sidonie died. In novels such as LA VAGABONDE (1911), LE BLÉ EN HERBE (1923), LA SECONDE (1929) and LA CHATTE Colette explored the struggle between independent identity and passionate love. Most of Colette's heroes and heroines, cocottes, bisexuals and gigolos, came from the margins of society. Chéri, which is one of her most famous book, tells the story of the end of a six year affair between an aging retired courtesan, Léa, and a pampered young man, Chéri. Turning conventions upside-down it is Chéri who wears silk pyjamas and Léa's pearls, he is the object of gaze. And in the end Léa demonstrates all the survival skills which Colette associated with femininity. The story continued in The Last of Chéri (1951), which contrasts Léa's strength and Chéri's fragility, leading to his suicide.

In the 1940s Colette portrayed her later years in L'ÉTOILE VESPER (1946) and LE FANAL BLEU (1949),which constantly questioned the relationship between autobiography and fiction. GIGI (1945) was published when the author was 72; the novel was made into a film in 1948. Vincente Minnelli directed a musicalized version of the story in 1958.

In the 1930s Colette was made a member of the Belgian Royal Academy. She was the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious Goncourt Academy. In 1953 she became a grand officer of the Legion of Honour. She won also many awards for her work. During the last 20 years of her life Colette suffered from a crippling form of arthritis, which had been set off by the fracture of a fibula in 1931. Her marriage with Henry de Jouvenal ended in 1924. From 1935 she was married to Maurice Goudaket, whose pearl business had been ruined during the Depression. Colette supported him because as a Jew he did not find work and had to hide when the Germans occupied France. Colette died on August 3, 1954 in Paris, where her fame was no less legandary than that of the writer Gertrude Stein(1874-1946) or the singer Edith Piaf (1915-1963). Colette was accorded a state funeral despite the refusal of Catholic rites on the grounds that she had been divorced. Her funeral was attended by thousands of mourners.

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