She started a riot by sharing a kiss with her female lover on the stage of the Moulin Rouge in 1907, and was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1948: Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette – or simply Colette, as she would become known – is a boundary-smashing figure fit for the 21st-century generation.
She remains one of France’s most famous writers, best remembered for her 1944 novella Gigi and as the true author of the Claudine novels, which took turn-of-the-century Paris by storm (though Colette did not gain full credit for these novels until many years after their success). A weights-lifter who appeared on the cover of athletic magazines, Colette scandalised society by having relationships with both women and men (in her forties she even became romantically involved with her 16-year-old stepson), and upon her death in 1954 she became the first French female writer to be given a state funeral.
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Colette’s early writing of the Claudine stories, along with her first marriage to writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (better known by his nom-de-plume ‘Willy’), are the subject of the 2018 film Colette, directed by Wash Westmoreland and starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.
“Colette was a brilliant prose stylist,” says Wash Westmoreland, “and to read her is to come in contact with a great personality. That’s what drew myself and my late husband, Richard Glatser, to the project. We started reading Colette and she was so astonishing and so ahead of her time in many things that she did, we thought ‘there’s a movie in here’.”
Born in a Burgundy village in 1873, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was inducted into the salons of fin de siècle Paris when she married in 1893. Her new husband, Willy (played by Dominic West in Colette), was 15 years her senior.
“He was very much a loud voice in the salon scene,” says Westmoreland, “he was an entrepreneur, a man of letters”. Willy was a literary brand of his own creation: he kept a stable of ghost-writers and put his name to countless works – from theatre reviews to novels – and was known in Parisian society for both his hearty appetite for pleasure and his incessant self-promotion.
“Everyone knew who he was, and he had the ability to take over the room with his forceful personality and his famous wit. It was Willy who brought Colette into this world as his young bride,” says Westmoreland.
Though Colette was initially unimpressed by this scene in which bohemian artists mingled with free-thinking aristocracy – “she found it quite pretentious,” says Westmoreland – the salons of the Belle Époque came to have a huge impact on the young woman.
During the time of peace between the Franco-Prussian war (which ended in 1871) and the First World War (which began in 1914), a great artistic flourishing occurred in France. “This happened in all areas,” explains Westmoreland. “If you think of the impressionist painters or innovative composers like Satie, Debussy and Ravel who were writing music, and great writers like Proust and Zola, and Colette herself. They were all a part of this demimonde, this artistic society. It was a scene that was creative, experimental and inspiring.”
In wider French society at the time, women were unable to vote or have an equal platform to express opinions, but the demimonde gave a voice to female pioneers. “It was fertile ground for some very forward-thinking women. There were journalists like Rachilde, and women like Natalie Barney and Renée Vivien – very outspoken proto-feminists who declared their equality in personal terms within their social circles. Colette was influenced and in turn became influential in this world.”
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The creation of Claudine
Colette first began to write at Willy’s behest. And in writing, ostensibly with encouragement and guidance from her husband, she created a character with whom France would soon become obsessed: the schoolgirl Claudine.
An opinionated, spirited and knowing 15-year-old heroine from a countryside village, Claudine first appeared in 1900 in Claudine à l’école (Claudine at School), and she instantly captivated Paris. “Claudine was really the first sort of feisty, female teenage voice in literature,” says Westmoreland.
Though Claudine seemed to share many elements drawn from Colette’s own life, the Claudine novels (of which there were four, published between 1900–03) were all published under her husband’s name. Willy, so the film has him stating, felt that female writers just don’t sell. “If you look at many women writers in the 19th century,” says Westmoreland, “many of them used male pen names. In effect, this is one of the last egregious examples of that.”
When Claudine à l’école was first published, it struck a chord with many young women. The story “wasn’t about being innocent and chaste,” says Westmoreland, “it was about expressing who you really are. I was going to use the word ‘teenager’ in the film, but it didn’t exist until the 1920s. Instead, Missy [Colette’s lover] says: ‘the women between girlhood and womanhood, you’ve given them a voice.’”
So with Claudine as a trailblazer for a distinct, teenage voice, and like any new idea that is of its time, the books “just spread like wildfire all over France”. Willy’s marketing nous ensured that the Claudine character transcended the books. “It became a play performed in reviews all over Paris and France,” says Westmoreland. “But not only that, there was all this ancillary merchandise, which we show in the film. It’s all real: the soaps, the cigarettes, the perfume, the lingerie. There was a whole line of Claudine products.
“One of the positive things you could say about Willy, perhaps, is that he was a marketing genius and he knew how to exploit its success.”
Willy and Colette
Willy was ruthless in his pursuit of success for the books published in his own name, and he retained both profits and copyright. Infamously, he once locked his wife in a room and refused to let her out until she had written the next instalment.
“Yes, Willy was an exploiter who has gone down in history as the person who tried to suppress his wife’s voice,” says Westmoreland. But the film does not paint Willy as an out-and-out villain; he remains at moments suave and likeable, even as he cheats his wife of fidelity, royalties and recognition for her work. “He was also a mentor and saw her genius very early on,” says Westmoreland. “Even towards the end of the marriage when he was using everything in his arsenal to keep her down, Colette still had a fondness for him. You can see that in their letters of the time; he still had a hold over her.”
Just as one hears stories today of powerful men behaving terribly, says Westmoreland, “it’s often not the one-dimensional story that they’re a devil with horns coming out of their head. [Such men] can often be very charming and entertaining and seductive, which all serve their wants and ego. It’s just a different way of keeping control. Willy’s hold over Colette wasn’t just financial and cultural; it was also personal, emotional and sexual.”
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Writing was not the only activity Colette was encouraged to explore by her husband. As Colette’s writing flourished, so did her extra-marital relationships. According to the film, Willy was happy to facilitate these relationships – as long as they were with women. He and Colette even engaged in a simultaneous affair with the American wife of a wealthy French mining engineer – a relationship that was so undisguised in the fourth Claudine novel, the woman reportedly demanded the novel be pulped.
Around 1906, as her marriage to Willy was coming to an end (though they did not divorce until 1910), Colette embarked on a six-year affair with the marquise de Belbeuf (known as ‘Missy’). “Missy was a gender-defying aristocrat,” says Westmoreland, “a woman who dressed as a man and very much embraced masculinity as part of his identity, who can be seen as a forerunner of today’s butch lesbian community and the transgender community, although neither of those labels were around at the time.”
Missy had grown up with wealth and privilege: she was descended from Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte on her father’s side, while her mother may have been the illegitimate daughter of Nicholas I of Russia. “Missy was very much considered part of French nobility and of ‘blue blood’. At this time it was illegal for women to wear trousers in Paris and you could be thrown in jail for doing so. Missy managed to get away with wearing trousers because of his social position slightly above the law.”
Mime and the Moulin Rouge
As Willy became more controlling and continued to shut down Colette’s appeals to gain credit for her work, “Colette went on the offensive,” says Westmoreland. “She decided to make a second career for herself as a mime artist on the stage. This was a unique and scandalous move. It wasn’t like going to perform Shakespeare or something that might have been socially acceptable. For a woman of her social standing, mime was considered very much beneath bourgeois society. Collette went for it because it very much gave her a voice of her own. It wasn’t Willy that was performing; it was her.”
She studied under a mime artist named Georges Wague who was a pioneer of cantomime – the art of lip syncing to an opera singer who is singing at the side of the stage, or “the 1895 Ru Paul’s drag race,” Westmoreland jokes. Wague’s work in ‘white pantomime’ – a revolutionary form of movement in mime – laid the foundation for the overproduced and physical styles of acting seen in early silent film.
“Colette really took to this,” says Westmoreland. “She was always a very physical person – she worked out at time when women didn’t do that, she was on the front of La Physique Couture in 1907, which was a sort of muscles and fitness work-out magazine.”
Missy was very supportive of Colette’s theatrical ambitions and their work culminated in a performance called The Dream of Egypt, which took place in the Moulin Rouge in January 1907.
“Colette and Missy performed this rather kitsch scenario, with Missy playing an archaeologist unveiling a sarcophagus from which Colette emerges to perform this beguiling dance. The whole house was packed. It was considered the most scandalous event within living memory; everyone wanted to be in there.”
At the height of the play, Colette and her lover kissed each other “as a declaration of sexual freedom and also provocation. It caused a riot. Very much like today’s politics, half of the audience were very conservative and half were very progressive. So half were cheering, while the other half were spoiling for a fight. The police were called and the rioters tore the place apart. They shut the play down after one night.”
Though Colette and Missy had enjoyed relative freedom due to Missy’s status in French society, after the Moulin Rouge incident it became much more difficult for the pair to be seen together in public, Westmoreland says. “Missy famously adopted wearing a skirt over his trousers, so that when he went down into a club in Montmartre, when it was permissible to be himself, he would unveil his trousers by whipping off his skirt, apparently making a bit of a show of it. They were living in a bit of a bubble of permission that existed around the demimonde, but they still had to be aware of the courses of law that could cause them harm.”
By the time of the fourth Claudine novel, it had become “an open secret” that Colette was the true author, explains Westmoreland. Yet Willy retained the rights and royalties for her work. “They were a celebrity couple and it was more and more obvious that the voice coming through the novels was Colette’s.
“But Willy continued to push the idea that women writers didn’t sell. When they divorced [in 1910], Colette really wanted to have credit for the books, so they agreed on a joint credit and the books became ‘by Willy and Colette Willy’.”
Many decades later, following the Second World War, Colette attained exclusive credit solely in her name. The saga continued, though, as Jacques Gauthier-Villars, a son of Willy’s from another relationship, later sued to change it back, saying that it was disrespectful to his late father’s legacy.
“Unbelievably, the courts allowed it to be changed,” says Westmoreland. “That lasted for about a year and then eventually Colette won out. By this time she was a literary grande dame. Some of the original manuscripts still exist too, and they were pretty instrumental in proving that it was her writing, and the little spidery notes in the margin did not constitute authorship the way that Willy had claimed.
“I do think she is a figure that’s completely relevant because she always lived her own truth and wrote her own truth.”
Colette, starring Keira Knightly and Dominic West and directed by Wash Westmoreland, is released in UK cinemas on 9 January 2019.