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Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette - Biography

Colette (1873-1954)
by Karen Bernardo

The French author we now know as Colette was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in Saint-Saveur-en-Puisaye, a village in Burgandy. Her family fell upon hard times when she was a teenager, with the result that Colette married a man fourteen years her senior, Henri Gauthier-Villars, called Willy. Although she couldn't have imagined this at the time, her ill-fated marriage would shape Colette's life.

Willy was entranced by Colette's tales of her school days, and decided he could make a lot of money out of them by spicing them up for the Victorian pornography industry. Colette didn't need a great deal of persuasion to sit down and write the first book, Claudine at School; she seems to have been intrigued with the possibility that she could actually write for publication. In 1900, Willy published the completed manuscript under his own name, and it became an instant best-seller. At this point he virtually confined Colette to the house until she completed three more "libertine novels" based on the sexual adventures of the fictional Claudine. These books also sold well, but Colette had had enough of Willy and left him in 1906. She was determined to prove that she, not Willy, was the author of the Claudine books. This she did, and went on to establish herself as a writer of great talent.

But Colette's life could not be confined to only one category of existence. After her divorce she became a music-hall performer, lighting up the stage at La Chatte Amoureuse, L'Oiseau de Nuit, and the Moulin Rouge. In one performance, she bared her breast; in another, she simulated sexual intercourse. She had many lovers of both sexes (including, quite possibly, her own stepson from her second marriage).
 
Everything she did became material for her writing. Her mature work is populated with prostitutes, bisexuals and gigolos -- just like her real life -- and she described these individuals with compassion and insight. In 1935 she married for the third time, this time to a Jewish merchant whose business had failed during the Depression, and she both supported him and helped him hide during the Nazi occupation of France.

Colette, even during her own lifetime, was considered one of the greatest of French writers. At her death in 1954, she was refused a Roman Catholic burial because she was divorced, but she was accorded a prestigious state funeral by the French government.

Read Storybites' analysis of...

The Hollow Nut

The Other Wife

Both stories are available in "The Collected Stories of Colette."

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