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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide


Gigi ; Julie de Carneilhan ; Chance acquaintances. By Colette (New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). Library of Congress General Collections.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) simply known as Colette, was the talented and prolific chronicler of the female experience in the first half of the twentieth century. During her first marriage, to Henri Gauthier-Villars ("Willy") a man 15 years her senior, she was exploited for her literary talents. Her wildly popular Claudine novels were largely written while locked in a room — purportedly in order to help her concentrate. Though very obviously autobiographical, her husband passed her works off as his own. When she was finally able to divorce him in 1910 he kept all royalties and she was required to work in a music hall to make ends meet. Fortunately her best work was still to come. She became close with the wealthy Marquise de Balbeuf (Mathilde de Morny) and the two caused a scandal when they performed together on state in "Réve d'Égypte." Colette also had a relationship with the famous Natalie Clifford Barney. In 1912 she married Henry de Jouvenel. She contributed her written work to the paper Le Matin (where her husband was editor in chief) and the two had a daughter together. In 1920 she published Chéri which traces the love affair of a young man with an older woman. In some ways this novel mirrors the affair she had with her stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel, who was 16 at the time of their relationship.

Her later years married to her final husband Maurice Goudeket were marked by her literary productivity. Colette was widely revered as perhaps the best female writer in France at the time. During the German occupation of Paris her husband — who was Jewish — was arrested and released after several weeks. The fear of another arrest haunted her throughout the war, however she was able to write her memoires (Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre). Colette lived a long and full life. She was made a member of the Belgian Royal Academy in 1935 and ten years later she was elected to the Académie Goncourt. She was awarded the Légion d'honneur (chevalier in 1920 and grand officier in 1953) and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

Colette's Grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France, (2022). Photo credit: Erika Hope Spencer.

Her works in the postwar years (L'Étoile Vesper in 1947 and Le Fanal Bleu in 1949) addressed the problems of writing fiction that was based solely off personal experience, something of a tradition among French writers who lived colorful lives. Most of her novels had themes centered on sex, marriage, women's confined role in society, and in particular, relationships between young men and older women. She has a sizable body of work including her Claudine series (1900-1903) about the coming of age of an adolescent girl, Les Vrilles de la vigne (Tendrals of Vines, 1908), La Vagabonde (1910), Chéri (1920), Ces Plaisirs (Those Pleasures,1932), La Chatte (The Cat,1933), Duo (1934), Gigi (1944). Film adaptations of her written work are too numerous to list, though Claudine, Gigi and Chéri are the most well known. Gigi was made into a French film and later a musical in Hollywood. On stage Gigi was immortalized by the renowned actress Audrey Hepburn who Colette personally selected to play the role. Adaptations of her personal life include "Becoming Colette" staring French actress Mathilda May in 1991, and more recently "Colette" with British actress Keira Knightley in 2018. Her husband Maurice Goudeket wrote about his warm relationship with Colette in his memoires Près de Colette (Close to Colette) in 1955. While denied a Catholic funeral, she was given a state funeral with full honors as the first French woman of letters to be interred in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris (image left). She was admired by writers such as André Gide and Truman Capote and she continues to inspire artists and writers today for her unflinching depictions of women's intimate lives.

For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: Women in the Long 19th Century and Feminism in the 20th Century.

You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following headings:

Colette, 1873-1954

Colette, 1873-1954--Translations into English

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