Tuesday 18 June 2019

Colette: A perfect post-MeToo heroine

She threw off the shackles of patriarchy to find her own voice while enjoying affairs with both men and women. Tanya Sweeney says the French writer, played to perfection by Keira Knightley, is an icon for our times

Keira Knightley’s performance as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette has been described as smouldering and vampish
Keira Knightley’s performance as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette has been described as smouldering and vampish

If anything, it's astounding that it's taken until now for Hollywood to turn its attentions to the life of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Girl power, the literary salons of turn-of-the-century Paris, marital betrayal, lesbian affairs and an Audrey Hepburn connection… Colette's story has it all. A French film celebrating the novelist's life (Becoming Colette), and starring French actress Mathilda May, was released to muted reception in 1991, yet Keira Knightley has been lauded for her new portrayal of Colette, described as smouldering, spirited and vampish.

And she had plenty to work with, for Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was more than a woman who chucked off patriarchal shackles to find her own voice.

Colette with Audrey Hepburn who played the lead in Gigi on Broadway. Photo: Getty Images
Colette with Audrey Hepburn who played the lead in Gigi on Broadway. Photo: Getty Images

Born in 1873 in Burgundy, Colette was initially born into wealth, but her family's fortunes dwindled dramatically. At 20, she married Henry Gauthier-Villars, aka, Willy, already a well-known author and publisher. Willy was famed as one of Paris' most notorious libertines, and a ring on his finger wasn't about to temper his seductive impulses. Still, there was a payoff of sorts involved for Colette - while her husband enjoyed dalliances all over the city, she had been introduced into a new circle of avant-garde intellectuals and artists. In time, Willy (14 years her senior), would encourage to her have affairs of her own, often with other women.

Given the cultural climate, Paris' bibliophiles were crying out for a liberated, complex female heroine, and they found an unlikely one in Claudine, a 15-year-old girl from a Burgundian village who - you guessed it - comes of age in belle époque France. The series of books - Claudine At School, Claudine In Paris, Claudine Married, and Claudine And Annie - were released around the turn of the century, with Willy as their author. He was hailed for his literary sleight of hand, not to mention his deft observations of girlhood, which would certainly have been impressive, had he actually written them. While he was lavished with praise and celebrity, Colette, the real author of the series, had been reportedly locked away at home, producing enough pages to please him. He employed a number of ghostwriters in what critics would later describe as a 'literary sweatshop'. He did have one vital contribution to the book - it was Willy who suggested that Claudine be enrolled in an all-girls' convent school, run by a seductive and sexy female teacher.

Colette had, not unreasonably, asked Willy to be credited alongside him as the books' author, but the man wasn't for turning. Three years after the final Claudine title was released, the pair separated, eventually divorcing in 1910. Willy had retained the copyright of the hugely successful Claudine series, meaning that as the coffers flowed in, few of them ended up in Colette's direction. A serious downturn in her fortunes resulted in another career change. By 1912, Colette had found a niche touring France's music halls, often performing self-penned sketches from the Claudine novels. For all its supposed glamour, it was a financially fraught time for Colette, and spells of penury left her unwell and starving for several lengthy spells.

Freshly single, she was even more free to love whoever she wanted, and among Colette's most famous relationships was with Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, also known as Missy. Missy preferred to wear three-piece suits, which were then forbidden to women, and smoked a cigar. Rumours abounded, though were later quashed that Missy - who had previously been married to Jacques Godart, 6th Marquis de Belbeuf - had undergone mastectomy surgery to rid herself of her breasts. Missy was a celebrity in her own right, but when she shared the music hall stage with Colette, the results were predictably incendiary.

In time, Colette would parlay the experience into yet another semi-autobiographical work of fiction, and one that this time she would create and publish largely on her own terms. La Vagabonde (1910) was a startlingly prescient work, portraying a female character struggling for independence in a stifling, patriarchal society. The pair shared an onstage kiss in 1907, sparking a near-riot.

Their relationship lasted for another five years, yet by 1912, Colette married Le Matin editor Henry de Jouvenel. A daughter followed a year later. The marriage ended in 1924, due in part to an affair Colette had with her 16-year-old stepson Bertrand. In 1925, she met her final husband Maurice Goudeket, 16 years her junior.

All the while, Colette was making hefty strides in her writing career, and by the 1920s, she had reached a creative purple patch. Her novels ran on the racier side, and it became evident that Colette drew on her own colourful personal experiences for material (Cheri and Le Ble en Herbe both contain affairs with much younger men).

Colette remained steadily productive, but it wasn't until 1944 that her most famous work came to light. Gigi tells the story of a 16-year-old trained by a courtesan to ensnare a wealthy lover, but ends up falling in love and marrying him instead. In 1951, it was adapted for the stage, with Colette personally picking newcomer Audrey Hepburn for the role.

In 1958, Gigi was afforded the silver screen treatment, and won the Best Picture at the Oscars that year.

Yet it was a moment that Colette would never see: she died in 1954, aged 81, and was buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. By then, she had long been regarded as one of the most important voices in women's writing. Denied a religious funeral ceremony because of her divorces and personal life, Colette nonetheless would get a more than fitting send off as one of the first French female authors to be afforded a state funeral. It probably goes without saying that she died a local figure of legend.

  • Colette is now showing in Irish cinemas.

Irish Independent

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