Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, (28 January 1873 – 3 August 1954) was a French novelist nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Her best known work, the novella Gigi (1944), was the basis for the film and Lerner and Loewe stage production of the same name. She was also a mime, an actress, and a journalist.
A new film is out about this fascinating woman. I have yet to see the film, but this did put me on a search to learn more about her life, sidetracked by a controlling husband who took the credit from her.
Synopsis: After marrying a successful Parisian writer known commonly as “Willy” (Dominic West), Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) is transplanted from her childhood home in rural France to the intellectual and artistic splendor of Paris.
After a dozen years with Willy, Colette was able to break free to be her own decision maker. Willy, sixteen years her senior, introduced her to Paris society. He had taken the credit for the four novella’s Colette had published. At one point, he locked her in a room until she produced written pages. She said that she would have not been a writer if not for Willy.
I like this quote because it speaks of why she was silent for so long. Willie was a “father figure,” even though self-serving.
This period of her life is recalled in La Vagabonde (1910), which deals with women’s independence in a male society, a theme to which she would regularly return in future works. During these years she embarked on a series of relationships with other women, notably with Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf (“Missy”), with whom she sometimes shared the stage. On January 3, 1907, an onstage kiss between Missy and Colette in a pantomime entitled Rêve d’Égyptecaused a near-riot, and as a result they were no longer able to live together openly, although their relationship continued for another five years.[
Colette did remarry, an editor, and have a daughter, only to divorce a dozen years later (1912-1924). This period gave her time to devote to writing. The 20’s and 30’s were her most productive. Her writings were inspired by her own curiosity. Now an established and self-supporting writer, her works reflected her criticism of the conventional lives of women.
This is what draws me to Colette, how she broke with conventions. She lived through both world wars in occupied France. Upon her death, the Catholic Church refused a religious ceremony, however, she received a state funeral, the first French woman of letters to be granted the honor.
A simple girl, with an open heart ready to be molded, she found her voice, much like the character she wrote about in Gigi. I find her an inspiration.
In 1944 she published what became perhaps her most famous work, Gigi, telling the story of sixteen-year-old Gilberte (“Gigi”) Alvar. Born into a family of demimondaines, Gigi is being trained as a courtesan to captivate a wealthy lover, but breaks with tradition by marrying him instead. In 1949 it was made into a French film starring Danièle Delorme and Gaby Morlay, then in 1951 adapted for the stage with the then-unknown Audrey Hepburn in the title role, picked by Colette personally; the 1958 Hollywood musical, starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan, with a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner and a score by Lerner and Frederick Loewe, won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Colette, self portrait