Original, whimsical, elusive, rebellious are all words that could describe Colette, whose path was paved with scandal. Yet, she felt nothing but disdain towards the latter and often perceived it through the lens of humour.
First a ghostwriter, then a mime, a comedian, an acknowledged novelist, the president of the Goncourt academy and ultimately Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honour. First a docile young bride, then a divorced woman, a lover, a mistress-wife, and finally a partner. At first heterosexual but subsequently homosexual. Here is a sister who did not impose arbitrary limits on herself.
In 1893, she offered her youth and her personality, which was as gravelly as her Burgundian accent, as a dowry to Willy – a seductive bald thirty-year-old with a belly, if I base myself off old photographs. He was a writer, a boulevard boy, an editor and a musical critique who was at ease in the Parisian seraglio. She loved him and he loved her, albeit less purely.
Gabrielle rapidly became a Parisian sensation, as well as her husband’s ghostwriter, as she put her memories of teenage years filled with sapphic eroticism on paper.
And so, Claudine was born: a substitute of Gabrielle.
Willy was thrilled by the literary success encountered by the Claudine series. The scandal was big but the success even bigger; the Claudine books were simultaneously slammed, praised and became an object of desire for the bourgeoisie, who were drawn to its aromas of infamy and debauchery and keen to innocently loosen up through the medium of literature.
Tired of Willy’s affairs, Gabrielle divorced him in 1905.
And so, Colette was born, now surrounded by the smell of scandal that follows divorced women.
In 1906, she made her debut as the first female mime of her time in a music-hall. She went on to perform in Marigny, the Moulin-Rouge, and the Bataclan before going on tour, so scantily clad that the police prefectures sometimes banned her outfits.
Missy, the daughter of the Duc de Morny – Napoléon III’s half-brother – also became her lover.
If she climbed on stage half-naked every night, it was less by desire to create a scandal and more by necessity because she wanted to be completely financially independent.
If she was in a relationship with a woman, it was less by desire for scandal and more by desire full stop.
She met Henri de Jouvenel, married him in 1912 and had a child with him: Bel-Gazou. When her second husband decided to be unfaithful to her, Colette, then in her forties, decided to cheat on him with his own son, Bertrand de Jouvenel, who was sixteen at the time. There was a smell of scandal in the air.
She published prolifically. A woman and a writer, scandalous, always. She rejected abstractions that numbed the mind. She was alive, grounded, sensual and she asserted this at a time when women were second class citizens, without voting rights or any voice.
Her texts transcend life. Her acute sense of human comedy and understanding of the waltz of egos and of desires was rarely off target, even when it came to her own desires.
Mistakes, by God she made many. But what I will always admire in Colette was her absence of egotism and her rejection of appearances. She hid practically nothing and lived the life she wanted. Furiously scandalous after all.
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