Colette at 150: why the scandalous 20th-century writer remains a revered literary figure in France

Colette, as British author Angela Carter pointed out in a wittily perceptive article in 1980, is perhaps the only 20th-century woman writer to be commonly referred to by her surname only.

Of course that surname is her father’s – “you can’t subvert patriarchy that easily”, added Carter – but by a happy accident, it “doubles as a girlish handle”.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette first published as Colette Willy, pragmatically adopting the pen-name of her unscrupulous but well-connected first husband. During her second marriage to a famous newspaper editor and politician, she became the aristocratic Colette de Jouvenel. Once divorced for the second time, however, she gave up the patriarchal practice of taking her husband’s name and became simply Colette.

It was under this name that she moved on from being the scandalous bisexual music-hall pin-up of her early days, to the revered author and national treasure “notre grande Colette”. She was the first woman to preside over the notoriously misogynist Académie Goncourt (whose all-male jury gave the prestigious Prix Goncourt only to men until 1944) and was the first Frenchwoman to be granted a state funeral. But the whiff of frivolity – too many stories about dancers and gigolos – stymied her accession to canonical status.

Now though, as 2023 marks the 150th anniversary of her birth, Colette is being celebrated in France and internationally as a uniquely compelling figure in the French cultural landscape.

Several new studies have appeared, including Notre Colette by Frédéric Maget, president of the Société des Amis de Colette. Maget is also the director of the restored childhood home, museum and study centre in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, the Burgundy village she made famous through her writing.

In January at the highly prestigious Institut de France, an “afternoon with Colette” involved readings by famous actors, presentations by academic specialists, music and a pop-up Colette bookshop. Exhibitions abound and several prominent magazines have devoted special issues to her life and works: Lire magazine’s headline was “Colette: tout feu, tout femme! – all fire, all woman!”.

Events are programmed in Italy, Germany, New York and beyond, new translations of her work are appearing and this year’s Beyond Words Festival at the Institut Français in London will include a celebration of Colette and her writing.

A woman in a man’s world

It is a pleasure to see a great woman and writer fêted in this way, but it is important that her colourful life story and personality do not upstage the splendour of her writing and the artistry it displays.

Her novels, to borrow again from Carter, represent some of the most “truthful expositions of the dilemma of a free woman in a patriarchal society”, and her work charts the struggles but also the resilience and pleasures of female lives from girlhood to old age.

And she is brilliant on the complexities of gender, caustically alert to masculine arrogance but also detailing the beauties of masculine bodies, and offering empathetic portraits of the male casualties of patriarchal law.

Colette was a social chronicler as a prolific journalist as well as a fiction writer, providing a highly original woman’s perspective on everything from fashion (as a comfortably built middle-aged woman she can be very funny about the whippet-thin styles of the 1920s) to murder trials and the material and moral hardships of both world wars.

If Colette’s famed attention to flowers, plants, animals and food have contributed to her exclusion from “serious” status as a writer – seen as sentimental, or as part of a conservative emphasis on “la France profonde” – this passionate attention to the natural world is surely ripe for reassessment in the light of the current ecological crisis: Colette as eco-feminist?

Life, death and acceptance

And there is the lovely, precise sensuality of Colette’s writing, the words themselves offering the sensory pleasures of sound and form (to a surprising extent captured in many good translations) even as they produce, in the reader’s mind and on their senses, the most vivid images of her imagined world.

Colette’s passionate engagement in life and language survived ageing and infirmity, eliding into her marvellous serenity about mortality. In the peerless Break of Day, and the last works written in old age, The Blue Lantern and The Evening Star, she affirms life’s value as undiminished by mortality, and the individual as woven into the chain of generations – the world does not perish because we leave it.

Closely attentive to a present profoundly enriched by memories, she envisages death as a final journey of discovery:

Discoveries, ever more discoveries! […] Rest assured, nothing is decaying, it is I who am drifting … The open sea, but not the wilderness.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Diana Holmes is affiliated with Women in French UK-Ireland.