From the producers who brought you Carol and the studio that brought you Disobedience and the actor who brought you undisputed lesbian coming-of-age story Bend It Like Beckham comes a new film about the French writer/bisexual legend Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. But you can just call her Colette. Everyone else did and so that’s the tile of her movie.
If you know Colette, you’re surely already lined up to buy your tickets to the film. If you don’t know Colette, allow me to introduce you. She is one of the most fascinating queer women to ever have her history recorded — and boi did she ever have it recorded!
Dozens of biographers have compiled tens of thousands of pages about Colette’s life over the last few decades, each of them imprinting on her in some way or another, shaping her words and her actions into the motives that best suited their own personal agendas. In the earliest biographies after her death, Colette was painted as a victim who survived an abusive first husband and paid the price for divorcing him by being driven into stage-acting, poverty, and the arms of women. Biographers in later years, however, have “emphasized the provocative teenager, the resolute bisexual, the consummate artist” and found her to be a “surprisingly subversive modern woman who defied traditional models, was unafraid to reverse sex roles and was blessed with an amazing talent for survival and self-renewal.”
Colette is a compelling historical figure, full of fire and contradictions. Before you go see Keira Knightley portray her, here are eight things you should know about her life.
1. Colette’s first husband gave her a room of her own — and locked her inside it.
Henry Gauthier-Villars, known to everyone as Willy, was Colette’s first husband and he was an absolute con-artist. He posed as a writer, but never wrote anything at all. He hired composers to write his music critic columns and ghost writers to pen all his novels. He got free labor from Colette, and when she started wanting credit for her massively popular Claudine series and also wasn’t writing sequels fast enough, he literally locked her in her room until she produced enough pages to suit him.
2. Colette wrote the original queer YA series.
The Claudine series consists of four novels that begin when Claudine is in her early teens and follow her through her marriage to a man she ends up despising and cheating on with another woman. Claudine is unapologetically bisexual, in fact, and also a fan of wearing men’s clothes. The series was a huge hit with French housewives and French intellectuals, so much so that it spawned branded soaps, school uniforms, perfumes, and even cigars. The whole thing is just layers of queerness. Colette wrote the book posing as a man who was writing a bisexual tomboy who married a very feminine man whom she fell out of love with to pursue a very feminine woman. Many of Colette’s biographers also count Claudine as the first modern YA coming of age story with a female protagonist.
3. Claudine shares themes with Wonder Woman for a reason.
Colette’s mother was a great student of philosopher Charles Fourier and his doctrine of voluptuousness. Fourier, who is often credited with coining the word “feminism,” was a big proponent of gender equality and allowing people to explore their sexuality outside the confines of monogamous heterosexual marriage. He was very much a proponent of queer polyamory. Colette is believed to have used her mother’s journals and teachings as inspiration for her characters and her own personal ethos. Another student of Charles Fourier? Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston. You see themes of his teachings playing out vividly in many of Wonder Woman’s Golden Age stories.
In Judith Thurman’s Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, she says Colette was “a young woman with a weakness for bondage an old woman with a genius for domination.” That’s Wonder Woman’s history in a nutshell, but literally.
4. Proust was Colette’s arch-nemesis.
Despite being a prolific writer who turned out more than 50 novels in her life, Colette was often denied the critical respect she deserved because she wrote about women and also feelings and sex and sexuality and fashion and food and the elusiveness of the concept of home. Oh, and animals. Lots of talking animals. Nearly every biography and even obituary of Colette will mention that she was the best French woman writer of her time; more often than not she is “second only to Proust.” There’s no evidence she had any personal enmity toward Proust, but critics could not help stop comparing them to each other and finding Colette wanting simply by the “feminine” nature of her writing. Rarely, and wonderfully, major publications did single her out as the greatest French writer of her generation. Famously, the New York Times did so in it’s review of her collection of short stories in 1951:
“She is the greatest living French writer of fiction [and] she was while Gide and Proust still lived,” NYT declared. “These two preposterously afflicted self-adoring, frankly career-geniuses certainly got in Colette’s light; they certainly diminished her standing, though not her own kind of genius.”
5. Colette’s chart puts Alice Pieszecki’s to shame.
In addition to writing about bisexual women, Colette lived openly as a bisexual woman and had relationships with many prominent queer ladies. Her two most famous women lovers are probably American playwright and novelist Natalie Clifford Barney, self-proclaimed “queen of the Paris lesbians” and French noblewoman and artist Mathilde “Missy” de Morny (who also happened to be Napoleon’s niece). Missy was famous for her short hair, the fact that she wore full three-piece suits (despite the fact that it was literally illegal for women to do so) and her marriage to openly gay nobleman Jacques Godart. She even crossed paths and lovers with famous English suffragette/original Shane McCutcheon, Radclyffe Hall.
6. Her queer kisses caused literal riots.
When Colette and Missy kissed on stage after performing Rêve d’Égypte at the Moulin Rouge in 1907, the police were called in to control the crowd, which responded to the sapphic smooch with puritanical hysterics. Their riot spilled into the streets and ended with people smashing windows. This followed an incident where Colette was photographed on stage after her breast slipped out of one of her costumes and exposed her nipple. The public was so frenzied about her behavior, she and Missy had to stop living together (though they continued their relationship for several more years).
7. Colette made Audrey Hepburn.
Colette wrote until her dying day. In fact, one of her last works, Gigi, is probably her most famous — at least among Americans. She published it in her 70s and then hand-picked Audrey Hepburn to play the title role in the Broadway show. A role that launched Hepburn’s career, despite the fact that she couldn’t even pitch her voice so the audience could hear her when she first started rehearsing. The show’s producers and directors were worried about Hepburn’s timidity and the way she “garbled” her lines, but she always had Colette in her corner.
8. Colette did not want to be a hero.
Colette was not without her glaring flaws and weaknesses, none of which she shied away from talking and writing about. She seemed to — at the very least — not care for her own daughter, ultimately abandoning her to paid caretakers. She wrote of being a mother, “My strain of virility saved me from the danger which threatens the writer, elevated to a happy and tender parent, of becoming a mediocre author.” She also confessed that a friend had to tear a horse whip out of her hand when she took it up to hit her child with it. It’s no surprise, then, that the most unflattering biography of Colette comes from Michel del Castillo, one of Colette’s daughter’s longtime friends. Colette also published stories and columns in newspapers and magazines that ran anti-Semitic content during the Nazi occupation of France, despite also helping her Jewish friends and being married to a Jewish man.
It’s impossible to try to recount all the ins and outs and ups and downs of Colette’s life in one list. The most recent biographies about her life contain multiple volumes. But these are some things I thought you’d want to know! If you’ve got any Colette anecdotes or facts you want to talk about, share them in the comments. In the meantime, here’s the official trailer for Keira Knightley’s film. You know a review is coming as soon as I get my hands on it.