An Irishwoman's Diary: A mercurial Peter Pan of literature

The great French writer Colette was the first French woman to be given a state funeral - although she was denied a Catholic one because of her two divorces

 Colette at work about 1940. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Colette at work about 1940. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Tue, Aug 5, 2014, 01:00

Recently, American writer Edmund White remarked, not for the first time, that literary figures are far more respected in France than in the US. When Colette died, 60 years ago, and was, due to her two divorces, denied a Catholic burial service, she was instead given a state funeral, the first French woman to be so honoured.

On August 7th, 1954, at 7am, her body was moved to the Palais-Royal. Her coffin was draped with the French tricolour and flanked by a military guard. More than 6,000 Parisians mourned her, while 2,500 invited guests also added to the numbers.

Among the sea of flowers, including wreaths from the French parliament, the prefect of police, the princes of Monaco and the queen of Belgium, were lilies from the association of music hall artists. As well as writing more than 50 books, a libretto for Ravel, L’enfant et les sortilèges, and thousands of letters, filling some five volumes in the French edition, Colette, in a hectic life of living, observing, loving and breaking taboos, had also of course, danced semi-naked at the Moulin Rouge.

At 40, she had her only child, a daughter, also named Colette, who was ignored as a child by her famous mother and raised by an English nanny.

By any standards of self-confidence and behaviour; talent and output, Colette, born Sidonie Gabrielle Colette in Burgundy in 1873, was intimidating, clever and precocious. Her father’s career in the army had ended when his leg was amputated. He became a slaphappy tax inspector which meant there was never enough money to sustain a lively household filled with talk and pets.

Colette’s lively and imaginative mother, Sido, may well have been the writer’s one great love. On their mother’s death in 1912, Colette’s brother Achille destroyed about 2,000 of the letters Colette had written to her. No one has ever really explained that, which is curious as so much has been written about Colette, wilful and opinionated and, after an initially strange apprenticeship as a writer, a fearless realist very much in control.

Her saucy adventures in the village school proved the inspiration for what would become a literary industry, begun with the Claudine sequence. There is quite a story about how these novels came into being. The daring young Colette caught the fancy of an opportunist journalist named Henry Gauthiers-Villars (1859 - 1931) who was making a name as a music critic: he championed Wagner.

More importantly, he was good at getting people to do things for him, including producing copy for him to sign. Soon after he had wed the 20-year-old Colette and brought her to Paris, he had a brainwave: he decided she should write about her schooldays. Claudine at School was published in 1900, under his name. It was so successful he ordered he to write more. She was so reluctant that he locked her in her room, explaining that she would have to write if she wished to get out.

It sounds like a perverse modern fairy tale. Instead of spinning her hair into gold, she had to turn her life into a commodity. As the ever astute John Updike pointed out: “Without Willy, there would have been no Colette; it was via her unhappy marriage with him that she made the greatest transition of her versatile career, from clever village girl to an ornament of the Belle Époque and, enduringly a writer.” Elsewhere Updike was to remark: “In the prize ring of life, few of us would have lasted ten rounds with Colette.”

Gauthiers-Villars didn’t either. After 13 years of misery and betrayal, she divorced him. She then married Henry de Jouvenel, the father of her only child. Amidst all the intrigues and romances, and her much vaunted lesbian affairs, she also reported on the war and assisted refuges.

Such distractions must have affected her writing. Yet in 1920, after she published Chéri and her reputation was assured, the writing continued. Colette also became involved with her stepson. In 1935, approaching 52, she married a younger man, Maurice Goudeket. They stayed together until her death at 81.

Frank and possessed of lightness of touch she brought her cool gaze to the business of sexual relationships and female experience in a way which pleased readers and critics. She made nostalgia unsentimental. Even Truman Capote admitted quaking in her presence. Bedridden with arthritis during the closing 30 years of her life, Colette, who never smiled when photographed and loved the colour blue, was, and remains, a mercurial Peter Pan. Her daughter, who died in 1981 aged 68, is buried beside her.

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