There are writers whose essence may be suggested by a single phrase or sentence from their work—Kipling, Hemingway, Eliot for instance. Colette (1873-1934) is another such writer. “Ces plaisirs qu’on nomme, à la légère, physiques“—“these pleasures lightly called physical.” The sentence appears first in her novel of adolescent love, Le Blé en herbe (The Ripening Seed). She took it again as the original title of her study of lesbian affections, Le Pur et l’impur, which, she suggested, mistakenly, “will one day be recognized perhaps as my best book.” I say “mistakenly,” for I do not think it her best book, though it may be her most significant.

Judith Thurman, in her excellent new biography, which follows hard on the detailed two-volume French biography, Creating Colette, by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, says Le Pur et l’impur “comes closer than any other of Colette’s books, memoir or fiction, to revealing the ‘mysterious nature of [her] being’…which she guarded so fiercely, even from her intimates.” Ms. Thurman’s title, Secrets of the Flesh, acknowledges the importance of “these pleasures lightly called physical” for an understanding of her subject.

Colette, uninterested in “general ideas,” as Ms. Thurman puts it, was among the most autobiographical of writers. Yet the nature of her being was “mysterious.” That is the paradox the biographer seeks to explore, with, especially in Ms. Thurman’s case, both art and intelligence. There is a problem from the start. How far can the version of Colette offered by Colette be trusted? Were the character and history she presented to the world conscious artifacts? The problem is not unique; most writers fashion a persona they would have the world accept. Colette is, however, remarkable for the success of her self-portrait.

Here I must make a confession. A dozen or so years ago I wrote a short biography of Colette for a Penguin series, Lives of Modern Women. It lacked objectivity. I was seduced by Colette, by her prose, and also by the girl in the sailor suit and the wise old woman crippled by arthritis but working to the end from her bed (which she called her “raft”). I was captivated by the once-scandalous young woman who in her old age had become, as the English critic Raymond Mortimer wrote, “a national glory, something to enjoy as well as to be proud of, like Chambertin or the Luxembourg Gardens or the Provençal spring.” I do not regret the book, or regret having fallen in love with her, and so having come to find everything she did forgivable; but I recognize that Ms. Thurman’s biography is not only a much fuller book, but a far better one, being more critical. And the same may also be said of the biography by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier. Ms. Thurman, like Francis and Gontier, is not in love with Colette. She paints her with all her defects, some of them conspicuous and ugly.

In the authorized version of Colette’s life, everything begins with her adored and adoring mother, Sido, and a perfect childhood. “It is from Sido,” wrote the French critic (and friend) Jean Charpentier, “that Mme. Colette gets her spontaneity, her humor, and that instinct or divination which makes her understand both the animal and vegetable worlds.” Sido was Parisian by birth, but was sent to a peasant wet nurse on a farm in Burgundy. She was to spend most of her life in that province, the country of Colette’s childhood. (Colette herself would retain to the end a Burgundian accent, with the rolled “r,” not then a feature of northern French or Parisian speech.) But, as both biographies point out, in fact Sido was a northerner. Radical politics had driven her family into exile in Belgium, and she had a great love for the solid bourgeois culture of Brussels. There was an exotic strain too, provided by a quadroon grandfather from the French West Indies. “You know,” Colette wrote to the poet Francis Jammes, “I’ve a black stain in my blood. Does that disgust you?”

Francis and Gontier make much of the influence on Sido and, through her, on Colette of the ideas of the utopian social theorist Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Himself a Burgundian, born in Besançon, Fourier was, in the words of Edmund Wilson, a man of “remarkable unworldliness and directness;…capable of relentless persistency…,” combining “in a peculiar fashion the deepest humanitarian sympathies with a passion for systematic exactitude.” Thurman is less than impressed by the argument for Fourier’s influence on Colette, and rightly, for Colette herself had no interest in any systems. Nevertheless Fourier’s belief that mankind could pass from social chaos to harmony only by encouraging the free and healthy development of human talent and emotions does seem to have been Sido’s also, and it finds a reflection in Colette’s work. It’s also the case of course that the free development and expression of emotions can be a recipe for selfishness, and an excuse for indifference to the feelings of others. Colette, sadly, too often displayed that as well.


Sido was married once, and then she married again; the passive voice should be used only for her first marriage to a local landowner, an alcoholic on the verge of madness, known (Colette tells us) as “the Savage.” This arranged marriage was regarded by Colette as the sacrifice of her mother on the altar of the bourgeois regard for property. No doubt it was, although Colette would herself eventually worship at that altar herself.

The second husband, Colette’s father, was Sido’s lover before her first husband was happily removed by death. Jules-Joseph Colette was a retired officer who had lost a leg in Napoleon III’s 1859 Italian campaign. He was an unsuccessful politician and would-be author. When he died, Colette tells us, a dozen bound volumes, empty of any words but a title and a dedication to Sido, were found in his study. It is at least a good story. Captain Colette adored his wife; his daughter felt tenderly toward him, at least in memory.

A happy childhood was interrupted by financial disaster when her father’s speculations turned out badly. Their house had to be sold, the furniture put up for public auction. As Francis and Gontier make clear, the humiliation was extreme. Colette came to believe it had strengthened her. Previously, her life had been “roses all the way; yet what would I have done with a life that was nothing but roses?”

The financial crash meant that Colette would have no dowry. Without one she would be lucky to find a husband. A man then presented himself, an unconventional but brilliant fellow. His name was Henri Gaulthier-Villars, but everyone knew him as Willy. He was fourteen years older than Colette, and the son of a distinguished publisher of scientific works. Starting conventionally as a poet, he had established a reputation as a journalist and novelist.

Accounts of how Sido viewed the marriage vary, but are not necessarily to be disbelieved when they appear contradictory. Thurman cites a story of Sido looking miserable the day after the wedding; Francis and Gontier present us with a Sido who schemed to arrange the marriage. She may well have done so, and with reason. Yet she could scarcely fail to have had doubts, for the courtship had been disturbed by anonymous letters—that specialty of the French provinces—denouncing Willy’s way of life, and Sido had herself looked after Willy’s illegitimate child. But though, eventually, Colette was to reproach herself for the marriage, there is no evidence that she ever reproached Sido.

Colette was twenty when they married, and she exchanged a village in Burgundy for the Paris of the Belle Epoque, where, as the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche put it, “this singular couple, Willy and Colette, moved in the best, and the worst, society.” Willy, even before marriage, had sensed a truth of our century, not yet born: that notoriety has a cash value.

The marriage with Willy is a problem for any biographer of Colette. Years after it was over, she herself gave a brilliant account of it in Mes Apprentissages. Her version is utterly persuasive, and not to be relied on. (I once relied on it; Thurman doesn’t and neither do Francis and Gontier.) She presents her marriage as the fruit of

a guilty rapture, an atrocious impure adolescent impulse. There are many scarcely nubile girls who dream of becoming the show, the plaything, the licentious masterpiece of some middle-aged man. It is an ugly dream that is punished by its fulfillment, a morbid thing, akin to the neuroses of puberty, the habit of eating chalk and coal, of drinking mouthwash, of reading dirty books and sticking pins into the palm of your hand….

Was she sincere when she wrote that? Probably. Does she protest too much? Undoubtedly. She got what she wanted then. She was dazzled by Willy and infatuated with him, and he offered her an exciting life in Paris. What, eventually, Colette could not forgive Willy for was the huge effect he had on her life. She was as much his creation as Sido’s.

In Mes Apprentissages she had her revenge, presenting Willy as primarily a comic figure. He was the writer who could not write, and who set up accordingly as an entrepreneur, a capitalist of literature who would supply, on demand, columns, essays, paragraphs of gossip, dialogues, whole novels and books of scandalous history and spurious memoirs, of which he would write scarcely a line, all the work being done in his “factory” by his ghosts, his “nègres,” of whom Colette herself would become the most famous, and the one who escaped him.


Without question, Willy exploited his assistants, Colette among them. But he had a touch of genius himself, and not only as an entrepreneur. If in the end he came to nothing, if he is doomed to be remembered only because of his association with Colette, it was because he suffered, in his own words, from a boredom that was “dense and tenacious, that weighs me down and eats me up.” Thurman says, “His goal was to be as notorious as possible for his utter moral worthlessness.” Francis and Gontier speak of his “contempt for conventional morality” and believe that the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (when he was eleven) had “a lasting impact…; ever afterward he felt that life was absurd, that the pursuit of artistic and physical pleasures was the only thing worthwhile….” A complex character, he became addicted to publicity, and would go to any lengths to attract it, though in their marriage Colette would also find occasion to resent his obsessive love of secrecy. Finding certainty nowhere, he was obsessed with money, while living in such a manner as to ensure he could never become rich. His worship of money “eventually sapped his strength, degraded his character, and destroyed his marriage to Colette.”

Before then, however, he had launched her on her career as a writer, with books published under his name. The Claudine novels, which were to become the rage in Paris, began with his command that she should “jot down” her memories of elementary school. “Don’t be afraid of spicy details,” she says he told her, “perhaps I can make something of them. Funds are low.”

Unlike her mature work, the Claudine novels have dated. The “spicy details”—the seduction for example in Claudine at School of one adolescent girl by another and the lesbian passions of the teachers—are mild by today’s standards. Nevertheless, the books retain a biographical and social interest. Thurman sees them as a

fascinating and baroque form of transvestism. She is a woman writing as a man, Willy, who poses as a boyish girl, Claudine, who marries a “feminized” man, the aging Renaud, who pushes her into the arms of a female lover, Rézi, with whom she takes the virile role.

When they were adapted for the stage, Willy paraded his wife and the young actress Polaire, who played Claudine, dressed identically.

There is a sniggering vulgarity about the Claudine books which Colette’s admirers choose to ascribe to Willy’s editorial intrusion; and it is fair to say that they set out to titillate, like the salacious German postcards Willy collected. But, since she eventually went to court to establish her authorship, she can’t be acquitted of responsibility for their inescapable, if still perhaps seductive, cheapness. They are the work of a writer still immature, living in a milieu that was nasty and corrupt.

The marriage ended, partly on account of Willy’s infidelity, partly because Colette grew up; she was no longer the adolescent girl dazzled by Willy’s flashy sophistication. Without money, without the rights to her own work, she was thrown back on herself. Her independent life, starting when she and Willy separated in 1905, began in poverty.

This was the most remarkable period of her life. She became, as Anita Brookner has written, “a lesbian, a transvestite, a music-hall performer of dubious quality, a chronicler of opium addiction and homosexual love affairs.” And alcoholism, one might add. “This hard-headed hard-working ardent and humiliated woman,” Brookner went on, “created the stereotype woman who presides over her own emotional life, and who appeals to those who desire to do the same.”

It was in these years between her separation and her second marriage in 1913 that Sido’s daughter, Madame Willy, realized herself as Colette. To “decent people” she was a scandal. Even Sido was shocked. Though she had never cared for Willy she demanded he use his “authority”—for the divorce was not complete until 1910—to prevent Colette appearing on stage in a mime show with the Marquise de Belboeuf. The Marquise, always known as “Missy,” was herself notorious, and had long been so. The daughter of the Duc de Morny, an illegitimate half-brother of Napoleon III, she dressed invariably as a man, disguising her femininity by wearing an assortment of shirts and woolen waistcoats that made her look like a teddy bear. She and Colette were soon lovers, and Missy’s love was tender, affectionate, demanding only in its softness and self-effacement.

Willy thought the affair a joke. He used to travel in railway carriages reserved for ladies, and, when challenged, announced that he was the Marquise de Belboeuf. Colette and Missy appeared on stage in a composition of Willy’s, Le Rêve d’Egypte. When an ardent embrace provoked the fury of the audience, Willy rose from his seat in the box he shared with his mistress, and bowed deeply.

Colette’s years in the music halls, where her companions, mainly young working-class men and women, struggled for security in a precarious environment, gave her a respect for the virtues of industry and professionalism that she would keep all her life. They strengthened her native core of professional good sense.

She also became, finally, a writer. The Vagabond (1910) was her first mature fiction. Thurman says, “It is literature, and it adheres to a standard of spiritual truthfulness that was new for Colette.” Her narrator, Renée Néré, is, as Thurman writes,

a woman trying to invent a new way of life…. Is there love without complete submission and loss of identity? Is freedom worth the loneliness that pays for it? Those are the questions that Renée asks in this novel, and that, indeed, Colette explores for the rest of her life as a writer.

In this novel, too, she revenged herself on Willy, in the character of Taillandy. In Thurman’s words: “Colette strips the living Willy of his charm…. He stands exposed to the world as the liar, the cynic, the sadist, the adulterer, the thief, and the artistic fake that Colette, in 1910 and forever after, believed him to be.” Yet the portrait is an act of self-reproach also. She was bitter because she had loved Willy, and even more because she had allowed him to love her, in his peculiar way.

Lesbos—Gomorrah—was an interlude. Her second husband was very different from Willy. For a start he was respectable. He was also an aristocrat and a serious politician. Three years younger than Colette, Henry de Jouvenel was proprietor and editor of Le Matin. Colette became a journalist, his lover, and soon his second wife. So intense was their affair before marriage that she ignored many requests to visit her adored, and now dying, mother.

It is testimony to Colette’s charm and strength of will that Jouvenel married her. (The first Baronne de Jouvenel thought it evidence of his “plebeian tastes.”) He made her Le Matin’s drama critic and star reporter, eventually even a war correspondent. Both Thurman and Francis and Gontier agree in thinking him the love of her life. Perhaps. He certainly mattered enough for her to explore her feeling for him, long after the marriage was over, in Julie de Carneilhan (1941), which I think one of her best novels.

Thurman thinks poorly of it, finding it lacking in humor, and declaring that “Colette doesn’t have enough distance from her subject, or from her malice”—this directed at Jouvenel. She sees it as “a gesture of collaboration,” and indeed it was published in the virulently anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi Gringoire. “Did she not realize how ingratiating the characters of Espivant and Marianne would be to the rabid nationalists and anti-Semites of Je suis partout, Gringoire, La Gerbe, or L’Action française?” Francis and Gontier say that “Colette did not consider her novel very good; she was even annoyed that [her old friend] Marguerite Moréno had read it.”

Yet, when questions of the relationship between the author and any real-life models for her characters are set aside and when, though this may be more difficult, the circumstances of its publication are also ignored, as they may surely be in sixty years, the novel is admirable for many reasons. Its economy and directness are startling. It is shot through with visual intensity. There is a fine absence of self-pity in the book. Julie is judged as unsparingly as Espivant. What we get is a dramatic and lucid picture of two people locked in a struggle for mastery, neither ready to give up independence, both faithless and reluctant, finally, to let the other go. The novel in no way depends on one’s knowledge of its biographical background; art has taken over from life.

Each was unfaithful to the other, Jouvenel with a variety of lovers, Colette with his adolescent son by his first marriage. Bertrand de Jouvenel was not quite seventeen when he and Colette fell in love. Years later Martha Gellhorn had an affair with him. Meeting Colette she found her “a terrible woman. Absolute, utter hell.” Nevertheless Gellhorn admitted that “Bertrand just adored her all his life. He never understood when he was in the presence of evil.” Six months before meeting Bertrand, Colette had finished Chéri, perhaps her masterpiece. The story of the affair between a beautiful boy and a middle-aged courtesan—was it a case of art anticipating life?

Colette returned to the stage to play Léa, the courtesan, displeasing Jouvenel who was then representing France at the League of Nations. In irritation he asked her: “Can’t you ever write a book that isn’t about love and adultery or rupture or half-incestuous goings-on? Aren’t there other things in life?” These were understandable but stupid questions; Jouvenel was not of course alone in failing to realize that the interest of subjects depends entirely on how they are treated by the writer. But his objections, his exasperation, received editorial expression. In 1923, when Le Matin serialized Le Blé en herbe, Colette was informed that readers were offended by her frank treatment of adolescent love.

There were other causes of dissension. Colette resented Jouvenel’s absorption in politics; he was jealous of her animals: “I always have the feeling I am intruding.” (Colette herself wrote: “Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.” One of her truest and most exquisite novels, The Cat, is about a young man who prefers his beautiful cat to his wife.) “You can’t imagine what it is like living with a woman who always has bare feet,” Jouvenel said. No wonder the marriage broke up.

A casualty of the divorce was their daughter, known as Bel-Gazou, resented by Colette partly because she resembled her father. There were deeper reasons. Colette, spoiled by Sido, hardened by her experiences of marriage and career, was accustomed to putting herself first. She remained, a part of her, always a daughter seeking to be cherished and admired, rather than a mother. When Bel-Gazou was an adolescent her mother turned back to write about her mother, Sido, and to indulge in memories of her own childhood.

In the last year of her life Sido wrote in a letter to Colette, “I see, darling, that you are still haunted by the old house and its garden. This naturally gives me great pleasure, but it also makes me a little sad.” Colette herself, at that time in the throes of her affair with Jouvenel, denied to herself and others that her mother was dying. She made excuses not to visit. “My sainted mother,” she wrote to a theater colleague, “is insufferable.” She wasn’t really ill at all, merely “having a crisis of ‘I want to see my daughter.”‘ All this really tells us is that the real Sido could be found as irritating by Colette as other aging mothers often are by their daughters.

When she came to write about Sido, reality was transformed. The question is, by how much; or was it even deformed. Both Thurman and Francis and Gontier have reservations about Sido. Thurman lays stress on her possessiveness; Francis and Gontier tend to see her as scheming and obsessed with money. Given the difficulties of her life, and Captain Colette’s financial ineptitude, it would be surprising if she didn’t have a weakness for money.

Yet it is clear that, in retrospect, Colette saw her mother as both her rock and her model—a model whom she was never quite able to live up to. There is, it may be, a desire to deceive both herself and her readers in the manner in which she displays Sido’s perfections. But there is little intentional dishonesty. Her love for her mother grew deeper with the passing of time; and that is not uncommon. Compare the complaints Proust directed at his mother in his letters with the portrait of her as his grandmother in his novel. Colette’s third husband, Maurice Goudeket, who understood her better than anyone else, wrote in his memoir, Close to Colette:

How full and satisfying must have been that life in common at Saint-Sauveur, under the wing of the incomparable Sido—we know the Captain less well—to have remained in the minds of the children as a lost paradise which shaped them forever afterwards.

Colette was a few weeks short of her fiftieth birthday when Jouvenel finally left her. For the second time, she was a woman on her own. She had proved herself a talented and versatile journalist. She had written two novels hailed as masterpieces, La Vagabonde and Chéri. She was broke. This time, however, she was less bruised; she knew she could maintain herself. She was somebody now. She had a serious, as well as a scandalous, reputation. In 1920 she had been made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Nevertheless, until near the end, her life would illustrate the truth of Anthony Powell’s observation that a writer may have his name all over the newspapers yet be uncertain where the next check is coming from.

She didn’t immediately give up Bertrand, but Maurice Goudeket would become her third and last husband ten years later. He was sixteen years her junior, son of a Dutch-Jewish dealer in precious stones and a French-Jewish mother. Unlike his predecessors he would devote his life to Colette unreservedly and stay with her to the end. His devotion didn’t however preclude the occasional mistress.

She continued to work incessantly, at journalism and novels, and at essays in memory. She even, when Maurice was broke during the Depression, started a beauty salon. It wasn’t a success, but Colette the writer had become an institution.

Then the war came. And, in December 1941, the Gestapo came for Maurice. He was taken to the detention camp at Compiègne. Colette pulled every string she knew of to get him released. “She saw collaborators and saw Germans,” Goudeket later said. She wrote for the collaborationist press and continued to do so after Maurice was freed in 1942, thanks to the intervention of the German ambassador, the Francophile Otto Abetz, whose French wife was an admirer of Colette and even invited Colette and Maurice to tea at the German embassy within two months of his release. Colette has been reproached for writing for newspapers and periodicals approved by the Germans and Vichy. Thurman suggests that she thought of it as “a form of credit she could draw on later,” to protect Maurice. “Perhaps,” she adds, “unlike her husband she had her doubts about an Allied victory.”

But Thurman sees Colette’s “reluctance to take any sort of stand, even privately, or to voice any sentiment of outrage at the persecutions, even in her letters,” as “a symptom of that moral lethargy she admits to so candidly in ‘Bella-Vista,’ where the narrator bears witness to crimes she does nothing to stop.” No one can claim she behaved well during the Occupation, but it is impertinent to suppose that one might oneself, in her circumstances, have behaved better. The central question raised in France by the events of 1940 was: What do you do when you have lost a war? Like most people Colette tried to make the best of it.

She found solace, as ever, in work. She wrote five novellas, two of them, Le Képi and Gigi, of the first quality. “Never,” Thurman writes,

are Colette’s “powers of denial” greater than in her last works of fiction, and never is she more endearing or accessible…. She reveals the smiling face she begrudged to the camera throughout her life, and the maternal benevolence that she feared so terribly to show her child. They signal a sickbed conversion of sorts. It’s not quite to a solid faith in love, in lasting happiness, or in redemption—she was too inveterate an unbeliever and too vigilant an artist to let herself go so far. But she allows that in a marriage or an affair there may be no victims, except, perhaps, of vanity, and that lust is not invariably predatory or destructive; it may coexist with devotion.

“Too vigilant an artist” is a good phrase.

She came through, to become one of the natural glories of France. In her last years when she was mostly bedridden, crippled with arthritis (perhaps the consequence of gymnastic exercises in youth), she lived out the myth of Colette she had created. She was an institution; her complete works in fifteen volumes began to be published in 1948. She died in 1954.

In a note written after her death, Bertrand de Jouvenel observed:

Love has two faces, agape and eros, a deep understanding and a petulant wilfulness to seize it. It is not easy to divorce them: Colette was immensely rich in the former and therein lies her greatness; for the latter she suffered ample retribution….

But, without that willfulness and that suffering, she would not have succeeded in making herself Colette.

Both of the recent biographies are admirable, Thurman’s especially. They do justice to a remarkable woman, and a great, if limited, writer. She knew and respected these limitations herself. She wrote from her own experience, scarcely at all beyond it. Her characters are never troubled, as Mauriac’s or Gide’s are, by questions of religious faith or political commitment. They have no spiritual life. She was reproached, not only by Henry de Jouvenel, for her concentration on a narrow and meretricious world. The criticism didn’t worry her. That world was hers, and her art gave it significance. Her subject is always the heart, its vagaries, its willfulness, its gallantry, its capacity for self-deception; the pain and joy of love. No one has written better about such matters.

She is superior to Proust, as poet and analyst of love, for she is shackled by no theory insisting that love, being attached always and only to an imagined person, is doomed to be ultimately disappointing. Both the books under review will enthrall any reader interested in Colette and in the period covered by that most French of regimes, the much-maligned Third Republic. But they will be fully appreciated only by those who know the deeper pleasures to be had from Colette’s own books. As with all writers of value there is more in her work than in her life; no biography, however brilliant, can match the rewards to be had from reading La Vagabonde, Chéri, La Fin de Chéri, Le Blé en herbe, Le Chat, Julie de Carneilhan, Gigi, and, yes, Le Pur et l’impur and Mes Apprentissages.

This Issue

February 10, 2000