The Life and Legacy of Queer Novelist Colette

Colette wrote many important works celebrating and commenting on gender, sexuality, married life, and more. Read on to discover this female literary pioneer.

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a portrait of collette and her two of her book covers

We’re taking a look into the queer feminist novelist and letter writer Colette. She wrote many great works celebrating and commenting on gender, sexuality, married life, and much more. Her life story is hard to summarize, but her legacy shows through her incredible novels and novellas. 

A Brief Biography

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who went simply by her last name, was born in the French village of Saint-Sauvenur-en-Puisaye on January 28th, 1873 to a war hero and tax collector. At the age of 20, Colette married 35-year-old Henry Gauthier-Villars who used the pen name “Willy,” but never actually wrote any of his own work — he hired ghost writers. After marrying Colette, he recognized her potential as a writer and began forcing her to write for him. He literally locked her in a room until she produced more sequels to her wildly successful Claudine series. 

Colette in a man's tuxedo smoking a cigarette.
IMAGE VIA ARTPHOTOLIMITED

They eventually separated in 1906 and divorced in 1910. the separation was initiated as Colette never saw any of the money from the Claudine books; she turned to journalism, amateur photography, and a stage career to make ends meet. 

During this time, Colette had relationships with women, such as novelist and playwright Natalie Clifford Barney (who was the self-proclaimed “queen of the Paris lesbians”) and French artist Mathilde “Missy” de Morny. Colette shared both a home and a stage presence with her lover Missy, and during their performance of Rêve d’Egypte, they also shared a kiss onstage — one that sparked a riot. Police were called in to control the crowd, but the riot ended up spilling out onto the streets and ended with smashed windows. Colette and Missy stopped living together after this incident due to public scrutiny but continued their relationship for several more years. 

Colette and Mathilde "Missy" de Morny performing on stage.
IMAGE VIA THE MIRROR

Colette later married Henry de Jouvenel in 1912 but divorced partly due to his infidelities and partly due to her unsavory affair with her stepson. She eventually met and wed her third and final husband, Goudeket. By this time, she was a very established writer and novelist, frequently referred to as France’s greatest woman writer. In 1944, she published Gigi, her most famous work. Colette also had a hand in Audrey Hepburn’s career when she handpicked Hepburn for the stage adaptation of Gigi. 

An older Colette with her hand under her chin.
IMAGE VIA THE NEW YORKER

On August 3rd, 1954, Colette passed away at the age of 81. We remember her life and legacy through her many incredible works.

A Few of Her Works 

Chéri (1920)

Cheri and The Last of Cheri by Colette. Book cover depicts a painting of a naked woman lying on bed.
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Dubbed by many, including Proust, as her masterpiece, Chéri is a fable about a aging courtesan named Léa who is nearing the end of her sexual life and the end of her most passionate love affair with Fred Peloux, also known as Chéri– a handsome player half her age. This is a great novel that could certainly be based on Colette’s real-life affairs. She also wrote an excellent follow-up, The Last of Chéri.

The Vagabond (1910)

The Vagabond by Colette. Book cover shows a painting of two women talking on a couch.
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One of the first novels that really established Colette in the writing world, The Vagabond follows recently divorced Renée Néré, who has begun a music-hall career in order to support herself. Renée is then approached by a rich bachelor Maxime, who offers her the material comforts of luxury as well as his love. What follows is a series of letters and internal mediation demonstrating Renée’s debate between her need to establish herself independently and her desire to be loved.

The Pure and the Impure (1932) 

The Pure and the Impure by Colette. Book cover shows a woman with braids looking downward.
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If eroticism and opium dens are more your forte, read this novel by Colette that she considered to be her best book. Though many of her books are inspired by her own life, Colette considers this one to be closer to autobiography than any other. The Pure and the Impure contains a series of conversations regarding gender, sex, and attraction. It is by far her most queer work. 

Gigi (1944)

Gigi by Colette. Book cover shows a painting of a woman in a red jacket and luxurious hat.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSHOP

This novella is certainly Colette’s most popular work and was adapted into a play and a musical film. It follows Gigi, who is being educated in the art of the Courtesan — a world where a woman can use her body to her advantage but not her mind. Gigi is very bored by this, and she is thrown into a world of excitement and lust when she meets Gaston Lachaille. 

Whether you are interested in themes of sexuality, gender, lesbianism, familial relationships, married life, or divorce, Colette has something for everyone. Even her Claudine series could satisfy a YA lover. She based her work on her world, and she had an extremely interesting life. She had no desire to conform to social norms, and though she was certainly an imperfect person, we can celebrate her stunning contributions to the literary world. 


Read more on Colette’s films here!

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