“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.” So begins Claudine at School, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s debut novel. It would be years before anyone knew Colette was responsible for this famous opening line. At the time, Colette’s husband, a notorious libertine 15 years her senior, took credit for her writing. But the Claudine books were entirely Colette's. The novels were drawn from Colette’s memories growing up in a small village in Burgundy. In these lines, Claudine, perhaps like Colette herself, indicates a confidence that her life would carry her away from the town she was born, far from her known world, towards a fate decidedly more interesting.
The biopic Colette, out September 21, explores the early phase of Colette’s life as a woman writer who had no desire to conform to social norms — especially when it came to who she should love, and how. Colette depicts a woman coming into her voice and into her body. Naturally, it’s juicy as heck. But all the steamy action in Colette is merely a prelude to the affairs and strings of non-monogamous relationships that would define the rest of Colette’s long life.
In Colette, the author — played with sharp mischievousness by period piece queen Keira Knightley — gradually wades into her sexuality in free-thinking (and sexually free) turn-of-the-century Paris. Colette is a refreshing reminder that women in the past had sexual desires just as complex as modern women, but only those as renegade as Colette could pursue them. And pursue them she did.
In the film, Colette and her husband, known by his nickname Willy (Dominic West), pursue concurrent affairs with a visiting American debutant (Eleanor Tomlinson). She also begins a love affair with Napoleon III’s masculine-presenting niece, Matilde de Morny (Denise Gough) — known as Missy —while Willy has his own affair. The two couples even go on vacation together, a trip only rarely interrupted by sharp shards of jealousy. The real Colette remarked that she and Willy arranged their marriage “in the most natural way.” She never had a traditionally monogamous relationship in her life; to her, it wasn’t the most natural way.
Colette ceases just when Colette’s life really begins to soar. She divorces Willy, who — surprise, surprise — was a selfish scoundrel whose sole remarkably good deed was bringing Colette out of Burgundy and into her astounding literary career. Colette also finally begins writing under her own name. The movie ends, but luckily, we know can find out what happened to Colette after that. She went on to write over 30 novels which contained memorable sentences that make for good Instagram captions, like, “you will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.” And yes, she had affairs. Lots of ‘em.
After leaving Willy in 1906, Colette moved right into the arms of her lover, Missy, with whom she was already in a stable relationship. Toni Bentley describes Missy in the book Sisters of Salome: “Missy comported herself as a man, padding out her small feet with socks to fit her men’s shoes, wearing overalls and three-piece suits, a short haircut, and a rounded center that betrayed no breasts. She even tried making herself a mustache from her poodle's tale.”
Colette and Missy were together from 1906 to 1910, and were open with their love for each other. So open, in fact, they flaunted their relationship on stage. In 1907, the two starred in a pantomime play called Reve d’Egypte at the Moulin Rouge. While the lesbian community was accepted in Paris, there was a limit to that acceptance — and this performance crossed a line. After the pair kissed on stage, an incensed crowd started a riot in the Moulin Rouge. Everything changed for the couple after the riotous performance. Missy’s family cut off her income and sent the couple into a more private existence. Colette began to work primarily as an actress, not a writer.
They stayed together until 1911, when Colette promptly moved onto her second of three husbands: Henry de Jouvenel, a baron, the editor of the newspaper Le Matin, and after WWI, France’s delegate to the League of Nations. They had a daughter together named Colette in 1913.
In 1920, Colette's literary career aligned eerily with her personal life. She herself called the book Cheri, which is about a middle-aged woman’s affair with a young man named Cheri, “premonition.” Because in 1920, at the age of 47, Colette first met her 16-year-old stepson Bertrand de Jouvenel at her seaside villa and launched a calculated seduction of him. Colette gave Bertrand a copy of her book Cheri with the inscription, "to my CHERIshed son Bertrand de Jouvenel." Soon after, Colette told the 16-year-old, “It's time for you to become a man.” They embarked on an intense affair — and even went on a two week journey in Algeria. The relationship continued for four years in secret until, in 1923, Henry de Jouvenel discovered that his son and wife were having an affair and demanded a separation from Colette.
After that, despite de Jouvenel's intervention, Bertrand and Colette lived as a couple out in the open. Their affair reached the gossip column. But they broke up in the fall of 1924, leaving Bertrand open to one day becoming the lover of intrepid American journalist – and eventual wife of Ernest Hemingway — Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was no fan of Colette’s, who she met when Gellhorn was in her 20s. “She was a terrible woman. Absolute, utter hell. Bertrand adored her all his life. He never understood when he was in the presence of evil,” Gellhorn recalled.
Colette’s third husband, the jeweler Maurice Goudeket, did not think his wife was utter hell, however. They met when Goudeket was 35 and Colette 52, and remained together for the rest of Colette’s life. The couple survived the horrors of WWII together. In 1941, Goudeket, who was Jewish, was taken by the Gestapo. Colette campaigned to have him released from a detention camp, and was successful in doing so. Goudeket hid for the duration of the war in an attic chamber. After Colette’s death in 1954, Goudeket published an account of their days together called Close to Colette. They were, by all accounts, very happy. "I set myself gently by the side of this woman whom life has so wounded," writes Goudeket in Close to Colette, "and I did so with the firm determination of proving to her that fidelity was not an empty word. Year by year she grew more persuaded of this, and her last books bear witness to a serenity that she would not otherwise have acquired."
Colette’s love life is worth cataloguing for the thrill, sure, but also because it provides deeper insight into her writing. Colette’s fiction was tied up inextricably with her personal life. Hers was a life shaped around freedom — to love who she wanted, to live as she wanted, and to write what she wanted. She did it all.