The French writer Colette was indifferent and even hostile to the feminist movement in the early 1900s. But both her writing and the way she lived her life represent a vibrant and radical feminism in tune with the #MeToo spirit of today. Born in rural Burgundy in 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (the abbreviated pen name came later) belonged to a middle class but unorthodox family. Raised by a mother who was as sceptical of religion as she was of bourgeois respectability, she was 20 when she married Henri Gauthiers-Villars (“Willy”), the 33-year-old charming but dissolute writer son of a family friend.
The marriage was both a good and a bad move for Colette. Willy introduced her to the rich Bohemian culture of the Parisian demimonde, and launched her career by insisting (despite her reluctance) that she write down memories of her schooldays. But his serial infidelities distressed and depressed her. And as an unscrupulous literary entrepreneur, Willy cheerfully sold his wife’s semi-autobiographical “Claudine” novels under his own name.
The stories of a spirited, tomboyish heroine rapidly became a publishing sensation, with profitable sales of related merchandise including Claudine cigarette holders. But the profits were all Willy’s. When, in her early 30s, Colette decided to leave the marriage, she had to find a way to support herself. Energetic and resourceful, she began to publish under her own name and took classes in dance and mime. She trained in the gym and went on stage, becoming the only great French author (to my knowledge) to have alternated writing with dancing semi-nude on stages all over France.
She combined her careers, writing both fiction and non-fiction set behind the scenes of the music hall, giving a voice to the underpaid women performers who featured so often from a male perspective in paintings and novels of the time. She also began a passionate affair with a cross-dressing lesbian aristocrat, Missy, and scandalised the nation by sharing a passionate kiss with her on stage.