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Colette (1873-1954)  
page: 1  2  

My Apprenticeships, in addition to describing Colette's acquaintance with Natalie Clifford Barney's circle, contains an obscure, all but unnoticed reference to writing one day about the "other slope" of her life. Given My Apprenticeship's subtexts, there is every reason to expect that the "other slope" would be a lesbian text.

The Pure and the Impure, Colette's study of the spectrum of sexual behavior, is at once her most important and least understood work: She herself thought it would one day be considered her best book. Four of the nine chapters deal exclusively with lesbians and one with male homosexuals.

The title does not refer to conventional moral judgments of sexuality, but rather to excessive behavior (impure), which Colette condemns in heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, whereas purity, used only in conjunction with homosexuality, seems to signify completion, or wholeness.

The first of the lesbian portraits focuses on Missy, known as La Chevalière in this work, who seeks in vain a "calm sentimental climate," in contrast to the "salacious" expectations of the lesbians surrounding her.

Renée Vivien, who fears she will be killed by her imperious (female) "master" through what appears to be excessive sensual pleasure, and who dies from willful starvation and abuse of alcohol, is condemned by Colette for being consumed by her senses.

La Lucienne is obsessed by the idea of being completely a man: Her illusion is shattered by the young blonde Loulou, who says she will not be with a man who can't "faire pipi" against a wall.

Colette introduces her portrait of the Ladies of Llangollen (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby) by exploring the effect that similarity between women has in lesbian relationships. Colette's approval is tempered by recognizing the dangers that threaten the lesbian couple on all sides. The Ladies, of Irish origin, withdraw to a Welsh village where, beyond reach of all, they lead a perfect life together for over fifty years.

After claiming to defer to Proust's monumental illumination of "Sodom" (but condemning his "misguided" representation of lesbianism), Colette then offers her own portrait of male homosexuals, admiring their virility and their rejection of other homosexuals who adopt female roles.

She concludes The Pure and the Impure by revealing her conception of purity, significantly expressed in the context of a female couple.

Colette's work as a whole has always been acknowledged as some of the best writing on women we have. For a long time, however, her admirers were mainly outside the academy: Traditional critics patronizingly dismissed her "feminine sensibility" in matters of love and women's lives. Post-structuralist readings have done much to reveal a far more profound and complex writer.

In the future, lesbian readings of Colette promise to unite the apparently scattered or, for the most part, invisible lesbian components of her oeuvre, demonstrating conclusively that in Colette, lesbianism is a major strategy for survival.

Ann Cothran

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literature >> Overview:  Modernism

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arts >> Baker, Josephine

Entertainer Josephine Baker achieved acclaim as the twentieth century's first international black female sex symbol, but kept carefully hidden her many sexual liaisons with women, which continued from adolescence to the end of her life.

literature >> Barney, Natalie Clifford

In addition to being the muse and inspiration of other writers, American expatriate Natalie Barney, known as the Amazon, was a poet, memoirist, and epigrammatist in her own right.

literature >> Butler, Lady Eleanor, (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831)

Known as the Ladies of Llangollen, an enduring emblem of female romantic friendship, Butler and Ponsonby eloped to Wales where they lived together for over fifty years and entertained several important writers.

literature >> Proust, Marcel

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literature >> Vivien, Renée

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literature >> Wescott, Glenway

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Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Cottrell, Robert D. Colette. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974.

Crosland, Margaret. Colette: The Difficulty of Loving. New York: Dell, 1973.

Dranch, Sherry A. "Reading Through the Veiled Text: Colette's The Pure and the Impure." Contemporary Literature 24.2 (1983): 176-189.

Eisinger, Erica and Mari McCarty, eds. Colette: The Woman, the Writer. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.

Jouve, Nicole Ward. Colette. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Lottman, Herbert. Colette: A Life. Boston: Little Brown, 1991.

Marks, Elaine. Colette. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1960.

Sarde, Michèle. Colette: Free and Fettered. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Morrow, 1980.

Stambolian, George and Elaine Marks, eds. Homosexualities and French Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Thurman, Judith. Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. New York: Knopf, 1999.


    Citation Information
    Author: Cothran, Ann  
    Entry Title: Colette  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 16, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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