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Colette (1873-1954)  
 
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Colette is one of France's most beloved authors, a "national treasure," as one French reader has put it. This admiration is reserved for the Colette who in some sixty-odd books wrote magnificently and frankly about woman's condition. It does not generally extend to the Colette whose name invariably appears whenever lists of famous gay and lesbian authors are compiled.

Colette's six-year liaison with the Marquise de Belboeuf, known as Missy, is dismissed as a phase, and her other lesbian relationships are almost never mentioned in the admiring accounts of her life.

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The Pure and the Impure (1932, rev. 1941), which contains Colette's most explicit and extended writing on homosexuality, continues to baffle those who actually read it, and the strong lesbian subtext found throughout her oeuvre remains all but invisible even today.

Colette was born on January 28, 1873, in the Burgundian village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. The house and garden, fields and forests, presided over by the major figure in her life, her mother Sido, constitute in her works a kind of earthly paradise, which a number of Colette's adult female characters seek futilely to regain.

Colette's first experience with lesbian feelings, though she does not refer to it as such, occurred when she was about eleven and is briefly documented in her 1929 work Sido.

The family was forced to leave Saint-Sauveur for financial reasons when Colette was seventeen; this was a major rupture in her life. At the age of twenty, she married the famous Paris critic, Henri Gauthier-Villars (known as Willy), who was thirteen years older than she and whose numerous published works were in fact written by ghost writers, among them a number of male homosexuals, and Colette herself.

Married life with Willy was tumultuous and destructive: Colette almost died of a mysterious illness during the first year but was nursed back to health by Sido. She was forced to acknowledge, and even to entertain, Willy's mistresses. (Much later, she wrote about this period in My Apprenticeships, 1936.)

Toward the end of the marriage, Colette was introduced to Natalie Clifford Barney's circle, and met Missy. Following her separation from Willy in 1906, Colette made her living as a professional dancer and mime (the subject of her 1911 novel The Vagabond).

One of the most famous incidents of this period involved a performance at the Moulin Rouge of a pantomime in which the amateur Missy (who had taken a few lessons for this purpose) played the male role as the mysterious "Yssim" (no one was fooled) opposite Colette. As Colette arose from a sarcophagus, she and Missy acted out a love scene together: Their passionate kiss resulted in a near-riot among the protesting spectators.

Shortly after Sido died in 1912, Colette married Henri de Jouvenel and gave birth to a daughter, her only child. She divorced Jouvenel in 1924, and eleven years later, married Maurice Goudeket, sixteen years her junior. This marriage lasted until Colette's death at the age of eighty-one. Colette was the only woman to be given a state funeral in France's history. The Church refused a religious burial.

Colette's career as a writer began when Willy, short of funds, asked her to write about her schoolgirl experiences and to put something "spicy" in it. At first dismissing, then realizing the value of what she had written, he locked her in a room for four hours a day to write. The result was the wildly successful Claudine series, signed however by Willy and to which Colette was never able to have her name rightfully restored.

The "spicy" elements Willy demanded include the lesbian headmistress in Claudine at School (1900) and an affair between Claudine and another woman arranged by Claudine's husband for his voyeuristic pleasure in Claudine Married (1902).

After the Claudine series, homosexuality is a recurrent, if not always recognized, theme in Colette's works. Among these, a sleepless erotic night (unquestionably with Missy) described in Tendrils of the Vine (1908) is additionally noteworthy because some editions change the gender of one of the participants, identifiable only through a single grammatical element, from female to male.

An episode in Sido rarely mentioned in studies of Colette recounts the eleven-year-old Colette's notion of a first seduction and her "morbid" fascination with the breast of Sido's friend Adrienne, who as a game had exchanged babies with Sido and nursed the infant Colette.

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Colette (ca 1890).
  
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