“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there,” is the opening line of one of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette’s most iconic novels, Claudine.
Colette was a French novelist who pushed the boundaries of society by expressing herself through her own sense of female sexuality and homosexuality. In 1954, she died in Paris as a literary and LGBTQ+ icon.
Colette was raised in a quiet town in the French countryside and moved to Paris at age twenty when she married writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars, better known as Willy. Historians consider Willy to be something like a con artist because he published many works in his lifetime, but none of them were actually written by him. He had a plethora of ghostwriters who did the work for him, as well as musical composers who wrote reviews for him. After marrying Colette, he discovered that she had some writing abilities and she created the Claudine series.
Some days, Willy would lock Colette in a room to write and wouldn’t let her out until she had fulfilled a quota set by him. Claudine followed the tale of a young girl through her school days up to her marriage, which eventually ends with her leaving her husband to pursue another woman. Claudine’s story is told in five books and Willy received most if not all of the royalties for the work.
During the early years of the marriage, Willy had many affairs with many women, which made Colette extremely jealous at first.
Eventually, Colette decided thair marriage should be open to her, too, and she also had many affairs with many women (never men). In 1906, Colette left Willy to pursue her career on her own. For the next four years, she was a performer in different music halls in Paris. This period of her life also saw her in her first high-profile love affair, as she started seeing Napoleon III’s niece Mathilde de Morny, also known as Missy. Missy was a bold woman who protested masculinity and gender norms by wearing men’s clothes. In 1907, Missy and Colette shook up standards in Paris by sharing a genuine kiss while performing in Reve d’Egypte at the Moulin Rouge. Missy was the most prominent of Colette’s female lovers, but certainly not her last.
Stories like Colette’s remind us to be brave as women and as LGBTQ+ community members without apology.
It takes a lot to be a proud individual, especially when there are people around you who protest, but what matters the most is doing what you love to be happy.