“Two young women at college with their male play-thing! FILTH! What is the world coming to in 2021 if books like these can be published?” She’d never heard of Colette apparently.
I was in the library standing near a woman who was freaking out about her daughter’s choice of reading material. The appalled mother was trying to adhere to the ‘whisper policy’ so her voice came out as an anguished hiss.
“I can’t believe you are interested in reading this! It is nothing but FILTH! Why is this book even in a library? The world is falling apart!”
I peeked around the corner at the little scene: the woman’s face was turning from an embarrassed red to an angry purple and she was waving a book around like a Pentecostal preacher in a revival church.
I didn’t want the distraught woman to hiss at me, so I didn’t come around the other side of the bookshelf and tell her that there was nothing new or even counter-culture about the content in the book that her daughter had selected. Colette (who is buried near the entrance of Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery) wrote the same kind of book over 100 years ago...and simply anyone who could lay their hands on her books snatched them up...and...enjoyed them.
Ah Sidonie Gabrielle Colette—France's greatest woman writer not only smashed through the boundaries of sexual exploration in her books beginning with Claudine at School in the year 1900, but Colette enjoyed having sex with whomever she pleased be they male or female throughout her life. Colette, because of her writing was the most celebrated young "It Girl" of La Belle Epoch. La Belle Epoch or The Beautiful Era was a period in European history beginning around 1871 and ending when World War I began in 1914. It was a time of liberation and enjoyment of a new modern way of living and casting aside old prudish judgments of what people should do. And writing about the kind of sex seduction that people have been engaging in since the beginning of time—but pretending they weren’t—was just the kind of refreshing and liberating voice that thrust Colette’s books into the spotlight and under everyone’s late-night reading lamps!
The woman I overheard in the library must have been limiting her reading material to a Church-approved list of books somewhere because books with content like, oh, say the uber-popular 50 Shades of Grey have been around for a long time. While Colette's first book Claudine a L'Ecole (French for "Claudine at School") didn't have a red room, it was a very honest and frankly titillating account of small-town life back when girls were expected to interact with girls unless they were chaperoned.
In Colette's book, her young girls form crushes on (and fool around with) each other and their female teachers and their female teacher's aids. So while GLBT may be newly embraced in the 21st century, Colette was writing about rampant and completely natural exploration and relationships in the countryside of Burgundy, France. And those natural relationships were just as often homosexual as heterosexual. Her reading public couldn't get enough of it and Colette and she obliged by writing The Claudine Series:
Claudine à l'école (1900) - Claudine at school
Claudine à Paris (1901) - Claudine in Paris
Claudine en ménage (1902) - Claudine married
Claudine s'en va (1903) - Claudine and Annie
In real life, Colette also broke social norms by appearing in erotic performances at venues like La Moulin Rouge and being quite open about her own bisexuality. Although even during the period of liberation that Colette was busy conquering, she suffered occasional backlashes triggered by her lesbian tendencies as much as for her taking her husband’s son as her lover. So she was no stranger to criticism.
And speaking of criticism, I have no judgment of E.L. James' talent, but critics have been especially vicious in their opinions of her writing ability - however, there is no taking away from her that her 50 Shades Trilogy has outsold even J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter juggernaut.
Colette won the hearts of millions with works like Cheri and Gigi. In the end, Colette’s lifetime of creating timeless works of art like those that earned her the outpouring of national grief when she died. She died in Paris on 3 August 1954, she was the first woman given a state funeral in France, although she was refused Roman Catholic rites (little wonder after her lifestyle). Colette is interred in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris along with her daughter Bel-Gazou.
The film Cheri starring Kathy Bates and Michelle Pheiffer is a lovely and heartbreaking movie. You must see it…
… and do yourself a favor read something by Colette!
Here’s a link to the classic Hollywood film