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‘if you were to watch the colour blue tinge of a far-off hilltop, where stones, butterflies and thistle soak up the same azure hue, purple and dusty, you would not forget me…’
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, known simply as Colette, is one of France’s most famous female writers. She was born in 1873 in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye and lived there until she was twenty. She achieved fame and notoriety, and was honoured by France and Belgium in her lifetime. She died in 1954 in Paris and given a full state funeral. Many thousands attended.
Her actual birthplace has been meticulously restored and since 2016 has been open to the public.
So what is the purpose of a museum dedicated to a writer? Does it provide a greater insight into her work? With Colette we got so much more than her writings. She drew on her colourful life experiences to create the semi-autobiographical and intimately detailed style that was to become her signature. We find her writing evocative, but we also find her life-story glamorous, titillating and compelling. She wrote about her upbringing and schoolgirl crushes in her early novels about Claudine. Little more than a schoolgirl herself she left for Paris and married ‘Monsieur Willy’ – many years her senior - and wrote under this pen–name until she left him ten years later.
She performed bare-breasted at the Moulin Rouge and was scandalously involved in lesbian love affairs – particularly with the notorious cross-dressing ‘Missy’ - giving her the material for later work such as Music Hall Sidelights and The Pure and The Impure.
Through her writing we get a profound sense of the gaiety and mad times enjoyed by bohemian Paris café society. She was there – in the thick of it – amongst the famous artists, writers and musicians. She eloped with her boss – Henri de Jouvenel – who ran Le Matin newspaper on which she was the drama critic. She had a daughter with him, to whom she gave her own childhood nickname Bel-Gazou. She seduced his 16 year-old son by his previous marriage – an age-gap of 30 years. She married for the third time at 63 – a man who was 16 years her junior. Her mature works explore love relationships and the mother and daughter bond. Perhaps her most famous books are the two Cheri novels, and Gigi, her final novel in 1945 which was made into a film with Audrey Hepburn in 1958.
Colette was always the darling of scandal and we can share her exoticism through the authenticity of her work. Perhaps the museum could have made something more of this vibrancy – there is a hallowed feeling about the place which doesn’t quite ring true.
Colette wrote over fifty novels and short stories. The titles of her works are displayed on the risers of each stair of the museum. This is an unusual touch and reinforces how sensationally prolific she was. On the top floor there is a helpful video documentary with fascinating archive footage and contemporary comment from the famous. (It would be even more helpful if there were English subtitles.) We are justified in wondering how on earth a girl from a small town in Burgundy managed to do it all.
Musée Colette is open from April to November.
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