Big-Bang Baby Boomer
women changed the face of literature and
by D. J. Herda
Anticipated at 70,000 Words
Literary Historical Fiction
Book in One Sentence:
In early spring of 1900, Gay Nineties Paris prepared to surrender its joi de vivre to the Turn of the Century and all that it promised, to all of the excitement and change that the new century would bring. The passing of one century into another came about gently, easily, without fanfare, and, some say, without notice. Paris in the early 1900s was a sitting parlor filled with good feelings, good times, and conservative philosophies. Vienna was the heart and soul of literary society, where authors were made and broken, art was enjoying its second Renaissance, and music was courtly and dignified. Paris would not rock, roar, or thunder for years to come.
Parisian society in 1900 moved from one corner of the city to another on foot or by horse-drawn carriage. People still worked in small shops and restaurants, or they did not work at all. For amusement, Parisians went to dance halls, dance parlors, and salons. They passed the time strolling casually down the Champes Ellyses, hand-in-hand, men and women, stopping to throw a stone into the Seine or idling languidly beneath some park tree.
They lived in chateaus, the well-to-do, or in Parisian apartments and flats. Some had modest country houses on the outskirts of the city where they raised flowers and herbs to sell to their kindred spirits who owned no land or merely rented it. They fueled the city’s lamplights by gas, and their own homes, as well. They smoked cigarettes, drank wine and Pernod, ate baguettes and cheese, and lolled over cafe tables with friends and lovers. They read mostly from the modern classics—Voltaire, Balzac, Beaumarchais, and Baudelarie—but some readers were also curious about the newly conceived works of wonder and amazement generated by writers from across the sea, American writers such as H. G. Wells and Frank L. Baum, whose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz produced in 1900 was a captivating read, when it was available to the Continent.
Women writers were read in 1900s Paris, too—English and American writers such as the Bronte sisters and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
These were genteel times in Parisian—and world—literature, times that offered few surprises and many comforts.
These were times, too, when all of Paris and, it turns out, the rest of the civilized world were poised on the brink, waiting to explode.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born of these times. A child of the countryside outside of Paris, she was taught what everyone else was taught, read what everyone else was reading, grew up as everyone else was growing up. But Colette showed something different, something puzzling, something even frightening for a young girl of the period. Colette showed early signs of non-conformity. Combined with her overwhelming passion to write, this trait would soon single her out as the first great break-through writer of her gender in history. Colette’s palate, upon which she painted brilliantly with words and phrases, was not restricted by those of others who had gone before her. Her palate spilled off the written page, fired lust into the hearts of her readers, and opened the door to truth and honesty in recording female sexuality in literature.
Not surprisingly, Colette would play a harbinger’s role in French and world literature. On her heels in nearly Gattling-gun rapidity would come America’s Dorothy Parker, opening doors long closed to women in the New World, and France’s Anais Nin, who would take the liberties won by Colette and Parker and push them to the very limits of polite society.
Parker would study Colette’s works and be emboldened by them, although thousands of miles apart. Nin would study the works of Parker and Colette and likewise be stimulated to write from the heart, from the very loins of sexual expression hard-won, from the very soul of human sexuality.
All three women would play a role in opening the closed doors of literature to women, by women, and for women—and men, too, as it would turn out. All three women would go down in history for their contributions to the advancement of women in literature, as well as in society. All three would earn for themselves a tough role in life and a long, arduous, tumultuous journey through accomplishment.
But none of it would happen before Colette.
“I didn’t know what life was about
It was Paris, Nineteen-Hundred-Three. Centuries of literary convention and social mores had evolved to this very moment. The time was ripe for a new French Revolution.
The Gay Nineties were gone. The Roaring Twenties lay off in the distance. Before that: World War I would rear its ugly head, proving itself to be the war to end all wars. It would showcase man’s inhumanity toward man and destroy the very essence of social fabric as society had known it. It would become the proving ground for all future wars.
But for now, life was good. H. G. Wells was about to publish his futuristic novel, A Modern Utopia. Paris was about to become the center of the literary universe. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was about to publish her first novel and leave her first husband. And the world of literature was about to change forever.
In a whirlwind of success and failure so intertwined that she could no longer tell them apart, Colette put aside a career as a populist writer and, following her divorce from a philandering husband in 1906, began dancing and singing in Parisian music halls, from La Chatte Amoureuse to L'Oiseau de Nuit. Destined to explore her own failing self-image, to define what it meant really to be a woman, she would push the envelope of public sexuality beyond even what she believed she could do. In the process, she would open the opportunity for the expression of sexuality for women around the world.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born in January 1873 in the French village of Saint-Saveur-en-Puisaye. Her father, Jules, was a retired army captain-turned-tax collector. Her mother, Sidonie—Sido for short—who would become Colette's greatest influence and strongest supporter, had grown up among artists and political radicals in Belgium.
Among her school friends, Colette insisted on being called by her last name, a European practice commonly extended only to boys. She grew up sturdy and energetic, rambunctious at school and determined to set herself apart from her young colleagues. Her mother’s own cavalier attitudes toward the social mores of the day rubbed off on the daughter, who felt her first yearnings for another female at the age of 11.
Colette began her odyssey of sexual self-realization one chilly Parisian night in 1906. Caught up in the covertly charged sexuality rampant in pre-war France, she appeared on stage, as she had done many times before. But this time was different. This time, she brazenly exposed one breast, later reenacting the event for a photographer’s lens.
The exhibition created worldwide controversy, rocking Parisian society to its very core. But, not all of the reaction was negative.
Dancer/poetess Toni Bentley remembers both her first encounter with Colette’s writings and the now-famous photograph. “I was eighteen when I discovered [Colette’s] novels and, while interest quickly became obsession, I devoured as many of them as I could find in fast succession,” she wrote. “I fell completely in love with this woman who seemed to speak the unspeakable about the pursuit of love, the pain of desire, and the tenderness that binds the two.”
Then Bentley saw the photograph that would change her life. “...she was dressed in a torn slip of white linen, her left breast exposed and aiming at the camera lens with shameless pride. The nakedness continued down the left side revealing a rounded, expertly posed thigh that ended its length in a slipper tied with suggestive black laces. She offered her bosom with a demure gesture of surrender tempered by the grace of an aristocrat.
“Her breast was beautiful and the woman of words suddenly became flesh and blood -- and curiously naughty. Colette’s Breast, as I came to think of the image, symbolized for me something that I wanted for myself though I was not sure exactly what that was. Did I want the power of her pen? Or the power of her bosom? Her assertive intellect? Or her alluring magnetism?”
The photograph, Colette realized at the time of its taking, was more than a mere two-dimensional representational image. It was an announcement to the world that womanhood—femininity in all of its convoluted, convulsive, conductive, and ethereal forms—had escaped Pandora’s box. More than that, it was an announcement that she, Colette, was the one who had freed it. For good or evil, women were no longer confined in literature to the roles of cookie-cutter characters, to cardboard recreations that neither lived, breathed, felt, nor cared.
It was so in society, as well.
The photograph of Colette liberated millions of women throughout France and the world. It gave hope to sexual feelings that dared to reach beyond the normal. But it created more than vivid images, a feeling of euphoric awakenings, and runaway publicity. It created scandal. It generated among the people of Europe an enormous amount of interest-desire-hate-love-lust for a woman whose four previously written novels had been published by her husband, writer and music critic Henri Gauthier-Villars, under his own pseudonym of Willy.
Scandal was nothing new to Colette: she had at first dreamt about it and then written about it years later. Now, by acting it out, she was merely liberating it from the darkest recesses of her mind. She was liberating the female sex, and she was liberating years of repressed emotions deep within her own tortured bosom. How appropriate that a photograph of that bosom would be the very vehicle by which she would leap from carnal desires to unbridled reality.
Colette had met Gauthier-Villars on a trip to Paris with her father. The bewitching 16-year-old was taken by the rakish man-about-letters and could not put him out of her mind. Then 30, Gauthier-Villars had revolted against his bourgeois family and slipped comfortably into the artistic and bohemian world of the Belle Époque. An author, columnist, and reviewer, he already possessed a stable of mistresses, but he was overwhelmed by Colette's impish purity, fresh beauty, and boundless vitality. At the age of 20, Colette agreed to become Mrs. Gauthier-Villars and left the countryside to conquer Paris.
Teasing and experimenting with androgyny, Colette appeared in the drawing rooms of the City of Lights costumed in jaunty sailor suits at a time when cross-dressing was forbidden by law except on the stage. Long before it was fashionable, she was already reinventing her persona, exposing and concealing herself at will, all the while daring anyone to determine which Colette was real.
Her first series of books came out between 1900 and 1903. They proved to be enormously popular. Conceived when her husband was short of funds, Gauthier-Villars asked Colette to record her schoolgirl experiences, admonishing her to put a little something “extra” into the stories.
The "extra" that he demanded began with a lesbian headmistress. In Claudine at School (1900), the main character, a tomboyish girl of 15, develops an intense crush on a pretty assistant mistress, Aimée. It was the first time in modern literature that a girl looked at another woman and described her as an object of sexual pleasure. In the follow-up Claudine Married (1902), Claudine’s husband arranges an affair between his wife and another woman for his own voyeuristic pleasure.
At first, Gauthier-Villars dismissed his wife’s stories as “commercially worthless.” In time, though, he found himself becoming strangely aroused at the thought of his wife’s expressions of fantasy through her characters. He suspected that there might be a market for the stories after all. He was rumored to have locked Colette in her room for hours each day, refusing to let her out until she created more titillating scenes. She was up to the task. And Gauthier-Villars’ hunch was right.
The highly popular novels spun off into a treasure trove of wealth for the newlyweds: a musical stage play, Claudine uniforms, Claudine soap, Claudine perfume, even Claudine cigars and cigarettes. The success of Claudine also gave Gauthier-Villars more attention than he’d ever known, and he preyed mercilessly upon the opportunities arising from it.
By the time Colette had met Gauthier-Villars, he was already a flamboyant, headstrong man-about-town. Monsieur Willy, as he liked to be called, was also a literary charlatan whose numerous published works were written mostly by ghostwriters, including a number of male homosexual friends. In time, he would use Colette to the same selfish end.
To Gauthier-Villars, using his wife to advance his own career was no foreign concept. Colette was merely one more player in a long list of credits. And—for a short while, at least—she was quite a willing one.
Locally well known as a sexual degenerate, Gauthier-Villars was a vile and ruthless man. His marriage to Colette was a matter of convenience that quickly turned tumultuous and destructive. When Colette nearly died of a mysterious illness during their first year of marriage, Gauthier-Villars shrugged it off, resuming a long string of affairs. After Sido succeeded in nursing her daughter back to health, Gauthier-Villars forced Colette to acknowledge his mistresses and, at times, to entertain them in their home.
Suffering at the hands of her husband’s indiscretions, Colette recalled her mother’s philosophy: “There is only one person in this world you can count on, and that's yourself.” Colette and Gauthier-Villars separated in 1904.
After deciding to end the marriage, Colette released the first novel published under her own name. Although Dialogues de Betes was well received, it did little to resolve the questions swirling around the author’s mind regarding her own sexuality. She needed to explore the depths and direction of her sexual identity. Examining her boundaries on stage seemed to offer the perfect opportunity. Performing as a dancer and a mime—both disciplines that she had studied earlier in life—allowed her to meet new people in an exciting new environment while providing her an opportunity to earn a living, a task not easily accomplished by a divorcee in turn-of-the-century France. The fantasy world of the stage also provided Colette a measure of safety to which she could retreat should the heat of her real-world passions grow too strong to endure comfortably.
“Solitude, freedom, my pleasant and painful work as mime and dancer,” Colette wrote years later, “tired and happy muscles, and, by way of a change from all that, the new anxiety about earning my meals, my clothes, and my rent -- such, all of a sudden, was my lot. But with it too went a savage defiance, a disgust for the milieu where I had lived and suffered, a stupid fear of man, of men, and of women too.”
More than anything, Colette’s new career offered her an opportunity to act-out her own tormented fantasies. They provided her with the opportunity to feed her voracious sexual appetite. She lost little time in doing just that.
In a sketch performed at the Moulin Rouge, Colette caused a near riot by miming on-stage copulation. By then, she had already had affairs with several women. One of her femme fatales was the youngest daughter of the Duc de Morny and the Emperor Napoleon III’s niece, Mathilde, better known as Missy. Colette moved into Missy’s château. After enduring a brief and unhappy marriage, Missy had become the Marquise de Belboeuf, although she was better known in Parisian lesbian circles as Monsieur Belboeuf.
Missy supported Colette with money, introduced her to the society people with whom she ran, and opened up her underground world of beautiful men with long tresses and intense young women with fire in their eyes. Colette, in turn, showered Missy with love, affection, and sex. She also took Missy into a new production at the Moulin Rouge. In it, Colette played the role of an Egyptian mummy who unwrapped her bandages and kissed Missy—playing the cross-dressed role of the archaeologist—boldly. The 15-minute scene was banned by the Paris police commissioner.
All of this made Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette feel that much happier, that much more fulfilled, that much more alive. It also set the groundwork for the next ten years of her life—years during which the author-turned-performer would fall back, once again, on her writing. But this time, her writing would reveal the true unbridled sexual nature of the beast...and it would pave the way for others to follow in her footsteps.
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