Colette was modern France’s most lauded woman author. But she also had a second career as a scandal. In 1893 she arrived in Paris from provincial Burgundy as the 20-year-old bride of an urbane cad, the writer Henry “Willy” Gauthier-Villars. “In a few hours an unscrupulous man,” she wrote of her husband in My Apprenticeships, “will transform an ignorant girl into a prodigy of licentiousness.” Colette had her literary apprenticeship as one of his ghostwriters before publishing her first novel, Claudine at School. The risqué tale, heavily edited by her husband, featured teenage promiscuity, lesbianism, teacher–student affairs and a casual disregard for bourgeois propriety. “It promises something a bit more than glory to its author: martyrdom,” said Rachilde in a review for the Mercure de France, “for there will never be enough stones or crowns of thorns to throw at her.”
Colette was undeterred, and continued to write best-selling Claudine novels in her “little drawing-room jail,” while Willy had his affairs. During their marriage, and after their strangely amicable divorce, Colette also performed raunchy pantomimes in a music hall to the applause of audiences and the consternation of establishment conservatives. She was a fashionable lesbian before it was fashionable. Her onstage kiss with her lover Mathilde (Missy) de Mourney, in a Moulin Rouge pantomime, caused such a fracas that the police were called. Still touring as an actress, Colette was also a journalist for Le Matin, a theatre critic, a novelist and a playwright—often under a pseudonym, because of her scandalous reputation.
Meanwhile, the drama continued in her life. After Missy and several other affairs with men and women, Colette married Henri de Jouvenel and had a child, also named Colette (nicknamed “Bel-Gazou”), whom she gave to an English nanny to raise for most of the year. Polite society again raised its eyebrows when Colette seduced her teenage stepson Bertrand, some thirty years her junior. “She belonged to the first generation,” wrote Henri de Jouvenel’s secretary, “of 20th-century sexual revolutionaries.” Ever the optimist, she went on to get married for a third time, to Maurice Goudeket. Throughout her life, Colette wrote prodigiously, keeping up what she called her “merciless control” over prose, without putting the brakes on hedonism or notoriety. She also poured her funds, and those of rich (and perhaps credulous) friends, into “Colette” branded beauty products (“Streetwalker” chic, according to one friend). Suffice it to say that, as a cosmetics entrepreneur, she was a fine author. Colette had no talent for this craft or industry, but she approached it with the same ferocity she did literature, sex, food and love. Colette could be cruel, fickle and deceitful. But in a conservative era, her chief scandal was her willingness, as a woman, to affirm her own ample appetites.
More than four decades after Willy first showed her off to Paris, we find Colette still in the capital, in her new apartment in the Palais-Royal. She sits at her divan bed, a fur throw on her legs. Despite the pillows at her back, and her loose sandals, she is uncomfortable. Her back and hips ache. Her ankles and feet are swollen. And her hand, gripping the Parker Duofold, is bent with arthritis. Alongside her cats, her constant companion is, she says, “pain ever young.” But her lamp, shaded with the famous blue paper, is on, so her friends know she is writing. More blue sheets sit on a card table on her lap’s thick folds, alongside unread letters and a vase of fleshy pink roses. Her fountain pen glides quickly over the pages— “as easily as frying an egg,” she once boasted. This Chevalier of the Legion of Honour is still on top of her literary game.
As she writes, she hears the Resistance snipers. “The shots echoing and reechoing from wall to wall across the garden,” she wrote in The Evening Star, “provided a rather theatrical display.” Colette wants to lean on her windowsill to watch the shooting, but it is not safe (“they’re such bad shots”). But in daylight, she savors the view.“What! Are the flowers cruel too?” she wrote. “Are they too the slaves of a demanding sexuality? Do they too have savage and cruel caprices?”
Below are the neat geometries of the Jardin du Palais-Royal: 18th-century parterres around a dry fountain, bordered by avenues of lime trees. The sunlit mist of the morning has gone, and Colette’s eyes flit between the paper’s light blue and the greens outside her window. She sees the occupying German officers, pacing with their pistols holstered. She soaks up the Palais-Royal’s rural idyll, right on her Paris doorstep— “another country home,” as her friends put it. Scents of wisteria brought from her childhood home, bees landing on her window sill, and the noise of kids playing. She will die here, and the thought comforts her. “I like the idea that I shall have to face my end,” she writes in “The Palais-Royal,” “watched over … by the remains of an arbor that once gave shade to nuns.” She can almost smell the citrus leaves.
Almost. For Colette is bedridden. And as she ages, she will suffer this more regularly—already she must be carried downstairs to La Grand Vefour for her favorite salmon pastry. The room feels small, stuffy. The jardin’s enlightenment lines are as far away as her old Saint-Tropez retreat, or the roses of her Burgundy childhood. No more training vines to climb iron arches, or staking tomatoes. Left hand gently stroking her wiry hedge of hair, she watches the window and writes. After a life of public notoriety, the septuagenarian author conjures up one of her last reveries: a garden.
“I don’t have a garden any more,” Colette writes in Flowers and Fruit. No matter—she will daydream. “The worrying thing,” she continues, “would be if the future gardens, whose reality is of no importance, were beyond my grasp.” But her mind is still clear—the future can be written, if not lived. She’ll plant blue Hepaticas, which will edge a basket of Dielytras. Her pansies, she says, will look like Henry VIII. She’ll have an arbor and a trellis for dragon-tongued Cobaeas. Her vases will be stuffed with white lilies, and tuberose will climb the staircase. If it’s a Breton garden, Colette will plant Daphne. If it’s by a lake, she’ll have Japan allspice—the nightingale of flowers, dull to look at but beautiful to other senses. “How I love this ideal flower bed of mine,” she writes, “with its sumptuous border of ‘ifs.'” It’s a grab bag of Colette’s aesthetic passions, so practicality or feasibility are irrelevant. For her, the important thing is the fantasy itself—to ward off forgetfulness. “I shall dig them all into their storage trenches, some in my memory, the others in my imagination,” she writes. “There … they can still find the humus, the slightly bitter water, the warmth and the gratitude which will perhaps keep them from dying.” Because of her literary talent, Colette’s fantasies seem palpable—as if the humus and bitter water were right by her day bed.
In her “well-ordered solitude,” Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette lived in two worlds, real and imagined. There was her Paris apartment, and its procession of entertainments: fan mail, cut flowers, visits from neighbor Jean Cocteau, with whom she traded barbs and closet-skeletons like “precious marbles.” And there was her inner universe, her sumptuous border of “ifs”: two long roads of memory and fantasy, forking behind to childhood, and ahead to death and beyond. This tendency to daydream was more than a product of Colette’s advancing age. If the years intensified her imagination, the disposition was always there. She loved the faded and the nascent with equal ferocity. This sounds schizoid, but it was not. Unifying all of Colette’s flights was an ideal of tranquillity, centered on the French landscape, particularly flowers.
Most obviously, this stemmed from her bucolic childhood at Rue de l’Hospice, in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, a Burgundy commune in the late 19th century. Her mother Sidonie—nicknamed Sido—was a keen green thumb, who shrugged off her domestic burdens in the fresh air. “Off she would go,” recalled Colette in Sido, “into the garden, and at once her resentment and her nervous exasperation subsided.” All year round Sido guarded her “babies”: shelves of young potted plants, growing on green wooden steps. Colette once scratched into a pot’s lifeless-looking dirt, trying to discover the bulb or seed. “You’re nothing but a little eight-year-old murderess,” said her mother, angrily. Sido coveted her flowers, and was known to refuse roses for use in funerals, pelargoniums for Corpus Christi. If she avoided state religion, there was a secular reverence in this, which stamped itself upon Colette’s soul. “The style of things, the kind of things that we shall love in later life are fixed,” she wrote in “Autumn,” “in that moment when the child’s strong gaze selects and molds the figures of fantasy that for it are going to last.” Daffodils ringing a spring, a family feast arranged like a bouquet, conifers dressed in snow— these provided Colette with her distinctive imagery. She took pleasure in them throughout her long life. They colored her prose, from her debut Claudine at School (her Sapphic teenager, Claudine, loves “deep, encroaching woods”) to her very last memoirs and essays.
Biographer Judith Thurman notes that happy childhoods are “as scarce in biography as they are in fiction.” She questions Colette’s halcyon vision of girlhood, with its convenient contrast with urbane Parisian cynicism. But whatever their sources—fact or fiction, invention or revision—Colette’s fantasies were consistent. Her works are full of intimate botanical and horticultural detail, often from her Burgundy childhood. “I plunge off down a once familiar path at the pace I walked along it then,” she wrote in The Evening Star. “I aim for the big, crooked oak, for the poor farm where the cider and the bread spread with butter were doled out to me with such a generous hand.” If scenes like this were fictions, they were necessary ones for her. An insomniac, Colette spent whole nights this way, wandering in her past landscapes—what the author called her “virtuoso playing upon memory.”
The imagined future had the same horticultural appeal. In 1925, when she was in her early fifties, Colette purchased a Saint-Tropez property. She did not buy it for the house, much less for the investment or cachet (it was then a place to buy seafood, not to be “seen”). She bought it for the landscape, with its 4 acres of Mediterranean soil and flora. “There is … a house,” she wrote, “but that counts less.” She dubbed it “La Treille Muscate”: The Grape Vine. As soon as the house was hers, she began to invent her ideal garden. She painstakingly listed the tomatoes, aubergines, tarragon, sage, mint and yellow, pink and red roses. She devoted a purple paragraph to the vines, climbing iron arches and spiralling above the dirt. “Already lyrical, already in ecstasy?” she chided herself, but then justified her fancy: “The shores of the Mediterranean have turned more than one steady head with their intoxications.” Like many owners then and now, Colette was excitedly making plans for her new property. But this idea was more than a dry blueprint to be discarded in favor of the real thing. The idea was the real thing, to be played with in her mind. Hence her Bacchanalian prose, reveling in “grapes with their taut-skinned curves … wind laden with resins … the yellow rose which has a scent of fine cigars.” This was a fantasy, enjoyed for its own sake.
The point is not that Colette was anesthetized to the present. Even in her eighth decade she was still switched on. After a nervous visit in March 1948, Simone de Beauvoir told her American lover, Nelson Algren, that the ageing raconteur was so alive, “nobody would think of looking at younger, finer women.” She was no doddering anachronism. The point is that, for Colette, the undone and unrealised—past and future, decay and renewal, recollection and invention—were equally real, and equally worthy of contemplation and joy. In her fantasies, she kept returning to visions of Breton soil, fleshy roses or grapevines. For Colette, this vision had a restorative, rejuvenating role.
In particular, the garden liberated Colette from her own appetites. As her no-holds-barred affairs suggest, Colette was motivated by particularly intense desires. But like many who’ve tasted abandon and transgression, she knew that the moments of joy never lasted. Hence the continual disappointment of her lovers in The Pure and the Impure: they were looking for respite from deprivation in one another, but deprivation was their fundamental condition. “The lovers,” summarizes Thurman, “give pleasure but can’t receive it, or take it but can’t give it, … are mis-matched in age, appetite, egotism, and experience—… all feel obscurely cheated.”
This does not mean that pleasure did not exist for Colette—on the contrary, it could be an obsession, precisely because of its fleeting nature. There was still the frisson of sex with a much-younger stepson, or the straightforward pleasure of a rich salmon pie, or a cooling breeze on a sandaled foot. The point is that these gratifications were the exception, and not the rule. In Colette’s mind, it led to a dog-eat-dog cosmos, in which all things were constantly craving something and usually competing with one another for it. ‘How many crimes’, said Colette in Flowers and Fruit, ‘perpetrated by one kingdom upon another!’ In Colette’s world, craving never ended; one only discovered new things to crave, ad nauseam.
So for Colette, appetite was a central existential principle. It began with food: as a little girl with a fever, she pushed away medicinal chicken and rice pudding, and sighed: “I’d like some Camembert, please.” After suffering violent food poisoning, she pigged out on stuffed cabbage, cider and a currant tart—the richer the meal, the better the rejuvenation. She was convinced that her friend Annie de Pene, who succumbed to the 1914 Spanish influenza epidemic, died because she had not eaten well. “The flu took her with her defenses down,” she wrote to a friend, “which is to say on an empty stomach.” Hoping to remedy this by proxy, she tried to console Annie’s daughter with a bunch of grapes, and then prawns at Prunier’s.
For Colette, food cured spiritual and bodily ills. When she hit late adolescence and early youth, sex had the same restorative role—for one lover, at least. In The Pure and the Impure, Colette described this as if it were parasitism—lovers as vampires or victims. She wrote of “individuals who let themselves be filled by me, leaving me empty and drawn”—like her bookish, teenage stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel, whom she seduced in her fifties. In her youth, she was herself “filled” by the rakish Willy. Colette was, she later wrote in My Apprenticeships, one of those “barely nubile girls who dream of being the spectacle, the plaything, the erotic masterpiece of an older man.” For Colette, pleasure usually required some hierarchy: master and slave, domination and submission, predator and prey. “I don’t love people I can dominate,” said her 15-year-old heroine Claudine, who wanted to be bullied a little by a lover. Even Colette’s ties with pets and children were “raptorial,” as she put it—she had to “conquer and subdue,” lest they did the same to her. A child was, she wrote in My Mother’s House, a “happy little vampire.”
As this suggests, Colette played both roles, and excelled in each: the naïve nymphet with long braids, and the predatory seductress; the capricious, stubborn child, and the stern mother. At the heart of both was ongoing appetite: someone always needed to be “fed,” gastronomically, libidinally, psychologically. Because of this, Colette had an ongoing fear of emptiness: in herself, and the world. “She utterly abhors a vacuum,” writes Thurman, “and her famous insatiability is proportional to her exaggerated terror of any vital insufficiency.” Hence Colette’s distinctive hunger for Camembert, Bordeaux wine, transgressive love—all attempts to stave off some kind of physical or spiritual deprivation.
The garden might seem an unlikely remedy for this exhausting appetite. After all, roses and truffles, just like French authors, are creatures of craving. They feed, procreate, die. Colette recognized this now and then, but rarely for long—plants were always given a “get out of jail free” card. In Prisons and Paradise, for example, she reflected on flowers in light of modern science and cinema. Researchers suggested that plants had nervous systems, and therefore suffered pain, perhaps anxiety and anger. “What! Are the flowers cruel too?” she wrote. “Are they too the slaves of a demanding sexuality? Do they too have savage and cruel caprices?” Cinema portrayed plants on a gigantic scale, moving quickly with time-lapse photography. A climbing pea looked like a python, a lily like a crocodile.
Colette was unsettled by these images, but she repressed her horror in favor of a rosier outlook. “I would rather not know,” she wrote in Flowers and Fruit, about a stinking carrion flower, surrounded by dying flies. “Let the little black secret remain lying there in the depths of that flower-of-ill-repute.” Flowers, in Colette’s world, had to stay pure. For her, they were an almost magical break from the normal laws of the universe. Hence the scenes in Claudine at School, with her town transformed into a flowery bower, a kind of youthful fantasy land.
This might seem like Jean-Paul Sartre’s bad faith: recognizing plants’ voracious will with one breath, and denying it with another. And certainly Colette was not aiming at philosophical consistency in her life or writings. Perhaps this is why Sartre described her as a “sacred monster,” after dining with her: the normal rules of intellect and scholarship did not apply. Nonetheless, her love of flowers and gardens provided genuine respite from her private “red in tooth and claw” universe. Whereas desire for sex or food always left Colette wanting more, plants helped to rid her of desire altogether; helped her to become less starved and more contemplative.
For Colette, there was nothing cryptic in flowers, nothing capricious or fickle. They did not lie, cheat, betray; they were what they were, in 1880 or 1932, in Paris or Burgundy. Put simply, flowers were straightforward: they had a common and continuous nature. Because of this, Colette felt she did not have to seduce or coerce them (and she fumed when urbanites blithely did so: “Parisians nip all flowers in the bud,” she grumbled). She was simply happy to observe nature’s principles, what she called a “labor which strives towards perfection.” More specifically, instead of seeing flowers as predators or prey, Colette considered them calmly. In Prisons and Paradise, she described this attitude as her “disinterested botanical passion.” With this outlook, the flowers were no longer things to be measured and manipulated.
Excerpted from Philosophy in the Garden by Damon Young. Published April 2020 by Scribe US.