Colette’s tempestuous summer of 1911, as described in 1973

By Chris Hall
Cover featuring a pic of Colette
Naked ambition: in La Chair, ‘Colette’s nudity was considered shocking, even for the easygoing moral atmosphere of the time’ Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The Observer Magazine of 28 January 1973 told the tale of the French novelist Colette’s tempestuous summer of 1911 and a chain of events so packed with melodrama that even she found them ‘too theatrical’, according to her biographer Margaret Crosland (‘Colette’s mad, hot July’).

Between 1906 and 1912 Colette was a mime artist. In La Chair, ‘her nudity was considered shocking, even for the easygoing moral atmosphere of the time’. Crosland speculates this may have been related to her divorce from Henri Gauthier-Villars in 1906: ‘Was she anxious to regain, or gain for the first time, her confidence as a woman by appearing in public in a series of erotic and revealing costumes?’

Crosland wrote that Colette’s relationship with the Marquise de Belbeuf ‘is perhaps best described as amitié amoureuse, a term much more expressive than lesbianism’. Their ‘prolonged and passionate kiss’ was too much even for the Moulin-Rouge after a riot during Rêve d’Egypte.

In 1910, she had also become involved with Auguste Hériot and then in July 1911 ‘a new name appeared in one of Colette’s letters: Sidi’. Baron Henri de Jouvenel des Ursins was the co-editor of the Paris daily Le Matin and later her husband.

At the end of July, Colette wrote a ‘long, breathless, radiant’ letter to a friend relaying her ‘hectic’ life: ‘Do you know that on returning to Paris, J admitted to the P that he was in love with another woman! At that she declared she would kill that woman… In desperation J transmitted this threat to me, to which I replied, “I’ll go and see her.” And I said to the P, “I’m the woman.” At that she collapsed… two days later she announced to J her intention to do me in.’

As Crosland wrote, ‘Some chapters in Colette’s life read like a parody of one of her novels, but in none of her novels does half so much happen as in this letter.’


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