Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was a force of nature. As a young country girl, perhaps wary of her own burgeoning passions, perhaps reacting to the prejudices and restrictions of her day, she had “a weakness for bondage,” writes Judith Thurman in her riveting biography of the writer. At twenty, Colette married the already profligate rake Willy, much her senior.
Willy was a minor writer with “low appetites” and expensive tastes. He saw that Colette’s early books (those about, and ostensibly by, the schoolgirl, Claudine—-a forerunner of the modern teenage heroine) were published under his name. He took both credit and royalties, using both to support a flamboyant and often independent life. When Colette was not shut in at her desk or socializing with the arty circle Willy preferred, she was kept a busy participant in his sexual diversions. We make our own beds. She was content, at least in hers.
Eventually Colette abandoned her would-be Pygmalion, embarking upon a series of infamous affairs with women. In an effort to make a literary name in her own right, she wrote fiction featuring (heterosexual) women who, despite their rebellious hearts, tried to sculpt fate to their own ends. Her subject was always the bondage of love and sensuality. When finally the rights to her precocious heroine reverted back to Colette, she dramatized the books, starring in their theatrical productions.
During a second problematic marriage to a prominent, but less successfully controlling man, Colette bore her only child at forty. She now planned life in accordance with her own needs and wishes. In addition to the novels, she began to write what would become a body of incisive journalism. At forty-seven, a greatly absentee mother to her own daughter, Colette seduced her young stepson. Other affairs followed, mostly with much younger men, all ultimately under her control.
Our subject loved fully, but noting the exception of lifelong friends, with a mercurial attention span. The country girl became what Thurman recognizes as “an old woman with a genius for domination.” Despite never being what the Belle Epoque perceived as beautiful, Colette was acrobatically fit, energetic, curious, extremely intelligent, talented, fun and a confirmed sexual libertine.
In later life, freed again of an unsympathetic husband, Colette opened a beauty institute while continuing to write both fiction, such as Sido and Gigi, and journalism. With Sido she rediscovered her hugely influential mother. With Gigi her fame became international. At fifty-two, she made one last enduring liaison with another man much her junior. Their mutual devotion carried her to the end.
When Maurice was arrested by the Gestapo during the occupation, Colette secured his freedom. When she became bedridden the last years of her life, he cared for her, facilitating as much social life as possible (Colette famously held court from her bed.) Until her death, Colette remained feminine, alert, fully in charge and surrounded by young admirers. She’d been selfish, ambitious, difficult, outrageous, big-hearted and elusive, but always fascinating.
Judith Thurman writes with perception. Her scholarship never seems pedantic. She presents a complete and complex portrait without dictating what the reader should think or becoming over analytical. The book is as entertaining as the life described. One feels drawn in, captivated by Colette. This is a big book. You won’t always like or agree with our “star,” but you’ll never be disinterested or less than intrigued by her. Reading Secrets Of The Flesh is enjoyable, interesting, and often compelling. The book makes you feel like flexing your own womanhood—-just a bit more.