Colette’s France: Her Lives, Her Loves by Jane Gilmour

24th Jan 2014

Known for the Claudine series, her novel Gigi and a controversial love life including affairs with women and her own stepson, Colette is an icon in her native France, and in 1954 became the first woman to receive a French state funeral.

Colette’s France: Her Lives, Her Loves by academic and Colette obsessive Jane Gilmour combines rare and previously unpublished photos, images and other materials with an overview of Colette’s life, loves and literary legacy through the places she grew up, visited and wrote her books.

Gorgeously designed with lavish illustrations, the book is coffee table beautiful, and chronicles Colette’s journey from her childhood home in Saint-Saueur-en-Puisaye, to war-time and belle epoque era Paris via her ‘vagabond years’ in Brittanny, holiday homes and other adventures.

Gilmour’s passion and knowledge for her subject are obvious, giving her writing a sensitivity and insight not always present in biography. But the drawback is that the tone sometimes end up bordering on reverence, meaning the more scandalous and salacious areas of Colette’s history are not always fully explored.

While Colette’s France gives a charming and delicate introduction to the author, and brings the places she treasured to life in lush, meticulously researched detail, at times it feels slightly too sentimental or romanticised.

There are tantalising anecdotes about Colette's unexpected and almost accidental career as a mime artist, and the riots which had to be squashed by police following Colette kissing her lesbian lover while onstage at the Moulin Rouge.Descriptions of Colette writing her books, gardening in her country retreats or receiving visits from Jean Cocteau in her later years are lovingly recounted, while other aspects – such as her five-year affair with her teenage stepson, or her estrangements from her mother and daughter – are skated over.

At times, Colette’s France doesn’t feel as comprehensive as it could’ve been; the wider social, cultural and political contexts are referenced but not always fully explored, and in parts this comes across as a missed opportunity to develop the eclectic, revolving cast of characters Colette knew, and the way their actions were impacted by the societal pressures and conventions of the time.

Although undeniably visually rich, the text itself is not always as vivid or atmospheric as other biographies set in the same period. There are tantalising anecdotes about Colette’s unexpected and almost accidental career as a mime artist, and the riots which had to be squashed by police following Colette kissing her lesbian lover while onstage at the Moulin Rouge, but the emotions, motivations and consequences of these actions are not always fully documented.

But for a newcomer to the author, stories of Colette hiding her husband during the war, her friendships with Simone de Beauvoir, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Cocteau and assorted other luminaries of arts and literature, and her continual subverting of convention and expectation throughout her long life are sure to fascinate.

Reading Colette’s France feels like an introduction intended to prompt further reading, and in that it’s a true testament to Gilmour’s research, knowledge and affection for Colette.

Published late last year by Hardie Grant, Colette’s France is available now in hardback or digital editions.


  • sianushka says:

    Juliet Thurman’s book Secrets of the Flesh is the definitive biog I reckon. It’s brilliant and doesn’t skate over anything. Although I bought this book too because it just looks so beautiful.

    Still, nothing beats reading Colette. She’s wonderful.