Colette. The Venus of the Belle Époque.

Post by Wanda Smit

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, known as Colette because she insisted, in her teens already, on being called by her last name – a European practice normally extended only to boys – is best known as the creator of Gigi, a novel that was turned into a very successful film. Before Gigi, she wrote a series of voluptuous novels at the time Paris was about to become the creative centre of writers and artists. It was the Belle Époque, that period before the First World War, when the world of literature and art was about to undergo major changes.

Colette was to define what it meant to be a woman, dancing and singing in Parisian music halls and writing about sexuality as no-one before her had done. She thus opened the opportunity for the expression of sexuality for women around the world. Her life had hues of Fifty Shades of Grey – just a century earlier.

Fixed on Change

Colette’s chart lies on the Fixed Cross. She needed security, financially and emotionally, especially after her family had lost their home – a paradise to Colette – and she married Monsieur Willy, only to separate from him and fend for herself – a major achievement for a woman living at the turn of the century.

Yet although her motivation was fixed, the way she went about achieving security was cardinal as the many linears in her chart suggest: she simply did what needed to be done, whether it meant ending a relationship or moving to another house or city in France.

Air and Earth

Colette put the surplus of air (-17) and earth (-5) in her temperament to good use. She could translate an acute sense of touch, smell and taste into a French that acquired texture, colour and smell. No-one in the French language could describe nature as sensually as she. In Colette, her biographer Joanna Richardson writes that her “passion for nature, her enquiring mind, her poetic sense, made her the most original and powerful writer of natural history. She was sensitive, in this, to the point of genius.”

All the air in her went into communicating not only her acute sensuality, but her daring sexuality too – in a staggering 50 volumes! She also wrote a host of newspaper and magazine articles, film scripts and an average 5 letters a day.

A Child of Nature

Colette was born in Saint-Sauveur in Burgundy where her mother, Sido, who would always be the most important person in her life, introduced her to the splendours of the countryside and a dismissive attitude toward the social mores of the day. Sido had a love of nature so great that it made her home and garden a place of enchantment for her daughter.

Saturn, as a representation of the mother in childhood, is in Capricorn in the area of home and family in Colette’s chart. It is hand in hand with Mercury, which gave Colette the ability to communicate Capricorn’s earth-nature and Saturn’s down-to-earth approach to life in her writing. These two energies were constantly fired up in three Learning Triangles by Neptune, by Colette’s creativity in close personal relationships – of which there were many.

Ambitious since childhood, Colette wanted to stand out from the crowd. Live up to her Uranus in a leonine 10th house? And she achieved her ambitions later in life by becoming an innovative authority in literature. In its obituary of Colette, The Times wrote: “She was a complete sensualist; but she gave herself up to her senses with such delicacy of perception, with such exquisiteness of physical pain, as well as physical ecstasy, that she ennobled sensualism almost into grandeur. The love affairs of her novels were her own love affairs…” She had suffered as much as her heroines, but she had transmuted her suffering into art.

From Sensuality to Sexuality

When her age point was about to enter the 4th house in 1890, the sextile to her Scorpionic Mars brought into her life a decadent and destructive boulevardier, Henri-Gauthier Villars, known as Mr Willy who was an author, columnist and reviewer. Fifteen years older than Colette, he introduced her to sex and the sophistry of the day. She married him in 1893 and the couple moved to Paris with its bohemian café society, fancy parties and music halls. Soon Colette was drinking absinthe and experimenting with morphine and opium.

It is noteworthy that most of the energies in Colette’s chart are in the 3rd quadrant of instinct on the YOU side, making the 4th, 5th and 6th houses vital for her experiences of life. In 1894 when her age point encountered Mercury in the 4th house and, a few months later, Saturn, Colette’s mind was filled with thoughts about her married situation. In addition to his extra-marital affairs, her husband involved her in ever-more shameless sex, often involving another woman. Years later, she wrote: “There are many scarcely nubile girls who dream of being the spectacle, the plaything, the libertine masterpiece of an older man. It is an ugly dream … It is a dream which goes with the neurosis of puberty. And so I was punished, harshly, and soon.”

As her consciousness hit the low point of the 4th house, she was overcome by depression and lost her will to live. Her mother Sido came to the rescue and did what only she could do: restore her daughter’s love of life.

Just before Colette’s age point entered the 5th house where her Sun and Moon reside, the C1 occurred. It was 1896, a major turning point in Colette’s life. She now met the great writers of the times: André Gide, Jean Cocteau and Francois Mauriac. Seeing an opportunity to make money, her husband urged her to write a saucy novel. In 1900 her first book, Claudine at School, was published under his name. It was wickedly licentious and caused a scandal, but sold 40 000 copies in two months.

Her husband now locked her in a room for several hours each day so that she could produce a sequel: Claudine in Paris which appeared in 1901. It was dramatised and became a great success. The commercially successful Claudine series was followed by a series of must-have items, pre-dating modern-day marketing: Claudine uniforms, Claudine soaps, Claudine perfumes, even Claudine cigars and cigarettes. Further Claudine novels followed and Colette now realised how her husband used her to fulfil his own selfish needs for money and fame. In 1904, she separated from him and wrote the last Claudine novel under her own name: Colette Willy which would become just ‘Colette’ in time.

Setting Venus Free

Suffering from her husband’s disregard of her own needs, Colette now followed her mother’s life philosophy: that the only person you can count on is yourself. In 1906, when Colette’s age point bumped into Venus, she became the woman she really was: she put aside a career as a populist writer and, following her divorce from her philandering husband, began dancing and singing in Parisian music halls.

Wanting to explore what it really meant to be a woman, Colette began a new process of sexual self-realisation. She appeared on stage with one breast exposed, creating great controversy, shocking some and fascinating others. Said a like-minded dancer and poetess at the time: “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.”

It was as if Colette had set femininity free. At the same time, she created a new way of looking at women in literature, liberating them from traditional roles. Her age point was traversing the 6th house of service to others, in her instance, to other women. She also had to work to earn a living, an unthought-of endeavour in turn-of-the-century France. She continued to write, publishing Animal Dialogues under her own name, and dancing on stage. Later in life, she described this phase as her ‘vagabond years’: “Solitude, freedom, my pleasant and painful work as mime and dancer…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.”

The Freedom to Be Herself

When her age point entered Aries in 1907, Colette asserted her new self on stage, in a play that was performed 250 times in France, Brussels and French-speaking Switzerland. (She was never considered a good actress ‘though.) And when it entered the 7th house, she also asserted her bisexuality by having a relationship with Missy, better known as Monsieur Missy in lesbian circles. Missy supported Colette financially and introduced her to the gay-lesbian society of Paris. Colette shocked society further by cross-dressing, forbidden by law except on stage, by miming copulation in one show and, during a new production at the Moulin-Rouge in which she, as an Egyptian mummy, unwrapped her bandages and kissed Missy, cross-dressed as the archaeologist. The scene was banned by the Paris police commissioner.

Colette enjoyed the publicity. She was happier and more fulfilled than before. She was still writing, publishing a collection of autobiographical essays and stories in 1908 and a novel in 1909.

After six years with Missy, Colette had a relationship with a man, Heriot, before meeting her second husband, Baron Henri de Jouvenal, co-editor of the prestigious Paris newspaper Le Matin. Just before her age point hit the low point of the 7th house, Colette lost her mother who had always been her most important close relationship. When her age point was fired up by Saturn in 1913, Colette gave birth to a daughter, but their relationship would never be close.

During the time her age point opposed Mars, her husband became increasingly interested in other women. Over the next two years, Uranus, the Sun and the Moon would be activated by three squares. The unexpected innovations Uranus brought into her consciousness came in the form of Ouija boards, witchcraft and voodoo.

The squares to her Sun and Moon in the 5th house fired up her creative self-expression: she wrote Cheri in which an aging courtesan has a love affair with a young man. Then, when her age point conjoined the North Node in the 8th house of sex, death and rebirth, she had an erotic love affair with Jouvenal’s 17-year old son, Bertrand. She was blissfully happy as the trines to her Sun and Moon in 1921 and 1922 suggest. Her husband found out about her affair and moved out, but Bertrand stayed with her for another two years.

Her last great love was Maurice Goudeket, 17 years younger than she was. They married in 1935 and were together till her death. He was Jewish, and because of anti-Semitism he couldn’t find work. Colette supported him financially and helped him hide out when Germany occupied France during World War II. Her time with him seemed to be her most productive and contented period.

During the war years, Colette continued to write, producing many novels. Gigi, her most famous novel, was published when she was 71, at the time her age point formed a trine with the North Node – as if sex, death and rebirth, the major themes of her life, were the right experiences for her soul’s journey.

Jupiterian Peaks

At the time of the C1, Colette met France’s leading living writers. At the time of the C2, Colette was widely regarded as the greatest woman author in France.  In 1932, when her age point was in the 10th house and moved over Uranus, she was indeed an innovative authority in literature. She became the first woman admitted to the prestigious Goncourt Academy – a great feat not only for herself, but for all women writers. In 1935, when her Pluto was activated by a square to her age point, the Royal Academy of Belgium paid its dues to Colette by electing her as a foreign member. As if pre-empting the glory her consciousness would experience – that of her Jupiter in a leonine 11th house a year later – a like-minded Academician addressed Colette:

“You are incarnated in your style. You yourself give it such intense existence that we seem to see all the words come to life, see the sentence undulate an draw itself up, like the supple spine of a cat beneath one’s caress. Your style is a perpetual creation, a perpetual pulsing of the sap of life, a perpetual sensuality…Your style has the gift of life.”

Colette died in 1954, after having written several more novels. She was given an official French state funeral, highly unusual for a woman at the time. But then, she had always been a woman way ahead of her time.