Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born in 1873 in the town of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, some hundred miles southeast of Paris. The Puisaye area of northern Burgundy was not a fertile land of grain and vineyards, but an expanse of marsh, pasture, and sand; yet it was dearly cherished by the growing girl. Her shrewd, nature-loving, irreligious mother, née Sidonie Landoy and affectionately known in Colette’s later books as Sido (1835–1912), had inherited substantial property from her grotesque first husband, but much of it was lost through the mismanagement of her second husband (father of the future novelist), Captain Jules-Joseph Colette (ca. 1830–1905), a one-legged Army veteran who had first come to the district as a tax collector.
The feckless captain also dabbled in scientific writing, and had intruded himself on the eminent Parisian scientific publisher Gauthier-Villars. Thus, in 1890, when the publisher’s son Henri (1859–1931), known as Willy to the readers of his trashy romantic novels, found himself with an illegitimate child to farm out, he brought it to the Colette’s home town (where wet-nursing was a normal “cottage industry” for farmers’ wives wishing to supplement their income), and used the family as agents. He and young Sidonie (who may possibly have met in Paris in 1889, when her family visited the World’s Fair) fell in love and were married in 1893.
Now a Parisienne in high society, Sidonie acquired many useful contacts and a cultural baggage that she could never have had access to back home. In later years, however, she always depicted her first marriage as a period of severe disappointment and disillusionment: Willy was constitutionally unfaithful, and his young wife found herself one of a stable of ghost writers who churned out most of the books he put his name to. (It’s unlikely that she was actually kept as a virtual prisoner, compelled to produce so much copy a day.) At any rate, the four Claudine novels—brash, flippant, and risqué—about a rural schoolgirl who enters Parisian society (published between 1900 and 1903, with Willy appearing as sole author),1 were wildly successful and were even granted the ultimate honor of being dramatized for the stage.
Finding her feet, Sidonie left Willy in 1906 (the final divorce decree was awarded in 1910), but not (yet) as an enemy; she continued to show him her books in manuscript for corrections and suggestions. In 1904, under the name “Colette Willy,” which she used until 1922, she published four Dialogues des bêtes (Dialogues of Animals), in which dogs and cats discuss their owners’ doings (three dialogues were added for the 1905 edition; there were eventually twelve). In 1904 and 1905, she published two very minor novels about a girl named Minne, which she combined and adapted in the 1909 L’ingénue libertine (The Loose-Living Ingenue). In 1907, she wrote a farewell to the Claudine character in La retraite sentimentale, known in English as Retreat from Love. In 1908, the title piece of the essay-and-story collection Les vrilles de la vigne (Tendrils of the Vine) symbolizes her feeling that marriage is an entrapment.