Image: Léa de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Baronne de la Berche (Bette Bourne), Madame Aldonza (Nichola McAuliffe) and Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates) in Mme Peloux’s ‘mausoleum’ in Chéri (dir. Stephen Frears, 2009)

Ahead of the release of the biopic Colette, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Dr Will Visconti examines some of Colette’s most enduring characters and their origins: the courtesans who populate her works, especially her most famous stories, Chéri and Gigi.

When Colette’s novellas Chéri and La fin de Chéri were published (in 1920 and 1926 respectively), nostalgia for the pre-war Belle Époque was running high, and the number of glittering figures from the late 1800s and early 1900s had diminished in stature or died.

The novels tell the story of the love affair between Léa de Lonval, an aging courtesan, and the son of her friend-slash-rival Charlotte Peloux, Fred, nicknamed Chéri. They contain several instances of a bleeding between art and life, from the inspiration for the courtesan characters themselves to the nature of the narrative. Colette herself, though famous for her relationship with the Marquise de Belbeuf with whom she appeared in the erotically-charged Rêve d’Égypte at the Moulin Rouge in 1907, and her turbulent marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars, also had an adulterous affair with her teenaged stepson Bertrand de Jouvenel, during her second marriage.

Similarly, Gigi, which was published in 1944, centres around the eponymous heroine, who is being trained by her grandmother and aunt to become a courtesan (rather than an actress like her mother). Colette’s personal sense of nostalgia is arguably an influence on this novella, given that it was written and published in Paris during the Second World War. She refused to leave the city, despite the threat of arrest faced by her Jewish husband, Marcel Goudeket. Indeed, he was once arrested by the Gestapo and after his release the menace of a second arrest hung heavy over Colette until Liberation.

Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans), Gigi (Leslie Caron) and Mamita (Hermione Gingold) in Gigi (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

Gigi looks back on the past with a rose-tinted view of what is in fact often seen by contemporary audiences as, to use the technical term, ‘creepy’ (that is, grooming a young woman to become a sex worker), the same way that Colette’s nostalgia during wartime may have obscured the unsavoury truths of the period. Her novel Mitsou also delves into her time as a performer, being set in a music-hall, and bringing her experiences to life in a fictionalised setting, one where courtesans, like those with whom Colette was familiar, were known to launch their careers as artistes onstage.

The courtesans featured in Chéri can be argued to echo the women whom Colette knew, or knew of, during the early 1900s. Even without the ravages of the Great War and later on the Depression, the fortunes of women like the ‘Three Graces’ of the fin-de-siècle – Liane de Pougy, La Belle Otero and Emilienne d’Alençon – suffered as they grew older. Liane married and became the Princess Ghika, but after being widowed, she retired to a convent and became Sister Anne-Marie; Emilienne was an early client of Coco Chanel, but later dissipated her fortune on gambling and substance abuse. La Belle Otéro spent her money on gambling, living to the age of 96.

Colette’s ex-lover the Marquise, nicknamed ‘Missy’ or ‘Uncle Max’ rather than using her given name of Mathilde, was a former lover of Liane de Pougy, and Colette was an acquaintance of one of Liane’s direct rivals, the equally famed Caroline ‘La Belle’ Otéro. In her autobiographical Mes Apprentissages, Colette recounts advice given to her by La Belle Otéro about the finer points of seduction. Speaking of La Belle Otéro she said ‘there are few beautiful women who can guzzle without lack of prestige’.

The link between art and life was reinforced by Colette herself playing the role of Léa in a 1920s stage production of Chéri, and dressing as Léa on at least one other occasion. When invited to a ball held by the Comte and Comtesse de Beaumont (a major event in the social calendar between the 1920s and 1940s), Colette dressed once more as Léa. This time she was flanked by two composers in complementary outfits: Georges Auric attended in drag as Charlotte Peloux, and Francis Poulenc dressed as Fred. Moreover, she wrote after her affair with her stepson, which paralleled the narrative of Chéri, ‘everything one writes comes to pass’.

Jean Fouchereaux argued that the youth and beauty of Fred underscores the unsightliness of characters like La Loupiote and La Copine, elder courtesans who haunt Maxim’s. However, I would argue that they are the foil for Lea’s dynamism and appeal. This is particularly true in the most recent film adaptation, where Léa is frequently contrasted against the other courtesans of her acquaintance. Youthful in comparison to the arthritic, pitiable Madame Aldonza; subtle and refined in contrast to the brash Marie-Laure and the grotesque mutton-dressed-as-lamb style of Lili; and elegantly understated in her dress and taste in furnishings, unlike the overblown Charlotte and her mansion overflowing with bibelots, described in the text and the film as a ‘junk shop’ and ‘mausoleum’.

Equally, the aging courtesans herald the passage of time. They embody nostalgia for the past alongside the pressure to keep up with the present and remain engaged, or risk falling into pointless reminiscence and obsolescence. Perhaps the same can be argued of Mamita and Aunt Alicia whose old-fashioned views and plans for Gigi lose out to youthful sentimentality and the emerging generation, replaced but not wholly ignored.

Thankfully, the prose of Colette shows no signs of losing its vim, and so preserves the memory of a world of courtesans, beautiful people and the frisson of turn-of-the-century sexual transgression for future generations.

Dr Will Visconti completed a joint PhD in French Studies and Italian Studies at the University of Sydney. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory at the Institute of Modern Language Research, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and is a history and cultural studies lecturer at Central Saint Martins.

Further reading

  • Chéri and The Last of Chéri. trans. Roger Senhouse (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001, 2009)
  • Gigi. trans. Roger Senhouse (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972)
  • Mes Apprentissages (Paris: Librairie générale française, 2004)
  • Fouchereaux, Jean. « Feminine Archetypes in Colette and Marie-Claire Blais ». The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1986), pp. 43-49