The Making and Unmaking of Colette: Myth, Celebrity, Profession
This dissertation takes the paradoxical role of Colette in the canon of French and women's writing, from her earliest works to present, as an entry into a radically new interpretation of her life and literary oeuvre. This work is distinguished from previous works on Colette both in its approach and in the scope of its research, relying on extensive archival research revealing unpublished and unstudied aspects of Colette's biography and reception, and using a variety of modes of analysis to interpret this research.
This dissertation shows, in its first two chapters, how the myth of Colette as the incarnation of a particularly French brand of femininity, a spontaneous, natural writer, in no way literarily self-conscious, neither contributing to nor influenced by literary innovations, whose writing expresses her instinctive femininity, was constituted, from the earliest reviews of Colette's first novel, Claudine à l'école (1900), through feminist interpretations of Colette from the 1970s to present. Because Colette was understood to be a feminine writer of women by both misogynist conservatives of 1900 and radical feminists of the 1970's, their understanding of this writer remained remarkably homogenous and durable. The third chapter relies on contemporary celebrity theory in order to investigate Colette's own agency in the creation and policing of this durable public image, tracing both ways that Colette maintained her image, and ways that she profited from it, focusing in particular on her eponymous literary collection, the Collection Colette, and her "produits de beauté" cosmetics line and a beauty salon. This understanding of Colette's agential role in her public image inspires a new reading of the 1910 novel La Vagabonde and the relationship Colette depicts between the protagonist, Renée Néré's stage persona and her life when she is not in front of an audience.
The next two chapters suggest new ways of approaching Colette, beyond the durable myth of the spontaneous feminine writer that she worked so hard to maintain: as a consummate professional and as a literary innovator. The fourth chapter focuses on Colette's professionalism: using a Bourdieusian-inspired analysis of Colette's correspondence to uncover her role in the literary field, tracing the full extent of her social, artistic, and professional networks with other writers, journalists, and artists. This chapter then explores concrete examples of her manipulation of these networks, studying in particular her collaboration with Maurice Ravel in L'Enfant et les sortilèges and her management of the literary department at the newspaper Le Matin. The final chapter of this dissertation reads Colette in terms of discourses of modernism, from which she has long been excluded due to her imagined marginality to the literary field, focusing in particular on French conceptions of the harmonious reconciliation of classicism and literary innovation which reached their height in the 1920's, and which I have termed the "classique moderne." This dissertation makes a contribution to trends in French literature, literary history, the sociology of literature, women's studies, women's history, feminist literary criticism, and celebrity theory.
sociology of literature
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