How a Childhood of Books Made Me Fall in Love With Colette

Colette's screenwriter traces the roots of her affection for the iconic French writer to a past defined by poetry and unreturned library books.

Growing up in Plymouth in the 1970s, there was no money but there were always books and records. My father’s flat always had stacks of library books, dogeared or earmarked with Rizla cigarette papers, which he had a curious phobia about returning. One week, Plymouth Library had an amnesty; you were invited to return any amount of overdue books with all fees dropped. My father filled a supermarket trolley four foot high with books that he’d borrowed years ago.

My mother, Mouse, is an avid reader too. She didn’t marry Jim, my father, and they split when I was four. Jim was 17 when I was born, my mother 24 with two young children. Mouse fell for Jim because of a poem she found on the kitchen table. She thought it was by Jim and she fell – smitten. Later, my father revealed he had nothing to do with the love poem, that some other random guy floating through had written it. Words were everywhere. 1970s paperbacks lying around the flat. Salinger. Nabokov.

The young Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Mouse talked about Colette. And Sido, Colette’s mother. I saw various pictures of Colette when I was a girl. Gabrielle Sidonie Colette at 16 on a net hammock with coils of plaits that hung down to the ground. Another picture showed her hair in a bob cut, in another she pretended to be a cat and still managed to look amazing. There was a picture of her in middle age, sitting with a pen at her desk. So, Colette entered my psyche early on. I knew that Colette was a writer, that her mother Sido loved nature and Colette adored Sido and it all happened in France.

Among the other literary facts I garnered at the time were that George Eliot was, in fact, a woman – I wanted to draw a mustache on her portrait. And that the Brontë sisters also pretended to be men; Currer, Bell and Co., they sounded like a bank. And this was all to help them publish their books. I must have been around 10 when I found out these things, and I thought the swapping of sexes was some sort of cavalier game. Now in my forties, I look back to that time when I had scant idea of the battles these women had fought to be recognized as writers, their utter bravery to sit down and make work. What a force of nature these women were. It takes an act of faith simply to write, but to create when one is primed to be secondary or decorative or domestic, that takes someone really incredible.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz during her time in Plymouth

I was asked to write on the film Colette, and I read the beautiful script by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer with great anticipation. It was fantastic. It had been a passion project of theirs for many years and after Richard’s untimely death, Wash wanted to complete and bring to life this vibrant script that he and his brilliant husband had put so much into. Writing with Wash was such a pleasure. He was open and generous and we shared ideas very freely and were both so excited by collaborating on the script. Wash was consistently so deeply moved by the material, and touched by Colette; her contradictions and her strength. He was ever enthusiastic and hungry to make the film immediate and shocking with its telling of the blatant misogyny Colette faced in her life.

Colette’s story had fascinated both Wash and Richard; her vibrant personality, her honesty, her blatant rejection of society’s rules and norms. They had all fallen in love with her, and I did too. Colette’s creative output was huge: novels, novellas, short stories. She wrote about nature with passion, and the psychology of love and loss with such delicacy and force. She loved women and she enjoyed men. Her open and proud bisexuality was so brave at a time when the citizens of Paris were still reeling from the discovery of electricity.

Denise Gough and Keira Knightley and Missy and Colette in Colette.

Colette wrote the Claudine novels, about a French teenage girl, for her older husband Willy to publish under his name; he ran a sort of “factory,” where writers would sub for him and he took the credit and duly paid them. The Claudine stories were a phenomenal hit, and merchandise sprung up around them: Claudine soap, Claudine haircuts, Claudine outfits. Colette had a battle with Willy to claim authorship, and this is the story we tell in our film Colette. Legend has it that Willy locked her up to write the stories. But ultimately Colette broke free from his shackles and made her own brilliant career, and proved her true authorship of the novels. She had many lovers and a beautiful child at age 40, another Colette, fondly known as Bel-Gazou. She never stopped writing. And she refused to conform. Vive Colette! L’Égalité! Fraternité! Vive la Liberté!

Rebecca Lenkiewicz is an acclaimed playwright whose work has been performed all over the world. She was the first living female playwright to have an original play – the celebrated Her Naked Skin, which explored the suffragette movement – performed on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage. Rebecca also writes for film and television. She co-wrote with director Pawel Pawlikowski the film Ida, which won the Oscar in 2016 for Best Foreign Language Film, and the BAFTA and the Independent Spirit awards for the same category. She co-wrote with director Sebastian Lelio the acclaimed film Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, which came out this past spring, and her latest film, Colette, is released by Bleecker Street on September 21. Rebecca co-wrote Colette, which stars Keira Knightley, Dominic West and Denise Gough, with director Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer.