Book Review: The Girl Who Loved Camellias

“Who would think of you today, poor Marie Duplessis, and your brief appearance in this world, if your lips had not touched the lips of two poets!” his son with both his great love and the subject of “La Dame aux Camélias”, the 1848 novel – and, three years later, the blockbuster play – which allowed him to emerge from the voluminous shadow of his father and, as the son said to him, “acquire a little glory” to him.

The girl who loved camellias

By Julie Kavanagh
Knopf, 288 pages, $ 27.95

in ‘Nana’ du Boudoir Edouard Manet (1877), portrait of a Parisian courtesan.

bpk / Hamburger Kunsthalle / Elk

Dumas father was the grandson of the Marquis Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie and of a black slave, Marie Dumas, who worked in his estates in the Antilles. The French Revolution allowed their dark-skinned son Thomas-Alexandre Dumas to make a name for himself as a soldier of almost superhuman strength and fearlessness. After Thomas-Alexandre was outspoken enough to ridicule Bonaparte’s chimerical Egyptian expedition, however, the Corsican upstart never forgave his colleague for being right: Dumas was expelled from the army and ended up in poverty without a pension.

The son of the general in disgrace, Alexander, takes up the pen like his father the sword. He soon wields it with vengeful success. Without any formal education, he came to Paris at a time of political turmoil and artistic opportunity. The Romantic movement was gaining momentum, especially in the theater. New productions were mounted with incredible speed, and success could offer rich rewards. As in the films of the turn of the 20th century, there was no such place for foreigners looking to make a name for themselves and make a fortune. Dumas father mastered the scene with a wonderfully lucrative skill: he knew how to write daring dialogue, and he could do it quickly. When he turned to serial fiction, like “The Three Musketeers”, he was in such a hurry that he hired a secretary to insert all the punctuation into the manuscript. “Paralyzed by debts, hampered by contracts, what am I doing?” I create !

The notoriety of his father has earned the precocious author of “La Dame aux Camélias” a prominent place in the chic milieu. Here it is as we see it in the 1923 retrospective of Johannès Gros on the life and work of young Dumas: cashmere suit, dark green or black, with wide collar, ultra wide lapels, white tie, black trousers, wide socks, not closed under the feet but revealing silk stockings and patent leather shoes. “

Not everyone could afford to be such a dandy or keep elegant company. On the left bank, the students (who knows what they were supposed to study?) Were content to grisettes: saleswomen, laundresses and seamstresses. If such girls willingly offered themselves to bohemian lovers, they could rarely afford to do so freely. The workers needed everything that could be given to them for food, shelter and a few pennies. A job of 11 hours a day, six days a week, paid only 22 francs a month.

No wonder the subject of Julie Kavanagh’s portrait was content, at the age of 15 or 16, to make the fancy of an older man, the offer of an apartment and a simple alms of 3000 frank! On the Right Bank, intelligent young (and not so young) men went bankrupt competing for the favors of such notorious women, whose whims were as delicious as they were costly. In the eyes of respectable wives and mothers, guarded wives were demons of depravity and temptation, but lost husbands were not always much lamented. Balzac made the Marquise de Vandenesse say to his sister-in-law: “We live with our husband, my dear, but in reality we only live with our lover!”

The most refined courtesan of her time, Marie Duplessis was witty, literate, superbly dressed and relentlessly exorbitant. Love and money were inseparable. Otherwise, how could such a beauty have afforded the diamonds in her hair, this sumptuous apartment on Boulevard de la Madeleine (number 15 today), her proud horses and her supple carriage, and all those shawls of cashmere and those rich fabrics with which she draped her, a thin and supernatural person? In public, Marie took care to appear almost sublime in her delicacy. Yet she was both the centerpiece of the decoration and the trigger for the bawdy gaiety during the intimate dinners organized by the “lions” of the ultra-snobbish Parisian Jockey Club, whose members competed to display the most carriage horses. dear and most showy. mistresses.

Such a courtesan could tease her followers as intelligently as she knew how to do, but she also had to offer pleasure beyond the reach, or below the dignity, of aristocratic brides. Ms. Kavanagh tells us that the young Dumas, in his first collection of poems, provided “intimate details of what it was like to make love to Marie Duplessis”, but she is too reluctant to give examples.

Could girls like Mary afford to have genuine, non-commercial feelings? Ms Kavanagh suggests that she may have, at one point, had an intimate relationship with an 18-year-old blonde named Lili, who came from a “good family”, but the author claims that lesbianism was not not a common practice. Only a few decades later, however, it could be assumed that intelligent readers knew well enough what Satin had done to satisfy Nana in Emile Zola’s novel.

Marie flourished in the metropolis of venal sensuality, but her roots and erotic upbringing were in the small town of Nonant, in Lower Normandy, where Alphonsine (her baptismal name) was born in January 1824. Her mother was said to have been born. aristocratic blood, the result of a local count having exercised its law of the Lord. Marie’s father, Marin Plessis, was a Heathcliffian seducer – irresistible, unreliable and often violent when it came to women.

After terrorizing his wife by making her abandon her two daughters, Marin provided the illiterate 14-year-old Alphonsine to a local widower, a septuagenarian Monsieur Plantier, as his “servant”. According to her local admirer (and later biographer), Romain Vienne, the young girl did not tell a story about this “hideous satyr”. Apparently less than traumatized, she decided to make profitable her attractions by lighting up for Paris. Women too could challenge the city, as Rastignac de Balzac did when he said: “To the two of us now!” (“It’s between you and me now!”)

Ms. Kavanagh is good at describing the period in which Alphonsine went from grisette to Lorette and – thanks to her girlish charms – comes to settle in an apartment by a bourgeois lover. When this man failed to keep the payments, it dumped it and went more upscale. By the time, around 1842, she returned to Nonant to recover from the delivery of a viscount’s child, she had traded in her “brown peasant complexion” for the white-eyed refinement that had become her trademark. Adept at concealing her lack of cleavage with flowers and pretty fabrics, she was distinguished by the first signs of tuberculosis which would kill her only a few years later.

Marie was said to love camellias over all other flowers because they had no scent (unlike Cattleyas orchids preferred by Proust’s courtesan, Odette). But the invoice from her florist Ragonot shows that she was not opposed even to the scented hyacinth. Mary assigned a color code to her flowers: Camellias were usually white, but receiving a red one warned her lovers that it was, as they said, “that time of the month.”

Ms Kavanagh details quite clearly Alphonsine Plessis’ rapid passage from the apprentice prostitute to Marie Duplessis (the addition of “Du” was proof of her determined social ascension), but she cannot match the pace and poignant character. of the living story of young Dumas. His fictional love, Marguerite Gautier, was surely named for Dumas’s friend, the poet Théophile Gautier, who coined the expression “tout passe” (“tout passe”), as he certainly did, quickly, for girls like Marie.

Both hard as nails and fragile like her favorite porcelains (shepherds and shepherdesses especially), Marie exploited (and sometimes mocked) her rich lovers, as if by mistreating them she was doing them a service. The most altruistic was the old millionaire diplomat, Count Gustav Ernst von Stackelberg, who saw her for the first time in Baden-Baden. Having recently lost a beloved daughter who looked like Mary, he almost literally adopted her. He demanded little or no sexual favors, but could be as possessive as he was generous. She was kind (and careful) enough to take great care to cheat on him.

Mrs. Kavanagh tells us everything we want to know about Mary’s doomed dreams of becoming a respectable woman. In the last year of her life, she arranged to marry, in London, to Ned Perregaux, a passionate aristocratic patsy whom she handled with consummate callousness and then dumped. The young Dumas sentimentalized a hard case, which Giuseppe Verdi put on an unforgettable redemptive music in “La Traviata”. Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, was Marie’s most recent reappearance. Who else but Audrey Hepburn could compete with her relentless finesse?

Ms. Kavanagh may be trying too hard to be worthy of her squadron of eminent literary advisers. (The list in her acknowledgments amounts to a sort of Gotcha’s Almanac: a prominent group calculated to deter criticism.) “The Girl Who Loved Camellias” is as neat and pleasant as any matron could wish to read. Like the new kitchen, such measured work leaves you eager for a hint of bad taste. Ms. Kavanagh never mentions venereal disease, contraception, or the precise nature of the sexual services Mary and her ilk were supposed to render in return for their scent and subsidized lives. A scabrous contemporary commentator has said that the women brought to Napoleon III’s palace to vary his sexual regimen were instructed: “You can kiss his majesty anywhere except on the face.” A touch of blue (one of Marie’s favorite colors) might have brightened up her portrait.

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