In the pecking order of the demimonde of nineteenth-century Paris, the courtesans ranked highest. Merchants of love though they were, they stood apart from the prostitutes who walked the streets, from the grisettes who only took money from their lovers, if at all, to round out their salaries as seamstresses or florists, and from the lorettes who, in contrast, allowed themselves to be kept by their lovers but whose appetite for luxury remained modest.
They were also different from the actresses or dancers who might have wealthy patrons, but who were as well known for their talent as for their scandalous liaisons. A courtesan never burdened herself with any career other than the one she pursued flat on her back, hence the sobriquet grande horizontale. Plenty of other jocular nicknames were applied, largely taken from the animal kingdom, to describe their rank in this very particular society: a cocotte douée, literally a clever chick, becomes a biche, or doe, and then a lionne, or lioness, if she surpasses her competitors. A lioness is a celebrity, reveling in stunning luxury.
The most spectacular courtesan of Second Empire France was La Païva, born in Moscow, the daughter of a Polish Jewish artisan. She launched her career in Paris, using the charms of her body and resourceful mind so successfully that she ultimately owned the most sumptuous mansion on the Champs-Élysées, which had been built just for her. The building now houses the Travellers Club and you can still admire her silver-plated bronze bathtub with its three faucets, offering the choice of running water, milk, or champagne.
These temptresses have existed throughout history but they took on a special status in post-revolutionary France. That’s when they were ushered into French literature, by writers ranging from Balzac to Proust.
Balzac created thirty or so courtesans, more than all the solicitors, barristers, and attorneys put together in La Comédie humaine. How can we explain this profusion? They aren’t there to provide a pretext for erotic scenes, or as object lessons in degradation or personifications of the threat to public morality: they are there because they are entertaining. At once amusing mistresses and first-class hostesses, they gathered around them a lively and talented company where sober-sided public officials, careworn bankers, and narrow-minded shopkeepers could all forget their worries.
The licentiousness that marked the high society of the eighteenth century did not survive the French Revolution. Virtue, piety, and decorum reigned in respectable houses and men were bored. The wives—married too young, deeply ignorant, and regrettably, as noted by Georges Sand, raised to be saintly—had no way to keep those men at home. “The state ought to subsidize a school of gymnastics for honest women!” said Josépha, one of Balzac’s triumphant courtesans. “But governments are so prudish!”
The only salons where you could laugh freely, tell a risqué joke, or start an affair—all while enjoying an excellent repast in the company of lovely women—were those presided over by one of these women. Balzac himself never attended these slightly debauched feasts; we know of his involvement in only one affair, a very short-lived one with Olympe Pélissier, who capped her very respectable amorous career by marrying Rossini. Still, we can rest assured that Balzac knew the most flamboyant courtesans by sight and by reputation. It’s no accident that he placed a red camellia in the lustrous black locks of his Josépha. The camellia was the signature flower, and fetish, of Marie Duplessis, a beauty with long black ringlets who was the most famous figure in the Parisian nightlife of the time. And Marie Duplessis is also the finest example of the courtesan, apotheosized by the legend created around her by a writer, Alexandre Dumas fils, in a novel, La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias).
This year marks the publication of both a new biography of Marie Duplessis by Julie Kavanagh and a new translation of La Dame aux Camélias by Liesl Schillinger. In theory we thus have a neat case of fact and fiction, side by side. Liesl Schillinger’s translation is notable for the fact that it succeeds in dusting off and invigorating the text without slipping into the contemporary idiom. This story, which sounded a little dated in the previous translations, can now be read with an urgency that seems wholly modern.
The biography of Marie Duplessis, on the other hand, runs headlong into the daunting obstacle of a general lack of sources. Neither she nor her most eminent lovers left any correspondence; Romain Vienne, her first biographer, was a childhood friend and is entirely unreliable. He published The Truth about the Lady of the Camellias in 1887, forty years after her death, but his version is fanciful at best. Another of Marie’s contemporaries, an actress named Madame Judith, mentions her frequently in her memoirs, but describes her only superficially. We are left with the novel, in which Dumas blends factual details with others invented out of whole cloth. To read the novel in the hope of finding information about Marie requires one to view skeptically the novelist’s picture of the courtesan, who sacrifices herself and dies a cruel death.
Kavanagh isn’t fooled, but how can anyone resist the persuasive influence of the character depicted by the novelist? In spite of herself, Kavanagh falls under the sway of her elusive subject’s charm. To her credit, she makes up for the shortage of unassailable facts by placing Marie’s story within the larger setting of French gallantry in the first half of the nineteenth century, and she does so with uncommon precision, ferreting out all available information about the secondary characters and bringing them to life. Her surefooted sense of the telling detail and the vigor of her style allow Kavanagh to sustain her reader’s interest throughout a story that, extraordinary though it may be, suffers from the central enigma posed by a heroine who never speaks for herself.
The earliest youth of Marie Duplessis, born Alphonsine Plessis in 1824, was marked by the brutality of her father, Marin Plessis. The son of a priest and a prostitute who himself had a rough upbringing, he eked out a living as a traveling peddler in Normandy, exploiting his seductive physical presence with consummate artistry. A young woman named Marie Deshayes, a linen maid in the château of the Comte du Hays, possessed both good taste and fine manners, rare qualities in a country woman, and clearly appreciated: she was unable to resist Marin’s advances. It was said of him: “He was of an ideal beauty, but it was a beauty that contained something fatal: he had, as the Italians say, the Evil Eye.” In spite of warnings from those close to her, Marie married him and bore him two daughters, Delphine and Alphonsine.
For years she put up with her husband’s outbursts of rage, his cruel beatings, and his endless threats, but one night he set fire to the shack they lived in and tried to throw her into the flames. Her screams brought a passerby to the scene; he promptly subdued Plessis and packed Marie and her daughters into his cart, taking them to the nearest village where an aunt agreed to care for her young nieces. The unfortunate mother, terrified at the thought that her husband might come after her, had no choice but to flee. The Comtesse du Hays found her a position in Paris in the employ of an English lady. Sorely tested by her ordeals, she died a few years later.
In the meantime, the young girls were growing up. Alphonsine learned to read and write but was forced to quit school at age twelve. She was not only pretty but coquettish as well, attracting so many of the young boys of the village, and doing nothing to discourage them, that her aunt finally lost patience with her and took her back to her father. At first he sent her to work as a washerwoman, but then he had a more remunerative idea, handing her over to a man in his seventies named Plantier. After a few months she ran away, found a job in a hotel as a maid, and was then hired by an umbrella merchant. Thereafter she spent a couple of weeks living alone with her father. She always refused to discuss that part of her past, but the neighbors gossiped about it so eagerly that Marin ultimately decided it was best to part ways, and sent her to Paris. In 1839 she was fifteen years old and Parisian cousins on her mother’s side agreed to take her in.
After these terrible years that toughened her without sapping her energy, extinguishing her joie de vivre, or undermining her uncommonly subtle innate taste, she must have seen Paris as a Land of Cockaigne, and it took her only a few months to conquer the city. At first a job was found for her ironing clothes, but then she found a position more to her liking as a shopgirl in a fashionable boutique. She quickly learned to dress like a born Parisienne, established a circle of girlfriends, and in the course of a girls’ night out at a restaurant seduced the proprietor, Monsieur Nollet, a respectable man in his late forties.
He was so taken with her that he set her up in an apartment of her own in a good neighborhood and, best of all, gave her a lump sum of 3,000 francs for her personal expenses, quite a sum for a shop clerk who earned an annual salary of 264 francs, and solid evidence of the young debutante’s gifts. Bolts of cashmere and lace, white gloves purchased by the dozens, dresses made of crepe, satin, or taffeta, and silk undergarments made short work of the first 3,000 francs in less than a month; another 2,000 francs were frittered away so promptly that Alphonsine soon realized that her Monsieur Nollet could hardly keep pumping out cash at this rate. As she wanted to go on living in the style to which she’d quickly become accustomed, she broke with Nollet and shot off in search of her fortune.
She had no difficulty finding willing young men at parties given by one of her girlfriends, who had been set up in a nice apartment by a solicitous banker, but none of Alphonsine’s new lovers had the resources to help her to stand out in the horde of young women looking to make a name for themselves. As chance would have it, she caught the eye of Agénor de Guiche, the eldest son of the Duc de Gramont and scion of one of France’s oldest and most illustrious families. One of his ancestors, named Corisande, had been Henri IV’s mistress. Alphonsine was sixteen years old, Agénor was twenty-one. It was Agénor who completed the young girl’s education, not in the art of satisfying a lover, but in how to behave in society. He arranged for her to have lessons in dance and music, urged her to read, and recommended books, to ensure that she could hold her own in a conversation. Thus transformed, she promptly decided to change her name to Marie Duplessis.