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.
She was ravishingly beautiful and wonderfully attired, and she always wore a camellia pinned to her dress or in her hair—a white camellia twenty-five days a month and a red one for those days when she was indisposed. Alexandre Dumas noticed her at the theater:
She was tall, very thin, with black hair and a pink and white complexion. Her head was small; she had long enameled eyes, like a Japanese woman, but they were sparkling and alert. Her lips were redder than cherries, her teeth were the prettiest in the world; she looked like a little figurine made of Dresden china.
All Paris talked of the young mistress of the Duc de Guiche. She lived in the Rue du Mont-Thabor in a fortress of camellias, according to the man of letters Arsène Houssaye, and there she entertained not only elegant dandies who were the cream of high society, but also the full range of that era’s bohemians: writers, poets, and journalists. Did she have a sense of humor? Who can say? No one ever reported that Marie Duplessis uttered a witticism. Houssaye insisted that she talked nothing but nonsense, but so charmingly that no one wished to stop listening, and added that she was willing to sing risqué songs at the end of the night. One thing was certain: she wasn’t cheap.
After Guiche spent 10,000 francs on her in just three months, his father sent him to England to calm down. Upon his return the affair resumed, but by now the courtesan had become so greedy that one lover was hardly enough. A fashion journalist, Hippolyte de Ville-messant, recounted the tale of how seven French gentlemen decided to pool their resources to acquire Marie. To seal the bargain, they purchased her a seven-drawer dresser. Agénor was then promoted to the status of amant de cœur, or nonpaying lover, and she in turn had to draw on all her skill to juggle her many visitors. Occasionally a jealous paramour would cause trouble. But she had become a practiced liar, whether it was necessary or not. “I lie to keep my teeth white,” she would say to win forgiveness.
That life of pleasure proved to be exhausting, especially once she contracted the tuberculosis that would eventually carry her off. Couldn’t she have changed her way of life? One of her lovers, Édouard de Perregaux, would have been delighted to take her away from that dizzying whirl. He rented a house in Bougival, a pretty village on the banks of the Seine, where the two of them could spend a few healthy, relaxed weeks together, far from the demands of other men.
But she couldn’t do without the excitement of Paris; nor could she stop spending, and ultimately Perregaux could no longer afford her. In 1842 she went to Baden-Baden where she was noticed by a Russian count, Gustav von Stackelberg, an immensely wealthy retired ambassador who had moved to Paris. He approached her with a charming line: he claimed that she reminded him of his own recently deceased daughter. (Balzac borrowed this unusual introduction and ascribed it to a Polish nobleman in La Fausse Maîtresse [The Imaginary Mistress], who used it to accost a pretty young horsewoman.)
Marie willingly took the arm of this new admirer, who was pushing eighty and was the married father of twelve; it turned out very well for her. Upon their return to Paris, he set her up in true splendor: a grand apartment on the Boulevard de la Madeleine, a chambermaid, a cook, a coachman, a valet, and a groom. And it goes without saying that she had carte blanche to stockpile furs, jewelry, dresses, and all manner of accessories. From all appearances, she knew the secret of making gentlemen of a certain age very happy, but to keep her own spirits up, she needed her own distractions. From what we know, she would never have thought twice about entertaining younger men after the old count had gone to bed for the night.
Alexandre Dumas introduced himself after admiring her at the theater, and the liaison that ensued had unexpected consequences—not for Marie’s life, but for the life of the young writer. Alexandre was handsome, the same age as Marie, and he was kind to her, as well as concerned about her incessant cough. She accepted him quickly as her amant de cœur, but their love affair lasted only a few months. It was expensive to keep Marie well supplied with trinkets, flowers, chocolates, and fine meals, and Alexandre was penniless. Moreover, there was the sticky matter of his having to vanish every time the count or some other wealthy benefactor showed up, a growing irritant. The breakup was inevitable. “I am neither rich enough to love you as I would like nor poor enough to be loved as you would like,” he wrote her by way of an explanation. They were never to see each other again. Marie died at the age of twenty-three in February 1847. But the story didn’t end there.
After Alexandre broke off with Marie he went traveling through North Africa with his father, and was in Marseilles when he learned that she had died. Her death had been a major event in Paris. Dickens was astonished by the city’s reaction to the news:
For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers. Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important, the romantic death of one of the glories of the demi-monde, the beautiful, the famous Marie Duplessis.
Elegantly attired women, kept women, all of them curious and envious, rushed to the public sale of her furniture, clothing, and jewelry. But Marie would quickly have been forgotten, like so many of her fellow courtesans, if Alexandre père hadn’t replied to Alexandre fils, who was going on and on about how the unhappy woman could have been the heroine of a novel: “Well then, go ahead and write it, this novel.” Three months later, he was writing it.
It took him three weeks to transform himself into Armand Duval and to metamorphosize Marie Duplessis into Marguerite Gautier, the Lady of the Camellias, the heroic courtesan who—at the entreaties of her lover’s father, horrified by the idea that his son might be ruined—gave up the chance at the happy, peaceful life that lay before her. She chose to step aside and remove herself as a stumbling block on the young man’s path to a career, and she took this self-abnegation to the point of disappearing without any unnecessary explanations. By so doing, she unleashed Armand’s fury and condemned herself to a lonely death. With the stroke of a pen, Dumas rescued the image of the kept woman, turning her into the pitiable victim of bourgeois selfishness.
Alexandre read the novel to a friend. Both men broke down sobbing. Soon, all of Paris was sobbing with them and buying the book. The story of the hooker with a heart of gold belonged to a certain literary tradition. Victor Hugo, following in the footsteps of the author of Manon Lescaut, Abbé Prévost, had written a play about the seventeenth-century courtesan Marion Delorme, but these were stories anchored in the past. The tragedy of Marguerite was completely contemporary, and was presented unhypocritically. The public knew that Alexandre Dumas had been in love with the original model for his character, and that his descriptions of her appearance, her home, her knickknacks, and her routines were truthful.
They knew that he’d suffered as he watched her wracked with horrible fits of coughing. Dumas fils was a realist. “Je dessine, il photographie,” his father liked to say: “I sketch, he photographs.” While the tone of the book was not shocking, it was nonetheless sufficiently crude that Dumas took care to place himself in the literary tradition of the Abbé Prévost. Manon Lescaut recurs almost as a leitmotif in the novel.
Encouraged by this success, Dumas turned the story into a stage play, but the somewhat off-color subject matter scared off theatrical directors. Moreover the political agitation that sprang from the revolution of 1848 was hardly encouraging. It was not until the reign of Napoléon III, with its relaxation of state censorship, that the play was finally performed, in 1853. The triumph was indescribable. When Dumas climbed onto the stage to take his bow, the women in the audience showered him with bouquets wet with their tears. Dumas savored the moment: it was the only real success of his career but it lasted for a long time, well beyond his own life.
The novel has often been reprinted, and its enormous popularity has never been forgotten, propelled both by its own mythical aura and by the brilliance of the actresses who appeared in the play. Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse both gave memorable performances as Marguerite at the end of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, theater gave way to cinema, and the Lady of the Camellias, renamed Camille, was embodied by Greta Garbo. But an even more essential factor in the renown of this creation was the fact that it served Verdi as inspiration for his opera La Traviata. Verdi, in collaboration with his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, composed a masterpiece. Not only did he explore the nuances of the relationships between the three characters, especially in the dramatic scene between the father and the courtesan, but the power of his music also liberated the drama’s latent emotion. Proust saw it quite clearly:
Verdi has given to La Dame aux Camélias the style it lacked. I say that not because Alexandre Dumas fils’s play is without merit, but because for a dramatic work to touch popular sentiment the addition of music is essential.
In the meanwhile, Dumas’s creation also made its way into À la recherche du temps perdu. Not that Proust ever admitted any admiration for the book. But it was by no means necessary for him to appreciate Dumas; he only needed to draw on the memory of Marie Duplessis transformed into Marguerite Gautier in the depiction of his courtesan, Odette de Crécy. Like Marie, Odette came from sordid beginnings; by virtue of a judicious selection of lovers, we watch her climb the ladder of the demimonde rung by rung, and in her lovely hôtel particulier on the Rue La Pérouse, she displays the same fine taste in interior decoration as Marie. The elegant giltwood trellis with climbing vines and flowers in the vestibule of the Lady of the Camellias’ apartment reappears unchanged at Odette’s home.
But in particular it is the part played by flowers in their amorous relationships—camellias for Marguerite, cattleya orchids for Odette—that points to this link between the two works. Marguerite signals to Armand that she is ready to surrender to him by putting a camellia in his buttonhole, while Swann realizes that Odette is about to give in to him when she allows him to touch the cattleyas that she has pinned to her décolleté. But the resemblances end there. Proust winks at Dumas, no more: he was not at all tempted to adopt the myth of the courtesan with a heart of gold. Quite the contrary, Odette is a courtesan without a heart. She could never have inspired Verdi.
—Translated from the French by Antony Shugaar