Friday, August 7, 2009

La Dame aux camelias

Alright, you haven't read the book, in all probability. Alexandre Dumas (fils) wrote it in French and although it was translated in English, anglosaxons are more likely to have seen the play, which was rather inexplicably dubbed "Camille". If you haven't seen it on stage, it is possible you saw one of the 8 films that were made (one with Greta Garbo), the last one as recent as the 1980's. A lot of other movies were influenced by the story, not in the least the movie "Moulin Rouge". If those passed your notice, there is always the good chance that you saw or heard the 1853 opera 'La Traviata' by Verdi, who happened to attend one of the first stage versions of the book, back in 1852, which illustrates how quickly he decided to put the story to music. To say that book and play were immensely popular is an understatement.
The story is of romantic simplesse : the prodigal son of noble antecedents gets involved with courtesan Marguérite Gauthier (Violetta Valéry in the opera). He falls in love and can't let her go. The father appeals to the courtesan, pleading that any marriage prospects of his children are ruined by the scandalous relation. The courtesan acknowledges this and breaks off the relation, even though it is against her own best interest. The courtesan falls ill and dies of consumption, the romantic death par excellence. Much lamenting follows.
The book is interesting in its own right, as it demonstrates the existence of influential courtesans in the first half of the 19th century, well before the hay days later in the century, and offers us glimpses of how they were perceived back then. We could discuss the literary value, the dreams of romanticism, the survival of the story into later, more cynical ages, and so on. Most people will probably dismiss the story as romantic fiction, as the courtesan with the golden heart seems a bit too good to be true. Fie, to all of you! How could you be so mistrusting! You all, having visited our establishment and conversed with our fine ladies, should know better.
Fact is, Marguérite Gauthier was based on the life and death of a real courtesan. Her name was Rose Alphonsine Plessis, born in 1824 and died, of consumption, in 1847, only 23 years old. Dumas published his book in 1848, no coincidence. He was genuinely shocked by the lady's death and felt remorseful for his absence at her death bed. Remorse, because Rose and he were once lovers and they still were friends after the breakup. Unmentioned in the book, the later shining courtesan had a squalid youth, with a poor, drunk and violent father, who abused his two daughters, and more then likely prostituted them too. It could have ended with that, and Rose would have disappeared into the nameless legion of street prostitutes, but before she reached the age of 15 she ran away to Paris. She took the "stagename" Marie Duplessis (the "Du" before her family name to suggest noble descent) and was quickly noticed for her beauty, as testified by drawings and paintings that were made of her when she had become famous. She quickly collected a string of lovers, of ever increasing station, who were able to finantially support her ravenous apetite for shopping, at least for some time.
Her entry from the Demi-Monde into the Beau-Monde came when she started a relationship with Agénor, son of the Duc de Guiche. He flaunted her in public, much to the distress of his father, who appealed to Marie's good sense, pleading that the marriage opportunities of his daughter would be ruined by the scandal. Now that does sound familiar, no ? Marie ended the relation, though probably not out of romantic motives : she wasn't going to antagonize a powerful Duke. And she had reached her goal : she had been noticed.
At first, it seems a mystery that the lady became so successful. She was beautiful, alright, but suitors of a courtesan wanted to shine with their conquests, and that meant that the courtesan had to keep her own in polite conversation. Not exactly what you would expect from a poor girl with hardly any education.
Marie defied those prejudices. Contemporaries testify of her pleasant character, her sharp wit and profound knowledge of the topics of the day. The list of goods, sold after her death to satisfy part of her debtors, includes an impressive library that would not have shamed a fashionable young man with a cultural interest. She had her own salon, which was eagerly visited because of the intelligent conversation that could be expected. She could play the piano with more than average skill and was a well known sight in opera houses. We can only let our jaws drop in silent admiration that the lady had the good sense, the energy and the intellectual capacity to catch up so fast.
Contemporaries on the other hand, also point out with some shadenfreude that she was the archetypical prostitute in her vices: she was prone to be hysterical and she spent money like water, more than once embarassing her lovers finantially. Money was, in fact, one of the motives why Dumas broke up with Marie in august 1845. Much of what he wrote about the passionate early stages in his book was based on how his own relation with Marie had developped. Her spendthrift got him into difficulties, however, and -insult to injury- he wasn't amused that she continued to see other men .
Marie returned to Paris, quickly gaining a new band of devoted lovers, reputedly the composer Liszt amongst them. Eventually she married one of her lovers, count Édouard de Perregaux. Soon after the marriage, the disease that would kill her took hold. At her deathbed, her maid, her husband and her former lover count Von Stakelberg were present. Dumas was not in France at that moment, and learned of her death months afterwards. The rest was history.
Her funeral was lavish and attented by hundreds of people. Her grave still exists today and people still put flowers on it.

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