The Real Camille

The Girl Who Loved Camellias

By Julie Kavanagh

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 304 pp., $27.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Carole DeSanti

If the Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis were to look back, in some twenty-first--century incarnation, upon her nineteenth-century self, what would she see? The scrabbling flight from poverty, abuse, and the depredations of old men? The quicksilver Houdini act that led to her giddy, tempestuous conquest of the hearts and bank accounts of the literary, artistic, aristocratic set in 1840s Paris? The jewels and opera boxes, the florists’ bills, the stables of horses and carriages, the decorative extravaganzas, paid for by others when possible, slapped on credit when investing in the future? The constant scramble of affections, real and fake, furiously jockeyed about? Through all of it, always the beautiful appearance, the polished surface, the opera box, the pink champagne, the fine sensibilities and insatiable appetites. “I know that the body quickly wears itself out in this métier,”she wrote to the friend who was pleading for her to adopt a soberer life.“But when you’re young and full of passion, you don’t control your destiny the way you should.”

A complex portrait of this young woman (she lived only until age 23) emerges in Julie Kavanagh’s biography. Marie Duplessis was both pragmatic and theatrical; but she seems genuinely to have loved, at least on occasion, and she projected an amour propre rare among those of her status.  Part of the Duplessis legend is that she possessed a certain genuineness of feeling that is assumed in most of the literature on the subject to be missing among courtesans of her type. For example, we learn that Duplessis stayed up practicing piano until the morning hours, trying, and faltering in an effort to master the instrument, after having been inspired at a concert performed by Franz Liszt. Later, the two became lovers, although Duplessis stumbled badly in pursuit of this attachment.

Duplessis’s legend has come down to us because she was a friend, at one time a lover, of Dumas fils, the writer whose literary inclinations were supported by his father, Dumas père, whose enduring fame arose from his creations, the swashbuckling Mousquetaires.  The younger Dumas wrote a novel, La Dame aux Camellias, based on Marie’s life: it is the melodramatic tale of a young beauty who is sacrificed for the sins of men and the world. The tale became a touchstone, an archetype, a persistent myth, that we have mightily believed. We have lingered over and venerated the lovely surfaces, wept over the tragedy as the repentant, tubercular beauty coughs herself into oblivion—and ignored the real life behind and beyond the arc of the story. Adapted for the stage, the Duplessis character, now called Marguerite, was played to great effect by Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse.  In Verdi’s La Traviata, Marie becomes Violetta; Maria Callas made the part her own, and the legend rolled forward:  Marie, Marguerite, Violetta. There are ballets, and Coco Chanel’s iconic camellias. On stage and screen, Camille has been played by Theda Bara, Alla Nazimova, Norma Talmadge, Greta Garbo, Greta Scacchi, and Charles Ludlam. 

Kavanagh’s account, with admirable research and restraint, pulls a real and full-blooded Marie Duplessis from this palimpsest of ideas, and from what could or could not be expressed, at various points in history, not only about her but about women generally.  Now, it is possible to understand that the original creator of the myth was Duplessis herself. Kavanagh reveals her as a woman who did, indeed, want to control her destiny and who went to great lengths to try to do so; who, in the end, was more defeated than repentant—despite the amount of time she spent on her knees on a prie-dieu.  Duplessis deployed herself strategically while maintaining the appearance of laziness and luxury, fragile distress and accidental fortune.  Snippets of the few of her letters that are available provide keyhole views into her nuanced dissembling.  With an aesthetic sense that drew to her both artists and the powerful, she defied stigma and fended off society’s contempt.

But she also “lived for art, lived for love,” as Callas sang in a different role. And if she adored her comforts and caprices, she foundered on love. She waged a long campaign to marry a count, Edouard de Perregaux, which was at least in part, Kavanagh speculates, a desperate bid for a title that would gain her entrée to Liszt’s circles. The pianist and composer, however, was far too concerned with his own aspirations to announce his connection with Duplessis publicly. 

In fact, her deepest attachments would fail her, and all too soon, weariness of the body set in, her famous malady treated by expensive doctors with doses of “ass’s milk,” daily enemas, and other mysterious remedies.  Perhaps the most dreadful part of it all was the realization that few of her admirers truly cared about her. A telling scene from Dumas fils—whose novel, at least scene-by-scene, is believed to have been drawn from real events—is quoted by Kavanagh:

“You are killing yourself, Madame  …”

“Ah, it’s not worth alarming yourself,” she said bitterly. “Look how the others aren’t bothering.”

In the end, the young Duplessis staged her death with calculated, final appearances at the theater and the opera, and the commissioning of a last portrait. She ensured that even on her deathbed—as bailiffs and repossessers pounded at her door—she would be surrounded by her beautiful objects and dressed, by her maid Clothilde, according to her precise instructions.  

Her career in Paris lasted less than ten years.

Who was she?  What meaning does her short, vivid life have for us now?   The Girl Who Loved Camellias makes for fascinating reading: it is evocative and finely told, and usefully distinguishes fact from mythology to get at something closer  to the truth.  And yet, its unasked questions seep between the lines. Duplessis wanted to love and to be loved, to live well, with all the beauty and pleasure she could gather into her existence.  But the world permitted this only insofar as she allowed herself to be devoured—and so, she allowed it. Or, was she driven to it?  The violence Duplessis endured as a young girl—she was essentially trafficked by her father, who tried first to sell her to gypsies, then placed her in captivity in a house with an old man, and finally “lost” her in Paris—is touched upon, but only to reiterate the rags-to-riches legend.  The inner landscape that must have been created by such stress and violation is not considered here. The connections between Duplessis’s early trauma and abuse, and her later life of self-coercion and self-commoditization can only be guessed at. 

Kavanagh’s biography does suggest that Duplessis hadmuch terrible insight into her situation, of the sort hard-won by those who have truly suffered. She was trapped, and she knew it.  She got the idea that she would survive only by playing to the desires of those more powerful than she; thus, she had to live in such a way as to attract protection in a venal world: luxuriously, carelessly; always at risk.  If this was catastrophic, so was the alternative. For Duplessis, there was no gentle in-between, and when she tried to escape—which she did, from time to time—she was pulled back by her early experiences as much as by outward circumstance.  She made a beautiful picture of herself and sold it to the highest bidder, a strategy that worked only for brief periods of time before it had to be exhaustingly recreated. Kavanagh provides a view of Duplessis’s manipulations, her self-numbing, her desperation, and her increasingly hopeless artifice. We see here a fate we might not, in fact, like to live out: therefore I depart from Kavanagh’s theory that the life Duplessis led made her “freer” than others of her sex, and anyway, Kavanagh herself rather thoroughly, if unintentionally, disproves this idea.  Duplessis carved a defiant and memorable path; Kavanagh calls her a survivor and she was indeed, but a survivor of trauma—and not for very long. 

Women who became successful in this way did not, actually, recommend it; they did not themselves feel free.  Veronica Franco, in the Venice of the 1600s, did not, when she warned a friend’s daughter off of becoming a courtesan, and Celeste Mogador, a contemporary of Duplessis, certainly did not: she did everything she could to escape her fate, as she made clear in her later memoirs.

Caroline Weber, reviewing this biography for the New York Time Book Review (July 21, 2013), writes, “Kavanagh reveals that cold-eyed pragmatism, not saintly self-abnegation, formed the bedrock of Duplessis’ character and career.”  But Duplessis was a softer character than, say, La Païva, who later in the nineteenth century, took the career of grande horizontale to unprecedented levels and who, unlike Duplessis, is remembered for her icy, often cruel, venality.  Her former apartments in Paris are preserved as a tourist attraction and restaurant. But Duplessis became a novel, an opera, a ballet, and her legend comes down to us, from Dumas fils, as a woman who was beloved.  

Reading Kavanagh’s biography in Manhattan’s West Village, on a cobbled street, a tide of noise bubbles up from the upscale bar/restaurant on the corner and floats through my open window.  Young women laugh and stumble, having had too much to drink, tripping in their heels, clutching tiny handbags, holding on to one another. Lifespans are longer now than they were in the 1840s. Tuberculosis is no longer epidemic, at least in the West (Marie coughed blood into a silver bowl, leaving the infectious bacteria to float around the room), and economies have changed.  Young women are not, for the most part, “kept” in jewel-box apartments, presented with baubles, and fed cocktails and steaks by debauched  aristocrats. 

Still,qualities of the nineteenth century persist.  Courtesan culture swirls around us.  Great numbers of female souls of all ages shrink back to supplicate protectors of one kind or another; vile and abusive behavior is often tolerated and capital cultivated to its nether ends.  The self-coercion, the self-numbing with drink and drugs and debt is familiar to us; the desire for and exploitation of the beautiful surface; ignoring the death-wish underneath is as well.  What Marie called “the abyss and the horror that awaits those who grow old and lose their charm” remains a widespread and highly marketable threat that many take to heart, egged on by forces in the wider culture.

Duplessis seems to have understood that she was pursuing a course that would end in an early death, a terminus she both courted and deeply feared. With more than a century and a half of evolution of feminine consciousness behind her, would this intelligent, passionate, damaged, and driven woman see a wider horizon of choices?  Do we?  Or are we so in love with this métier and enamored of its mythologies that we cannot, more than a century and a half later, quite leave it behind?   This seems to me to be the deeper question that this biography raises.

To the very end, Duplessis thought she might outwit her destiny and pull off a grand coup in the roulette she had made of her life.  Somehow, she believed to the end that she was more than her métier. The “most important thing of all” she felt, was that “the bolt on her coffin be a very weak one.” She wanted to live on—and she has, in more ways than she might have dreamed.

Carole DeSanti is vice president, editor at large at Penguin Random House and the author of the novel The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R (2012), now available in paperback.

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