The Girl Who Loved Camellia’s - The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis

Title:  The Girl Who Loved Camellia’s - The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis
Author:  Julie Kavanagh
Publisher:  Knopf
Pub Date:  June 11, 2013
How Acquired:  Through Edelweiss

What it’s about:  The astonishing and unknown story of Marie Duplessis, the courtesan who inspired Alexandre Dumas fils’s novel and play La dame aux camélias, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata, George Cukor’s film Camille, and Frederick Ashton’s ballet Marguerite and Armand. Fascinating to both men and women, Marie, with her stylish outfits and signature camellias, was always a subject of great interest at the opera or at the Café de Paris, where she sat at the table of the director of the Paris Opéra, along with the director of the Théâtre Variétés, and others. Her early death at age twenty-three from tuberculosis created an outpouring of sympathy, noted by Charles Dickens, who wrote in February 1847: “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.”  

About the Author:  Julie Kavanagh is the author of Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton and Nureyev. She was trained as a dancer at the Royal Ballet Junior School, graduated from Oxford, and has been the arts editor of Harpers & Queen, a dance critic at The Spectator, and London editor of both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. She is currently a writer and contributing editor for The Economist’s cultural magazine, Intelligent Life.

My thoughts:  One of the first women that I wrote about on the blog way back in 2007 was Marie Duplessis.  Like many of the women that I’ve written about, I’ve long been a little obsessed, ever since I saw the film of Camille with Greta Garbo when I was a teenager.  As soon as I learned that it was based on a novel, of course I had to read it.  Thanks to the helpful introduction, I learned that the novel was based on an actual person, Marie Duplessis or as she was known as a child, Alphonsine Plessis.  Back in high school, there was no such thing as the internet (I know it’s hard to believe.  How did we ever live without it?), so I was never able to do much research on Marie’s life.  I did however read the original play and also Pam Gem’s adaptation.  And who hasn’t seen the movie with Greta Scacchi and a young Colin Firth as Armand? (If you haven’t, it’s available on DVD!).  I had wanted to include Marie in Scandalous Women but unfortunately she ended up on the cutting room floor.  My word count was so short that I had to limit myself to only 35 women.

So I was excited and a little bit jealous that Julie Kavanagh had written a biography of Marie. When I was doing my research on Marie for my post, the only two books that had any real information on her was Virginia Rounding’s The Grand Horizontales and Joanna Richardson’s book Courtesans.  Digging deep into the archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris as well as brushing up on her French, Kavanagh has been able to dig deep into Marie’s past in Normandy to reveal more information about her early life. Born Alphonsine Rose Plessis, her early life was a Dickensian nightmare.  Drunken brute of a father who may have sexually as well as physically abused her, a mother who died young, Marie learned how to take care of herself from an early age.  As soon as she could, she left Normandy for Paris, where she worked in a millinery shop before taking her first tentative steps into the world of the demi-monde. 

Kavanagh does a remarkable job not only of giving the bare facts of Marie’s life but she takes the reader on a journey into Paris in the last years of Louis-Philippe’s reign.  It’s the Paris of Les Miserables, before the sweeping changes made by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann.  In the 19th century, Paris was the place to be for culture, painters such as Coubert and Delacroix, the romantic ballets Giselle and La Sylphide premiered in Paris, writers such as Hugo, George Sand, Balzac and Theophile Gautier.  Like London, Paris also saw the rise of the bourgeois, men who made their money working as lawyers, doctors, inventors, and industrialists.  No longer was Paris the playground solely of the aristocracy.

The Girl Who Loved Camellia’s is not just a biography of one of the most well-known courtesans of the early 19th century but also a social biography of a time period in French history that is not often written about compared to the La Belle Époque era or the era of the Impressionists.  One of the hardest things to do in a biography is to give not only a sense of who the subject was but why he or she was so popular during their lifetime. What impressed me the most was how Kavanagh was able to convey that unique something that Marie had that made her unique in Paris, a combination of innocence and sensuality.   Despite her profession, Marie never seemed to be bitter or jaded.  Even her taste for luxury seems more innocent that avaricious.  Kavanagh quotes liberally from both Dumas fils’s novel as well as the biography of Marie written by Romain Vienne, an old friend from Normandy who moved to Paris to work as a journalist at the same time that Marie was making her name as a courtesan, which gives an immediate and intimate look at who she was as a person. 

At one point in the book, Kavanagh draws a parallel between Marie and Lola Montez who was an acquaintance of Marie’s in Paris.  While Lola was brash, bold, and seemingly fearless, Marie was altogether more demure and lady-like.  Yet they came from similar backgrounds and managed to reinvent themselves.  Neither woman had a real Pygmalion figure in their lives that molded them.  Marie learned by watching her betters so to speak.   Not only did Marie have a desire to learn, but being a successful courtesan meant that one needed to be able to carry on a conversation with wit and intelligence.  At the time of her death, Marie’s library contained 200 volumes but one of the books that she read the most was Abbe Prevost’s novel Manon Lescaut, the story of a young courtesan who dies tragically.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Marie’s story continues to fascinate whether in fiction or film or opera is because she died so tragically young of consumption at the age of 23.  She never grew old and suffered the fate of other courtesans such as Cora Pearl.  Like James Dean, she’s forever young.  My only quibble with Kavanagh’s book is that I wish she had taken the book further and written more about Marie’s impact and influence on Dumas fils’s novel and play, the Verdi opera, Cukor’s famous film or even the ballets that have been inspired by Marie’s life.  There is a little bit in the beginning of the book but I found myself wishing for more.

Verdict:  A brilliant recreation of the short, intense, and passionate life of the courtesan who inspired some of the world’s most romantic and tragic literature.


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