The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis

BOOK: The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis
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Copyright © 2013 by Julie Kavanagh

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada, by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Kavanagh, Julie, [date]
The girl who loved camellias : the life and legend of Marie Duplessis / by Julie Kavanagh.—First edition.
pages   cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-307-96224-9
1. Duplessis, Marie, 1824–1847.   2. Courtesans—France—Paris—Biography.   3. Paris (France)—Social life and customs—19th century.   4. Dumas, Alexandre, 1824–1895 Dame aux camélias.   5. Courtesans in literature.   I. Title.
38 2013
[B]         2012051103

Front-of-jacket images:
Marie Duplessis
, The Granger Collection, New York;
© amanaimages / Corbis
Cover design by Carol Devine Carson


To Ross, Joe, and Alfie


My first thanks must go to Jean-Marie Choulet, curator of the Musée de la Dame aux Camélias in the pretty Normandy town of Gacé. A historian and author of the enlightening
Promenades à Paris et en Normandie avec la dame aux camélias
, Jean-Marie entrusted me on our first meeting with his own source material for his book. I came away with a milk crate full of journals, handwritten notes, books, and pamphlets that would save me several months of work. Most valuable of all was an unpublished bibliography of Marie Duplessis compiled as a labor of love by Alain Orgerit. Over the five years that it took to research and write the book, Jean-Marie was always there for me, sending e-mailed replies to my questions, acting as a go-between with other experts, and allowing me privileged access to exhibits in the museum, several of which are included among my illustrations. Jean-Marie’s wife, Colette, was also enormously encouraging and hospitable, and my friendship with the Choulets will long outlast the publication of this book.

Also of incalculable importance was my researcher Kristine Baril. We met at the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Accueil Général desk, where she still works, and forged an immediate bond. With her impeccable English and passion for all forms of art, Kristine was as much an ideal companion as a heaven-sent collaborator. Her boundless curiosity about Marie Duplessis drove
indefatigable online quests that led to several break-throughs in our research. She was doggedly good-natured about helping me to master the Bnf’s impenetrable code system, and her elation at any new discovery was just as intense as my own. I consider Kristine to have been a true partner in this project, and owe her more than I can ever repay.

I am indebted to Jean-Luc Combe and his former colleague Isabelle Rambaud, Conservatrice générale du patrimoine, for their guidance about French archival procedures; to Jean Hournon for his expertise on nineteenth-century Bougival, and for the Dumas archive he put at my disposal. Rudiger Beermann was a splendidly informed authority on Baden-Baden, while Dagmar Kicherer greatly facilitated my archival research there. Academician Gonzagues St. Bris was responsible for my gaining access to the venerable Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France; William Bortrick of Burke’s Peerage kindly provided me with the genealogical information that an official archivist failed to supply; Eva Guggemos’s assistance at Yale’s Beinecke Library went beyond the call of duty; Guy Peeters generously consulted Spa’s
liste des Etrangers
on my behalf. I owe thanks to Elfgardt and Otmar Wintersteller for their German translations of source material and for their hospitality. Mme Ruault, the owner of the chambres d’hôtes “le Plessis” (a small château that Marie had once coveted herself), provided me with a welcoming, inspirational, and comfortable base in Nonant. At Tricase’s Caffé Cappuccini, Vito, Massimo, and Rocco created the simpatico surroundings in which much of this book was written.

I owe profound thanks for the information and kindnesses I received at different stages of my research from: Claude Broux, Jean Darnel, Simone Drouin, Elisabeth Leonetti, Annick Tillier, Pierrette Bodin, Atty Lennox, Arnaud Marion, Joy Moorehead, Jasper Rees, Jonathan Keates, Pascale Lafeber, Isabel Lloyd, Michael Saffle, Michael Shipster, Tariana Shor, Nicola Shulmann,
Guy Thibault, Anne-Marie de Ponton d’Amécourt, and Alan Walker.

I would like to record my thanks to the following insti-tutions:

Alençon’s Archives Départementales de l’Orne

Archives Départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseille

Archives Départementales des Yvelines

Archives Départementales d’Indre-et-Loire

Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Frederick R. Koch Collection), Yale University

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Arts du spectacle

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, François-Mitterrand

Bibliothèque-Musée de la Comédie-Française

Manuscript Library Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, Bibiliothèque de l’Institut de France

Ministère de la Défense, section des archives historiques

Mulgrave Castle Archives

National Archives of Estonia

Pleyel Pianos Archives

Stadtarchiv, Baden-Baden

The Girl Who Loved Camellias
would not exist without the belief and enthusiasm of my agent Lynn Nesbit, and my two Knopf editors Shelley Wanger and Bob Gottlieb. All three encouraged me to pursue what can only have seemed a dismayingly uncommercial venture in today’s uncompromising publishing world. I can’t thank Shelley enough for her skillful, sensitive shaping of my book, or Bob for his continuing support and generosity in letting me use his rue Jacob apartment as my Paris base.

At Janklow & Nesbit UK, I am immensely grateful to Claire Conrad for her tireless championing of
The Girl Who Loved Camellias
. I also owe thanks to Janklow’s Stephanie Koven for her
efforts to launch the book into a global market. At Knopf, Shelley’s assistant, Juhea Kim, was tremendously helpful in securing images, and unfailingly kind and obliging. I owe sincere thanks to Andrew Dorko for his meticulous care and patience, and to Anne Cherry for her scrupulous copyediting, specialist knowledge, and zeal.

I am indebted to the friends who encouraged me throughout the writing of this book: Lola Bubbosh, Rupert Christiansen, Peter Eyre, and Gaby Tana. The late Patrick O’Connor was its earliest supporter; Julian Barnes cast an aficionado’s eye over the manuscript, as did Peter Conrad, who played devil’s advocate and urged me to write an introduction placing Marie Duplessis in a wider context. Selina Hastings has been, as ever, my first reader, dearest friend, and lodestar: I can’t imagine writing a book without her.

I have dedicated
The Girl Who Loved Camellias
to my family, who will always get my most heartfelt thanks of all.


the most admired young courtesan of 1840s Paris. A peasant girl from Normandy, she had reinvented herself in a matter of months, changing her name and learning how to dress, speak, and act like a duchess. But this was far more than a
Pretty Woman
transformation. The country waif, scarcely able to read or write when she arrived in the capital at the age of thirteen, was presiding over her own salon seven years later, regularly receiving aristocrats, politicians, artists, and many of the celebrated writers of the day. These were, of course, all men, because no virtuous woman would have anything to do with a courtesan, but Marie’s profession had bought her proximity to the most brilliant minds in Paris. Her close circle included
Nestor Roqueplan, editor of
Le Figaro
, Dr. Veron, director of the Opéra, and bon viveur
Roger de Beauvoir, whom Alexandre Dumas père called the wittiest man he had ever known. Dumas himself was intrigued by the childlike Marie, and his son Alexandre fell in love with her.
Franz Liszt came to Paris for a week but was so bewitched by Marie that he stayed for three months and remained romantically attached to her memory for the rest of his life. Such was her fascination that her early death from consumption in 1847 was regarded as an event of national importance. “
For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers,” a bemused
Charles Dickens
wrote to a friend from Paris. “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.”

A year later, with the publication of
The Lady of the Camellias
, the novel Dumas fils had based on her life, the beau monde was abuzz again. Dumas père was a national institution in France, and people were curious to see whether the twenty-four-year-old was to follow his father’s lead. He certainly had the elder Dumas’s lively style and flair for natural dialogue, as well as a freshness and sincerity of his own. But of even greater interest was the subject of the book itself. Alexandre’s affair with Marie Duplessis was well known on the Boulevard, and so was the identity of the heroine he renamed Marguerite Gautier. His descriptions of her are pure reportage. Whether sitting in her box at the theater with her signature bouquet of camellias or stepping into her pretty blue carriage, wrapped in a long cashmere shawl, Marguerite was instantly recognizable as Marie: the same tall, thin physique, the same chaste oval face, black eyes, and dark arched brows. As intrigued then as now with the private lives of celebrities, the public read the fiction as fact, thrilled to be taken inside the demimondaine’s apartment, allowed to eavesdrop on scurrilous conversations at her dinner table, and be shown her rosewood furniture, Saxe figurines, Sèvres china—even her boudoir with its costly array of gold and silver bottles. Marguerite’s friends and suitors also had their counterparts in real life, the passionate young hero Armand Duval being a composite of two of Marie’s lovers with elements of Alexandre himself.

In addition to his contemporary setting and characters, the young author drew on French literary tradition. He borrowed the plot device from Abbé Prévost’s eighteenth-century novel
Manon Lescaut
, which has a narrator who learns the details of the young courtesan’s plight from her grieving lover, and he also made Marguerite a descendant of
Victor Hugo’s
redeemed courtesan Marion Delorme, who gives up her wealthy protectors for an impoverished young man. During an idyllic country interlude, Marguerite devotes herself entirely to Armand, but Dumas fils had a more dramatic transformation in mind for her. In his only significant departure from the circumstances of Marie Duplessis’s life, he invented a scene in which Armand’s father, the personification of bourgeois morality, begs Marguerite to set his son free. It is a sacrifice she must make in order to save the reputation of the man she adores, but also for the sake of his pure young sister, whose marriage would be jeopardized by the scandal of Armand’s relationship. This is the turning point of the story, and it makes a saint and martyr of the wanton heroine, crucially allowing her to be accepted, even pitied, by respectable nineteenth-century society.

BOOK: The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis
2.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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