Saturday, July 06, 2013

The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh

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Marie Duplessis lived for 23 years in the early-1800's (the timeframe of Les Misérables). She grew up abandoned, hungry, exploited, uneducated, amoral. She could do an honest day's work but would do anything for anything in the streets if it paid better. Not exactly a shining heroine from history, her sad story might be a shrill fable for the young and female to adhere to social norms. How wonderful it is, then, that Julie Kavanagh has uncovered so much more about Duplessis than the stark tragedy of a young woman who shouldn't have had a chance but became immortal through art.

France has a special place in its heart for its courtesans. Sex seems to be an art for which many a blind eye has been turned over the centuries. Even in the sexist, classist society of the time, Duplessis enjoyed freedom the likes of which a modern girl might envy. She was just about the only woman allowed in the most exclusive café-salon of the (naturally, all-male) intellectual elite, despite not having learned to read or write as a child. To say Duplessis was merely a talented prostitute would be naïve. She served as a muse for some of the most lauded artists of the age. Alexandre Dumas the son, Guiseppe Verdi, and Franz Liszt are among those who made brilliant art because of her. A novel based on her life (La Dame aux camélias), written by Dumas, became an acclaimed play, then the Verdi opera, La Traviata. Her legacy began immediately at her death and easily continued far longer than she lived with successful stage and film adaptations made well into the early 1900's. Given her notoriety during her life and death and the popularity of her legend, it is interesting that Duplessis is most remembered today by French intelligentsia.

Part of this is explained by the transience of records. Her letters were mostly burned and the remnants largely lost, even to those then living at the time of her death. Nearly all those who knew her loved her, but pursued their own self-serving agendas with her legacy, especially her cousin/primary biographer. Her debts, which overtook her final year, were paid off by auctioning her furnishings and personal items. Duplessis's sensational status as a well-known courtesan also worked against historians' favor. Gossip in newspapers and rumors that made their way into biographies of the time were sometimes misleading or otherwise unsubstantiated. Marie Duplessis lived in the shadows of good society and might have easily remained there with the ghosts of many other fallen women but for two things: her incredible joie de vivre and the tenacity of Julie Kavanagh.

Despite the trope of a good-girl-gone-bad road to prostitution, Duplessis almost chose the life, if you can assume she had any agency given her environment. She knew that her circumstances (an abusive sociopathic father infamous for miles around, a runaway mother, complicated family dynamics, and crushing poverty in a small village) were only going to get her so far. The qualities integral to herself were more promising. She was lively, curious, quick, and joyous. She was also very shrewd for a pre-teen, realizing that sex was both a means and an end. She instigated her career by gleefully seducing a 17-year-old and never looked back.

After making her way to Paris, she tried her hand at making a respectable living, but it left her literally starving at the side of food vendors' carts. Paris was a center of ideas, art, learning. Students, invariably dandified and practically penniless, didn't have girlfriends; they kept mistresses, of which there were many tiers, and theirs was the penultimate. The affair would last as long as the student could feed and house his girl. Entertainment was often conversation and the theater when they were a bit flush. Marie Duplessis began her transformation with these baby men, learning as they were learning at the great universities. She was an amazingly quick study. Once she could read, she was, as in all things, voracious. With a natural eye for the superior, she hungered for the best of everything - food, clothes, art, music, talk, books, travel, horses - and she found a way to finance her dreams through the many companions who kept her. Some she truly loved and some she only liked, but Duplessis lived honestly, sweetly, modestly - words not often associated with her profession. She was gifted, conversing with the wittiest literati and the most powerful political men in Europe. Her greatest skill may have been the ability to read people extremely well. She could get her way without resorting to ugliness of any kind.

Julie Kavanagh breathes fresh life into this woman whose greatest wish was to never die. Kavanagh pursued this legendary character with a kind of heroic diligence - relearning French to research her sources in situ. She briefly describes the journey brushing a century and a half of dust from Marie Duplessis's story to give us this more complete, objective portrait of a small but interesting figure from history. Kavanagh writes engagingly of a thoroughly captivating subject who comes through remarkably whole despite the gaps that were too worn away to reconstruct. Viva Marie!

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