Books

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

spacer By Julie Kavanagh
Knopf; 288 pp. $27.95

Books Kavanagh lg 1113

You know Marie Duplessis. She's the basis for the character played by Greta Garbo in the 1936 film Camille, or danced by Margot Fonteyn in Frederick Ashton's ballet Marguerite and Armand. Most famously, she's the inspiration for Violetta in La Traviata — seducing, singing, coughing, dying. 

But before all of these incarnations, even before Alexandre Dumas filswrote his 1848 novel The Lady of the Camellias about her, Du­plessis was a teenage beauty from rural Normandy who, like many others of her era, took the road to Paris and moral ruin. The novel and subsequent adaptations simplify and heighten her life's arc: Julie Kavanagh, on the other hand, scales Duplessis back from a tragic heroine to a real woman. In some ways, this is a demotion. 

The challenge of this biography is considerable. How do you write the life of an individual whose achievements were passive (inspiring works of art) or private (seducing rich men for money)? Kavanagh discovered a previously lost biography of Duplessis by a childhood friend who retained a platonic relationship with the courtesan until she died. Letters from Duplessis have survived, along with some eye-popping bills for flowers, harnesses and what we would call "luxury rentals" in the heart of Paris. These and similar details create Kavanagh's sparkling evocation of 1840s Paris, but they don't quite add up to a fully rounded version of the subject. 

Duplessis's life followed a typical trajectory as she moved up the ladder of exclusivity and expense from a "grisette" to the mistress of an aristocrat, a level she had achieved by the age of sixteen. Despite her youth and her peasant background, she had a genius for presentation; tall and slim, pale and dark-haired, she dressed modestly and with great refinement. By her late teens, says Kavanagh, "She already possessed the inner radiance of a star — the ability to be a cynosure while remaining stationary and silent" in an opera box with her signature bouquet of camellias. 

The drama in Duplessis's life is implicit from the start. She craves admiration and jewels, champagne and flirtation and fast horses, but her youth and beauty are her only assets. She is aware of the ticking clock, as she writes in a letter to her lover Franz Liszt: "I shan't be able to hold onto this life which I don't know how not to lead and which I can equally no longer endure…." By the time of her affair with Liszt, she was ill with tuberculosis. She died in debt at twenty-three. Two weeks after her death, her effects were auctioned to pay her debts, and the young Dumas — briefly one of her lovers — visited her apartment along with the rest of fashionable Paris to see the merchandise that would go under the hammer. This is the scene that opens his novel. Kavanagh's version of the history, built from facts alone, may provide all the context one could want, but the heart of the tale still belongs to Dumas. spacer

CAROL MCD. WALLACE

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2