Verdi’s La Traviata is the story of a courtesan who is redeemed when she gives up the man she loves in order to preserve his family honour, and then dies tragically in his arms. Verdi based his opera on a novel by Alexander Dumas the younger, The Lady of the Camellias (1852). This work was inspired by a courtesan whom Dumas had known — and had an affair with — but she has been largely forgotten. Her name was Alphonsine Plessis — later changed to Marie Duplessis — and she was only 23 when she died. Julie Kavanagh has written the story of her extraordinary life.
Alphonsine was born in 1824 in Normandy. Her peasant family could hardly have been worse. Today, social workers would have put her in care. She was probably sexually abused. Her father was a violent, promiscuous alcoholic; when he tried to kill her mother, the family broke up, and Alphonsine and her sister were farmed out to relations to be brought up in poverty. By the age of 14 she was working as a prostitute.
Aged 16, Alphonsine arrived in Paris. The capital’s demi-monde was a world which revolved around sex, and where bachelor flâneurs prowled the streets searching for poor girls with beautiful faces. Alphonsine soon became the teenaged mistress of an older man. Right from the start, she was very high maintenance, bankrupting her lovers by spending vast amounts on expensive clothes. Conspicuous luxury was crucial to her career. She needed to be seen as a poule de luxe in public places in order to attract a high class of admirer. A dizzying succession of rich men queued up to lavish money on her.
Alphonsine’s aristocratic lovers, such as the glamorous Duc de Guiche, educated her in the manner of Pygmalion. The illiterate peasant girl was transformed, reinventing herself as a lady. She learned to speak and walk as an aristocrat, and she dressed with exquisite good taste. She changed her name, discarding Alphonsine in favour of the pure Marie and aggrandising her surname to Duplessis. She read novels — her copy of Manon Lescaut, an 18th-century novel about an aristocrat who eloped with a courtesan, was especially well-thumbed.
She found a fabulously rich Estonian count in his seventies who funded her luxurious life. Driving in the Bois with her splendid horses she caused a sensation. At the Opera, she was conspicuous in her own box, always wearing camellias and scanning the audience with her opera glasses. It was a life spent constantly on display.
As a courtesan, Marie excelled. She was, said someone, the best-dressed woman in Paris; she neither flaunted nor hid her vices, and she didn’t always talk about money. In spite of her ghastly childhood, she had real friends. One of her admirers spent his inheritance on her and begged her to marry him. In the end she did, if only because she wanted the title of ‘Comtesse’
Like a rock star, the trajectory of her life was tragically short. Aged 20 she began to suffer from consumption. TB seems to have made her behave with a frenzied energy. She still took lovers: her last conquests included Dumas himself — who recorded her coughing blood into a spittoon — and the romantic superstar Liszt. As she lay dying in her luxury apartment, the bailiffs were heard hammering on the door.
Kavanagh doesn’t speculate much on the sociology of the Paris demi-monde — why was it, for example, that the status and career prospects of Parisian courtesans were so much higher than London prostitutes is the sort of question she doesn’t explore. But she succeeds brilliantly in coming as close to her subject as it is possible to get. She has managed to find enough material to write a compelling and moving account of a short, forgotten life which is far more interesting than fiction. She shows, too, that Dumas’ version of Marie’s life — which insists that the fallen woman must be redeemed — is moralistic bourgeois claptrap. Marie Duplessis was a consummate professional who died at the top of her game, and she was rightly proud of it.