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La Dame aux camélias: From real life to legend

The literary avatars of Marie Duplessis, the inspiration behind La Traviata — By Sylvain Ledda

It began with a glance. A passing glance in a Parisian theatre. Then, the meeting became a love story. It was a passion that ended in tears leaving a despair that was turned into a novel. In 1844, at the age of 21, Alexandre Dumas fils met Marie Duplessis. He wanted to become a writer, she was already a famous courtesan. Their relationship was as intense as it was brief, and it ended with the death of the young woman. That liaison would give rise to a novel and a legend: in 1848, La Dame aux camélias launched the career of Dumas fils and the story became one of the most pervasive legends of Western love. The actors in this story, have passed from real life to novel to theatre, opera and cinema, and have fascinated audiences since the premiere of the play in 1852 and the first performance of Verdi’s opera the following year.
"The story of Marguerite is an exception, I repeat; had it not been an exception, it would not have been worth the trouble of writing it." Alexandre Dumas fils

Dreams of love

 Born Rose Alphonsine Plessis in 1823, she would come to call herself Marie Duplessis. Before meeting the young Dumas, one year her junior, the young Norman girl had already charmed many a suitor. She came to Paris at a young age and conquered the capital. Like actresses or novelists who invent a pseudonym, she chose Marie Duplessis as a nom de guerre. According to the journalist Jules Janin, so charismatic was this brunette with pale skin and abundant hair that it was thought she was “the daughter of a duche1”,. Thanks to Camille Roqueplan’s portrait which depicted her in elegant dress at the theatre, we are left with the memory of the young woman that she was: a perfectly oval face and large, dark, highly expressive eyes. The painting is close to how Dumas fils describes her in La Dame aux camélias :

The person who served as the model for the heroine of the novel and drama La Dame aux camélias was called Alphonsine Plessis. She changed the name to Marie Duplessis, believing it to be more euphonistic. She was tall, very thin, with black hair, and a rosy-white complexion. Her head was small and her eyes were long and narrow like those of a Japanese. Her lips were red as cherries and she had the most beautiful teeth in the world. She was like a Dresden china figure. In 1844, when I saw her for the first time, she was at the height of her opulence and her beauty. She died in 1847 of consumption at the age of 23.    

Those brief lines paint the portrait of a child-turned-woman. By analogy, she evokes Cio-Cio San, the heroine of Madama Butterfly. It was at the Théâtre des Variétés that their eyes met for the first time. Dumas could boast that he had conquered one of the most courted women in Europe. Yet on that date Marie was suffering from tuberculosis and was already living on borrowed time. Despite the advice of her doctors, she led an active social life, gambling, having fun, and spending money like there was no tomorrow. In early 1846, she left Liszt, and married Édouard de Perrégeaux. In the spring of 1846 she was seen in the spa towns of the Rhine. In June, Janin ran into her in Brussels. After returning to Paris in early August of that year, she became increasingly ill and died in her apartment on the rue de la Madeleine on February 3, 1847. She left behind an array of disconsolate lovers and rapacious bailiffs—having incurred numerous debts. Alexandre Dumas returned from a voyage and learned of the tragic news. He was inconsolable.
And so ended a love story which would be forgotten today had sadness and grief not launched Dumas’ literary career.

The truth behind the fiction

La Dame aux camélias was published a year after Marie’s death. The novel is short, but it captures the essence of Parisian mores through the character of Marguerite Gautier, a fictitious double of Marie Duplessis. Remembering their first encounter, Dumas describes her in a theatre, the arena of choice for social interaction in the 19th century, with the attribute that will forever be associated with her—the white camellia:    

Marguerite was present at every first night and passed every evening either at the theatre or a ball. Whenever there was a new play she was certain to be seen, and she invariably had three things on the ledge of her ground-floor box: her opera glasses, a bag of sweets and a bouquet of camellias2.

The story is certainly a transposition of Alexandre’s loves, but the intention is also satirical. Dumas wanted to draw attention to the fate reserved for courtesans. The truth of the story lies in the sincerity of the author: “not being old enough to invent, I content myself with narrating", he states3. In the novel, everything is forgiven of Marie, a victim whose redemption serves to move the reader and alert them to the fate of women. A literary tombstone, the novel followed in the wake of other romantic works which depicted the courtesan and the glory she finds through sacrifice or death: « Hugo has written Marion Delorme, Musset has written Bernerette4, Alexandre Dumas has written Fernande5, the thinkers and poets of all time have brought to the courtesan the offering of their pity, and at times, a great man has rehabilitated them with his love and even with his name6”, wrote Dumas fils.

The charm of the narrative lies in the novelist’s flashbacks, digressions, analyses and judgements. And thus the story begins with the auctioning of the dead woman’s property. The narrator, Armand Duval, buys back a signed volume of Manon Lescaut, which he had given to Marguerite long ago. The opening is as poignant as a dénouement because Dumas portrays the vacuity of human existence reduced to a few scattered objects just as Barbara does in her song. The truth of life endlessly slips into the interstices of fiction: “Everything was for sale, even the love letters”, Janin remarked.

From the page to the stage

The success of La Dame aux camélias was immediate, albeit not without its share of scandal. Dumas fils went on to follow the example of his father, adapting his novels for the stage. Dumas fils wrote a realistic and romantic dramatic adaptation which premiered at the Théâtre du Vaudeville on February 2, 1852. La Dame aux camélias was a huge stage success thanks to a subtle mix of emotions well-chosen words and overt pathos. The play sets itself in the vein of salutary melodramas in which Dumas fils was committed to passing on a message to the audience. He portrayed the impossible love between a courtesan and a young man in a bourgeois setting. There is no indignation, just a bitter acknowledgement of the insurmountable social barriers. Novel or play, the work succeeds because it is a great love story, but its appeal for us also resides in its testimonial value. Beyond the vagaries of a sentimental story symbolised by a flower, La Dame aux camélias is a genuine chronicle of an entire epoch.

1. "Préface" of La Dame aux camélias, Paris, Michel Lévy, 1863.
2. La Dame aux camélias, chapter II, p. 32.
3. "Préface" of La Dame aux camélias, éd. cit.
4. Frédéric et Bernerette,  stirring short story published by Musset in 1838 in La Revue des deux Mondes.
5.  Novel published in 1844, written in collaboration with Hippoliye Auger. The action is contemporary, unfurling in 1835.   
6. La Dame aux camélias, éd. cit., p. 42.

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