"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
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
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.
Your reading: The literary avatars of Marie Duplessis, the inspiration behind La Traviata