Marguerite Gautier as penned by Alexandre Dumas; Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s opera. La “Traviata” has provoked much expenditure of ink and made men’s hearts waver. A romantic drama, the opera focuses on the impossible love between Alfredo and Violetta. Impossible because of the marriage of Alfredo’s younger sister to a man from a good family that one can easily imagine to be rather conservative... Of this younger sister we know nothing. What does she understand, shrouded in her white dress and her tulle veil? Writer Gwenaëlle Aubry has given birth to Blanche Duval, “colourless virgin, pale young girl”, who little by little, under pressure from fathers, brothers and husbands, takes on the characteristics of a dead woman, an object of adulation. A docile plaything adorned with camellias, the young bride will not be silenced.
I was born Blanche Duval, a colourless virgin, a pale young girl. My name has disappeared beneath layers of paint and poison. I am she for whom they sacrificed passion. Under this name, I was the chaste sister, the giovine sì bella e pura: that, at least, is what men wanted to make of me. I see them now, my father, my brother, on their return from Paris, wandering about the house, now become a mausoleum, planting the garden with daisies, violets and camellias. And the long, silent meals they drowned in wine. I didn’t understand. I was preparing for my marriage. That was what I had been brought up to do: to prepare for my marriage. To allow myself to be draped in spotless satin and tulle. To be led, a lily flower, a white heiffer, to the altar. You are fortunate, I was told, your future husband is from an excellent family. No vices, no passions. The straight and narrow way, no deviations. And sometimes I saw them, my father, my brother, at the end of the meal, lining up figures on a wine-stained corner of the white tablecloth. I would hear words like “solicitor”, “debts” and “dowry”. Go to bed, they would say to me, this is not a matter for a young lady. Don’t forget to say your prayers. I obeyed. Alone in my room, I prayed to the Virgin, the angels and all the saints. My mother, too, my mother who died young and whose name, Marie, was bound up with that litany. To all of them, finally, I added a name that evoked neither image nor perfume, nothing but flowers quickly dried by the Provencal sun and that my brother ceaselessly replanted: Violetta. Such was the order that my father, on his return from Paris, had given me: to include that name each night in my prayers. It is, he told me, that of a mysterious friend. You owe her your happiness. Never forget that. And do not ask questions. I obeyed. That name, I seemed to have heard it murmured by my brother in the garden, by the old women at the end of Mass, to have seen it floating in the closely shuttered house, over the wine-drenched dinners. A godmother, I said to myself, an unknown aunt. And sometimes, even my mother back again. My mother watching over me from another life. Blanche, as I told you, white as a goose, la giovine sì bella e pura, and eye-wateringly stupid.
The day of my wedding arrived. I was draped in tulle and satin. My eyes half-closed in the dazzling light of the June morning, I let them do as they would, whilst little by little the image of a stranger emerged, hair knotted into a strange and complicated coiffure, lips reddened with a touch of paint, neck adorned with a fine string of pearls. My brother, suddenly, entered my chamber, paler, thinner than ever. He looked at me as if he didn’t recognise me, as if seeing me for the first time: never will I forget that feverish, maddened look; and handed me a camellia of bright scarlet.
“Wear that at your bosom, I beg you, do this for me.” I once again obeyed. The day passed in a sort of daze. I felt light-headed, as if the flower, although odourless, exhaled a poison. It opened little by little in the June warmth, exposing, beneath its scarlet petals, yellow stamens, waxy as diseased flesh. Everyone, it seemed to me, had eyes only for that, could talk only of that: the scarlet stain on my white dress. My husband himself, my young, phlegmatic, shy husband, could not tear his eyes from it. And in the aisles of the church, at the banqueting table, I could still hear, beneath the vows and the hymns, the murmur of that name: Violetta. The hour of our wedding night arrived, for which no mother, no aunt, no mysterious friend had prepared me. Nor for this: my husband, my young, insipidly blond husband, changed into a wild beast, tearing my bodice, masking my face with his hands and ejaculating a name that is not mine.
I learnt quickly. Each night the same ceremony: my husband, my dull husband, placing a camellia between my breasts, a sheet over my face, and through me possessing Violetta. She died beneath that sheet, the white goose, la giovine sì bella e pura. But in her place, night after night, another was born. And she learnt. To disobey. To ask questions. To forget her prayers. To refuse. I, who had always enjoyed indecently good health, night after night, I gave weakness and the vapours as excuses to deny him my bedchamber. But I never failed to appear at mealtimes with a camellia between my breasts. My husband finally gave in:
“If you want to know who Violetta is, you must ask your brother.”
I went one better: one Sunday, in my father’s house, I left the dining table feigning a malaise. The men, the fools, thought I was with child, I could feel it in their concerned looks, tender and humiliating. I went directly to my brother’s room. The curtains were closed, the bed dishevelled, the air heavy with an odour of ether and macerated petals. I opened the windows and there, in the bright light of August, I saw, on the desk, the portrait of a woman of stunning beauty: jet black braided hair, dark eyes fringed with long lashes, lips half open to reveal milk white teeth and in her looks, an expression of ardour mixed with childlike grace. In a drawer that opened easily, letters: those letters that you all know and that I, incredulous, discovered; letters recounting the story from which my own derives, written for me by others but never told to me.
Thus it was, since you ask me, that I penetrated the secret of Violetta. And with it, that of the closely shuttered house, the relentless whispering, the shrouds of tulle and satin – with it the conspiracy of fathers, brothers and husbands.
You now know the secret of my revenge. For avenged I soon would be. Over Violetta or for Violetta I know not. I can no longer distinguish between myself and her. Between the dead object of adulation, whose corpse my brother – my terrifying, cold, crazed brother asked to be transferred from cemetery to cemetery, and my body, so fulsome, white and smooth, but from which sickness will soon erupt to the incredulity of all. Another form of transfer if you like. And one which, alliance or rivalry, unite us, Violetta and myself, within the anonymous earth of women without a name.
Methodically, I first of all took my father’s solicitor as a lover, that chalk-faced old man with his sidelong glances, his voice muffled by a life-time of whispered secrets. I had only to go and see him, all tearful, and tell him I suspected my husband of leading a double life, that I wanted to protect the child I carried from his depravity for him to offer me advice and consolation. From him I quickly learnt certain details that the letters had not revealed to me. And alongside those, the gestures and techniques, the caprices and wiles that would later be the tools of my trade.
“You are prodigiously skilled,” sighed the solicitor, dreamily. His largesse was no longer sufficient for my projects – my grand, my bellicose projects. I convinced him to introduce me to his friends: worthy provincials, noble fathers, devoted brothers, loving husbands, the dreary clientele of a debutante. They all knew my story – that story written for me by others but never told to me. In me they possessed the courtesan and la giovine sì bella e pura, the white goose and the swarthy Violetta, victim and idol. Through me they profaned the altar of their respectability, the rules and rituals that fed their desire and their hypocrisy. How prompt they were, those who had sacrificed Violetta, those who, pretending to sacrifice Violetta for my happiness, had crushed us both, her beneath the weight of their opprobrium, me beneath that of their honour, how prompt they were to bend me to their sombre fantasies. To cover me with money and jewels too. I was ready for the grand stage, the big game: I had the wherewithal to establish myself in Paris. My husband, meanwhile, had learnt to obey and ask no questions: In the beds of those worthies, I had heard enough about the tortuous paths by which his fortunes and family honour had been edified that he was ready to buy my silence with my freedom. He merely made me promise not to soil his name.
I only asked for this: to be done with Blanche, née Duval and well married. Thus was born the woman you know as Rose Du Bois. You soon learnt of her splendour and brilliance, hers was the name bruited about at your parties, your evenings at the Opera, behind your carnival masks, a name that whetted your appetite for scandal and which lovelorn men cried out into the ears of their young brides. Rose du Bois, crowned queen of the night, on a par with Violetta, Rose du Bois, her bosom adorned with cattleyas, and whose blond hair and blooming flesh had finally eclipsed her thin, dark ghost. I had everything, I had almost triumphed. Only my unashamedly good health stood between me and victory. No fevers, no languishing, no hacking cough nor inward pains with me, none of that which (admitted her former lovers) lent to Violetta’s embraces an incomparable flavour of agony. I may well have been recklessly promiscuous, for exorbitant fees, I remained untouched, intact, boringly healthy: Blanche Duval still lived in me.
This has now been rectified. The hour has come to complete my vengeance. How handsome he was, he by whom it was accomplished, the young provincial straight from a respectable family, a devoted son and brother, whose smooth features and soft skin betrayed nothing of his debauchery any more than of his illness. My brilliance dulls, I become shapeless, colourless, but carry an invisible treasure: a strong viral charge that I dispense open-handedly, transmit unstintingly to your fathers, brothers and husbands. A little patience, still: soon all that will remain of me is this consuming memory.
I want neither rose nor cattleya on my tomb: a briar, nothing else.