La Dame aux Camélias

Alexandre Dumas Fils

 

The Real Traviata

 

By Maria Nockin

 

 

When Alphonsine Rose Plessis was born on the 15th of January, 1824, in the tiny village of Nonnant in Normandy, no one could have imagined that within twenty years she would be one of the most famous, or perhaps we should say infamous, women in France.

 

Her father, Marin Plessis, was a habitual drunkard who often became violent. One night when he had attempted to set the house on fire with the family inside, his wife left with Alphonsine and their older daughter, Delphine. The children were placed with an aunt while their mother went to work for an English noblewoman, but their father soon reclaimed them and put the older girl to work. Alphonsine was given to a cousin who was very poor, and by the time she was ten years old she was begging on the street for her food.

 

Soon she found that there were other ways an attractive young girl could earn money, and she made good use of them. Her father, too, saw that her beauty was useful and took her for regular visits to an elderly gentleman with whom she eventually went to live.

 

At that point, the local authorities investigated Marin for endangering the morals of a minor, but he talked his way out of the charge. Soon after, he set out for Paris with Alphonsine, having arranged for her to live with some relatives who had a grocery stall in the Rue des Deux Ecus. They first apprenticed the young girl to a laundress and then to a seamstress, but their young charge was beginning to find her own way. She was terribly poor and often hungry, but there was something unforgettable about her looks, and she had a natural refinement that enabled her to make friends above her station.

 

Nestor Roqueplan, later Director of the Paris Opera, wrote that he saw her on the Pont Neuf eating a green apple, but gazing hungrily at the fried potatoes being sold nearby. He bought her a large portion and watched as she wolfed them down and even licked the paper in which they had been wrapped. Roqueplan would recall this incident in 1851 when he spoke with Giuseppe Verdi about bringing "La Traviata" to the Opéra.

 

As an apprentice seamstress, Alphonsine earned less than a living wage. Such positions were thought to be for girls who lived at home and did not have to pay rent, so young women who were on their own had to supplement their income as best they could. Alphonsine made friends with a restauranteur. He her up in a small apartment with a maid whom she soon found was there to report on her. She was able to quit her job as a seamstress, but found life as the restauranteur's mistress much too confining.

 

She began to evade the maid's watchful eyes and started attending the dances at the Prado in hopes of meeting a gentleman who might do better by her. One evening she made the acquaintance of Antoine Agénor, the young, lively, talented and very rich Duc de Guiche who not only financed a better apartment for her, but arranged for his grandmother to teach her to read.

 

Alphonsine worked hard. She not only learned to read and write, but she also attained an appreciation of the arts. She took up horseback riding and continued to practice her dancing, the one art in which she was already proficient. In an amazingly short time she was able to mingle and converse ably with educated people. To complete her transformation, she also changed her name from Alphonsine to Marie and added Du to Plessis.

 

An English gentleman recalling Marie said "Her inbred tact and instinctive delicacy compensated for a totally inadequate education. Whatever she recognized as admirable in her friends she strove to master herself, so that her natural appeal was enhanced by the flower of her intelligence." When Roqueplan next saw her, he was astonished to note that the little waif from the Pont Neuf had become the fashionable lady on the arm of the Duc de Guiche.

 

Sometime later it is thought that she may have given birth to a son who was taken from her and raised by the de Guiche family.¹ Eventually, Marie moved on to a new lover, but de Guiche was to remain her friend for life. Her new "protector" was Edoard, Vicomte de Perregaux, grandson of one of Napoleon's financiers, a very rich man whose guardian limited his allowance.

 

By this time Marie had become so famous that no foreign aristocrat visiting Paris wanted to return without calling on la Duplessis and leaving a costly offering. Marie had a salon, centered about a very exclusive group of men who came to her home to enjoy intellectual conversation. It was a great honor to be invited to attend because of her fame and because she chose the participants based on their brilliance as well as their money.

 

Perregaux, however, wanted Marie to himself and he bought a home in Bougival, a lovely village outside the city where they could be alone and away from its distractions. They even spoke of eventual marriage. His family, however, was becoming alarmed at his prolonged and exclusive dalliance with the well known courtesan.

 

When he had become hopelessly in debt from gambling and supporting Marie, his guardian offered to pay all his bills if he would leave her. He accepted their proposition, but did not have the heart to break it to his love. Thus it was that the guardian of the Perregaux fortune came to tell Marie abruptly that the affair was over.

 

Marie returned to Paris cured of her romantic illusions, and she formed a new salon numbering among its adherents: Honoré de Balzac, Alfred de Musset, Théophile Gautier, and Arsène Houssaye. They were the fashionable and the celebrated but not the richest men in the city. She still needed someone with money to finance her endeavors, and until she found a protector she pawned many of the gifts she received from admirers.

 

She was also beginning to realize that her cough was the symptom of a serious illness so she consulted the best known doctors in Paris. Following their advice she spent the summer of1844 touring the health spas of Germany. At one of them she met the septuagenarian Count Gustav Stackelberg who had recently lost a daughter to tuberculosis. He asked her to be a "daughter" to him and he set her up in her last home, a new apartment at 11 Boulevard de la Madeleine. (Its number has since been changed to 15).

 

An exquisite residence with an anteroom devoted to flowers, it had gilded, vine-laden trellises mounted on the walls to which Marie added baskets of fresh flowers in season. The flowers she wore were usually camellias, the most expensive corsages to be had at that time, but she had bouquets of all descriptions in her home up until the doctors told her that her respiratory condition was being affected by them.

 

Although she kept up the facade of being Count Stackelberg's daughter, she began to see other men when he was away, including her old beau, Edoard de Perregaux, whom she treated with some disdain. In 1844 she met Alexandre Dumas the younger, who was later to write of their affair in the 1848 novel "Camille" and in the 1852 play which established his success in the theater.

 

One evening, when Marie was attending a party with Dumas, she had a dreadful coughing spell and retired to a bedroom. He followed her and, when she regained her composure, she explained to him that nothing could be done for her illness, adding that since it would not do any good to stay home and rest, she chose to be among interesting people who would distract her from her pain. Dumas continued his affair with her for about a year, being careful not to be detected by Stackelberg, because at the age of twenty he could not dream of supporting the Duplessis household.

 

Marie consulted the famous Dr C.J. Davaine, who was later to isolate the anthrax bacteria, but he did little for her. She also saw a flamboyant charlatan named Koreff who prescribed strychnine which, of course, only made her condition worse. One thing Dr Koreff did do for her, though, was to introduce her to Franz Liszt after she, Liszt and the journalist Jules Jannin had met by accident.

 

She was strongly attracted to the piano virtuoso and wanted him to take her along on his concert tour. He was fearful of catching her illness, however, and left alone, promising to come back and take her to Constantinople. He never did and probably regretted it. Much later he wrote: "I am not normally interested in the Marion Delormes or the Manon Lescauts, but Marie Duplessis was an exception. She had a great deal of heart, a great liveliness of spirit and I consider her unique of her kind...She was the most complete incarnation of womankind that has ever existed."

 

Marie turned again to Perregaux who was still following her around like a puppy. They traveled to England and on Feb 21, 1846, they were married in a civil ceremony there. Although the marriage was not valid in France and the count never lived with her, she had gained a title and a bit of respectability which made her extremely happy.

 

During 1846, her last summer, she again visited the German spas and her health improved slightly when she returned. By that time she had no support from either Perregaux or any other protector, but her luck at gambling covered much of her expenses. Although she was living on her savings, she was not incurring debts she could not pay because she was selling some of the many gifts she had been given.

 

Her disease was quite evident to those who saw her, and one party guest wrote: "Her great eyes, dimmed and dark circled, were slowly burning themselves away under her eyelids. In her broken but still voluptuous grace she was like a flower that had been trodden underfoot at a ball." Her ability to attend social functions only lasted a few more months and one night in December when she attended the theater she fainted and had to leave early, leaning heavily on her coachman. After that she remained in bed except for a few hours on January 15th, her 23rd birthday when she put on a ball gown and jewels but remained at home.

 

She had a faithful maid named Clothilde who cared for her in her last days and, of course, she was visited by the doctors mentioned earlier, but their ministrations were of no avail. On Feb 3, 1847, she sat upright in bed for a moment and fell back dead. At the Age of 23, Marie became a legend as she passed into eternity.

 

After a lavish funeral at the church of La Madeleine, her innumerable possessions were auctioned off to a huge crowd leaving a substantial estate, even after all her debts were paid. The proceeds were given to Delphine, who started a business in Nonnant. Marie spent only a short time on earth and she lived it far away from the conventional morality of her time, but at least for a while she was able to make her wildest dreams come true.

 

¹ Several years after Marie's death a young man appeared at the house of her sister Delphine, asking to see the famous lady's picture. Delphine remarked on his resemblance to Marie and tried to contact him later, only to find that he had given her a false name and address.

 

Many thanks to Maria Nockin and Pro Opera for allowing us to post this interesting article on our site.

 

 

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Number of Reviews: 2

Average rating: Average Hearts

 

Reviewed by: yin zhou iwlyf01@yahoo.com      Date: 14 September 2001

   Five Hearts

I read Dumas' La Dame aux Camelias this summer, and I dare say it is the most heart-warming yet tear-catching love story ever. It stroked my heart when I was reading the scene where Armand cried at the sight of Marguerite coughing blood. No man could ever be that sensitive and naive. And Marguerite, who sacrified her life (as Armand's love meant life to her) and her own happiness for him, has an admirable and sophisticated spirit. This love tragedy is even greater and more beautiful than Romeo and Juliet. Not many love stories are about a young noble man in love with a courtesy, not a maiden. La Dame aux Camelias also reflects the corruption of the French society in 1800s. Anyway, the novel brings out my tears and sentiments every time I read it. It is a great work.

 

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Reviewed by: Lale Eskicioglu lale@readliterature.com      Date: 12 May 2001

   Four Hearts

 

I have, I believe, the best edition of La Dame aux Camélias : The World's Classics (Oxford), translated and introduced by David Coward, 1986. I don't know if it is still in print, I bought it at a second hand book store. David Coward's notes might be actually more interesting than the book itself. The introduction, the chronology of Dumas Fils and the explanatory notes are full of information on lives of Dumas Fils and Marie Duplessis (née Alphonsine Plessis) who are the real life counterparts of Armand Duval and Marguerite, respectively. This is what David Coward says in his introduction:

 

La Dame aux Camélias has never been a novel for which persons of taste and discernment have been able to confess outright enthusiasm. When it appeared in 1848, stern judges declared its subject to be indelicate. Nowadays the blushes spring from a reluctance to admit openly that a four-hankie novel can claim to be literature or even have a serious call on our attention. By any standards, it is not a particularly good book: at most, it falls into G.K. Chesterton's category of `good bad books'... [Dumas Fils] wrote better novels and more significant plays, but he wrote them with his head. La Dame aux Camélias is a young man's book, and it has all the faults and virtues of youth. It was a romantic indiscretion for which Dumas was never moved to apologize.

 

Real life of Marie Duplessis is far more interesting than her life as Marguerite on pages. She was Dumas' mistress for eleven months, between September 1844 and August 1845. After they broke up, she met Liszt and they fell in love with one another. `She was the most absolute incarnation of Woman who has never existed' he wrote afterwards. Liszt, and not Dumas, appears to have been the only man Marie Duplessis genuinely loved.

 

Marie Duplessis (Alphonsine Plessis) was born in 1824. Her father started offering her to men by the time she was twelve. By sixteen she was one of the most celebrated courtesans of her day. Also at sixteen she learned to read and write and by the time of her death in 1847, at the age of twenty-three, she owned 200 books, Manon Lescaut amongst them, which Dumas uses to start his story with.

 

David Coward connects the fiction to the facts with scrupulous footnotes. If you can find it, read his rendition. If you can't find it, then read whatever version you can find, it is a good story. After all, who wouldn't want to read the story of the woman who is the heroine of Verdi's La Traviata? I only wish Armand Duval didn't cry so much.

 

I give this book 4 hearts, I took one away for the four-hankie effect. (After you finish this book, you will have no choice but to read Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut next!)

 

Marie Duplesis

 

Marie Duplesis

 

Tomb of Alphonsine Plessis (Marie Duplessis), Montmartre Cemetery, Paris

 

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