Tuesday, 17 June 2014

La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas Fils

Lady of the Camellias - this translation by David Coward

published 1848


The first time I had seen her was in the Place de la Bourse, outside Susse’s. An open barouche was standing there, and a woman in white had stepped out of it. A murmur of admiration had greeted her as she entered the shop. For my part, I stood rooted to the spot from the time she went in until the moment she came out. Through the windows, I watched her in the shop as she chose what she had come to buy. I could have gone in, but I did not dare. I had no idea what sort of woman she was and was afraid that she would guess my reason for entering the shop and be offended…



She was elegantly dressed; she wore a muslin dress with full panels, a square Indian shawl embroidered at the corners with gold thread and silk flowers, a Leghorn straw hat and a single bracelet, one of those thick gold chains which were then just beginning to be fashionable.





observations: All kinds of name stuff first: camellia has two ls, but Dumas consistently wrote it with one, which was (according to this edition) because he didn’t know any better, and because the writer George Sand wrote it with one.

The heroine of the book is Marguerite Gautier, though in other versions of the story she is sometimes called Camille. But in the book she is the lady of the camellias just because she likes the flowers. In an astonishingly modern touch (and one really unimaginable in an English novel of the time), she wears a red camellia when she is ‘unavailable’ each month, and goes back to a white one when she is free again. Her lover is called Armand Duval.

One of the most famous versions of the story is Verdi’s opera La Traviata – again, this is no-one’s name, it means the woman who strayed or turned away from the path. But in La Trav – the most performed opera of them all – she is called Violetta, and her lover is Alfredo. 

And, Alexandre Dumas Fils is not the man who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers:  he is is his rather unsatisfactory son. A much lesser writer, though it is possible this one story is better-known, and more resonant, than anything his father wrote.

The book is very melodramatic and over the top, with a feverish atmosphere. It is based on a true story: Marie Duplessis was a famously beautiful courtesan in Paris in the 1840s, and had an affair with Dumas fils. She died of consumption in 1847, and this book was published just over a year later, and turned into the first of many plays in 1849. (The opera was launched in 1853.) It has been an eternal bestseller in all its different forms ever since. The courtesan with the heart of gold has an unchanging appeal.

The book itself is quite refreshing – Marguerite is no yearning innocent forced into a life of sin. Armand does not come over well – as his father says: ‘What sort of man are you, sir, that you will allow Mlle Marguerite Gautier to make sacrifices for you?’ When he writes a dramatic letter to his lover, she says ‘People compose letters like this in their heads, but no-one actually writes them down.’ When he goes to visit her, he looks to see if the bed is smooth so as to check on what she’s been up to. There are endless discussions of money and Marguerite is quite forthright about being a courtesan, and the economics of that, and the inconvenience of falling in love.

After she is dead, Armand arranges to have her coffin moved so he can have a  look at her corpse – a very gruesome scene, as she has been buried for some time, and one that is described in horrible detail. He needs to do this because – unlike in other versions of the story – there is no final pre-death reunion.

The book is strange and enjoyable, with a very modern feeling.

There are similarities with Edward Sheldon’s Romance – a highly successful play of the early 20th century, and one we tracked down in a number of entries.

Marguerite is fond of her shawls – as was Mrs Gaskell, some discussion in this entry, with links to others.

The pictures are of Marie Duplessis herself (top) and of the great actress Eleanor Duse playing Marguerite.

14 comments:

  1. I think I had a similar occurrence - the inadvertent opening of Eva Peron's coffin in a book I read last year. Whether this bit was fact or author fancy I don't know, but elements of the tale were based on factual events, though there is a lot of mystery surrounding her remains and the various removals and upliftings and storing and re-burials . Widen's Blood Makes Noise - less than a £1 on Amazon UK for kindle. I reckon you would enjoy it (maybe)!

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    1. Thrillingly creepy. And yes, I remember you doing that book, I made a note because it really interested me. (Big fan of Madonna as Evita...) so off to Kindle I go....

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    2. Got it from the Kindle lending library for nothing.

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    3. Oh, well done. I do hope you enjoy it, especially after the big build-up!

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  2. Moira - I agree; that coffin-opening scene is very creepy. Well, I should say 'those scenes,' because the one to which Col refers is, too. Interesting too the differences between this book and as you say English novels of the time. I find it fascinating to see how cultural differences and realities find their ways into books.

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    1. I think there's a coffin-opening scene in Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd as well - we should collect such scenes and each do a blogpost - it's a great topic, don't you think...?

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  3. Eeew! Passing swiftly along...

    There is a good description of what the well-dressed fille de joie will wear in Thackeray's novelette Our Street. She's called "Mrs Stafford-Molyneux".

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2731/2731-h/2731-h.htm

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    1. I read the section on her - very nice, and bearing out the view that Mr T was a lot more able to write about these things than Mr Dickens. Mrs S-M had excellent clothes - a pity she had to go....

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  4. The only contribution I can make here is that I saw La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York with Joan Sutherland years ago. It was stupendous.

    My only other comment is that if George Sand spelled the word with one l, that's good enough for me.

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    1. Oh how wonderful, lucky you - I would have loved to hear Joan Sutherland sing live....

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  5. Lovely images, and an interesting topic. I did not know that there was a son of Alexandre Dumas who wrote, but then there is a lot in literature I do not know of...

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    1. I think the story (even with all her different names) is so famous that the original writer has almost disappeared....

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  6. Moira: I was intrigued by the story of Marie and found another painting of her at several sites - http://grandeshorizontales.tumblr.com/post/564181788/marie-duplessis-january-15th-1824-february

    The camellia is so prominent.

    Today Armand would have been whisked away to see a psychiatrist.

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    1. Thanks - I tried to find one with the camellia, but didn't see this one - I'm not sure the pictures capture her beauty, which contemporaries all agree was spectacular. Your comment on Armand made me laugh, but also nod in agreement.

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