Marie Duplessis was the most admired young courtesan of 1840s Paris. A peasant girl from Normandy, she had reinvented herself in a matter of months, changing her name and learning how to dress, speak, and act like a duchess. But this was far more than a Pygmalion or Pretty Woman transformation. The country waif, scarcely able to read or write when she arrived in the capital at the age of thirteen, was presiding over her own salon seven years later, regularly receiving aristocrats, politicians, artists, and many of the celebrated writers of the day. These were, of course, all men, because no virtuous woman would have anything to do with a courtesan, but Marie’s profession had bought her proximity to the most brilliant minds in Paris. Her close circle included Nestor Roqueplan, editor of Le Figaro, Dr. Veron, director of the Opéra, and bon viveur Roger de Beauvoir, whom Alexandre Dumas père called the wittiest man he had ever known. Dumas himself was intrigued by the childlike Marie, and his son Alexandre fell in love with her. Franz Liszt came to Paris for a week but was so bewitched by Marie that he stayed for three months and remained romantically attached to her memory for the rest of his life. Such was her fascination that her early death from consumption in 1847 was regarded as an event of national importance. “For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers,” a bemused Charles Dickens wrote to a friend from Paris. “Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important, the romantic death of one of the glories of the demi-monde, the beautiful, the famous Marie Duplessis.”
A year later, with the publication of The Lady of the Camellias, the novel Dumas fils had based on her life, the beau monde was abuzz again. Dumas père was a national institution in France, and people were curious to see whether the twenty-four-year-old was to follow his father’s lead. He certainly had the elder Dumas’s lively style and flair for natural dialogue, as well as a freshness and sincerity of his own. But of even greater interest was the subject of the book itself. Alexandre’s affair with Marie Duplessis was well known on the Boulevard, and so was the identity of the heroine he renamed Marguerite Gautier. His descriptions of her are pure reportage. Whether sitting in her box at the theater with her signature bouquet of camellias or stepping into her pretty blue carriage, wrapped in a long cashmere shawl, Marguerite was instantly recognizable as Marie: the same tall, thin physique, the same chaste oval face, black eyes, and dark arched brows. As intrigued then as now with the private lives of celebrities, the public read the fiction as fact, thrilled to be taken inside the demimondaine’s apartment, allowed to eavesdrop on scurrilous conversations at her dinner table, and be shown her rosewood furniture, Saxe figurines, Sèvres china—even her boudoir with its costly array of gold and silver bottles. Marguerite’s friends and suitors also had their counterparts in real life, the passionate young hero Armand Duval being a composite of two of Marie’s lovers with elements of Alexandre himself.
In addition to his contemporary setting and characters, the young author drew on French literary tradition. He borrowed the plot device from Abbé Prévost’s eighteenth-century novel Manon Lescaut, which has a narrator who learns the details of the young courtesan’s plight from her grieving lover, and he also made Marguerite a descendant of Victor Hugo’s redeemed courtesan Marion Delorme, who gives up her wealthy protectors for an impoverished young man. During an idyllic country interlude, Marguerite devotes herself entirely to Armand, but Dumas fils had a more dramatic transformation in mind for her. In his only significant departure from the circumstances of Marie Duplessis’s life, he invented a scene in which Armand’s father, the personification of bourgeois morality, begs Marguerite to set his son free. It is a sacrifice she must make in order to save the reputation of the man she adores, but also for the sake of his pure young sister, whose marriage would be jeopardized by the scandal of Armand’s relationship. This is the turning point of the story, and it makes a saint and martyr of the wanton heroine, crucially allowing her to be accepted, even pitied, by respectable nineteenth-century society.
Part social document, part romantic melodrama, both ahead of its time and rigidly conventional, The Lady of the Camellias was an instant success. Dumas fils had sold only fourteen copies of his first book, Sins of Youth, a collection of long poems, including one entitled “M.D.,” which intimately details what it was like to make love to Marie Duplessis. Printed at his father’s expense in 1847, it had passed unnoticed, whereas his novel received an advance of a thousand francs from the reputable firm of Cadot, whose first edition of 1,200 copies was quickly followed by a sell-out printing of another 1,500. Having grown up in the shadow of his illustrious father, Dumas fils was overjoyed by this first taste of literary fame, confessing, “I should have died of shame and jealousy if I had not contrived to acquire a little glory of my own.”
The impact of the novel, though, was nothing compared with the sensation caused by the play. It had been a three-year struggle to persuade a theater to take on The Lady of the Camellias, which Dumas fils adapted in 1849. His father’s response had been ecstatic—“It’s original! It’s touching! It’s audacious! It’s new!” he exclaimed as he tearfully embraced Alexandre, while also warning him that his work was too authentic to be allowed onstage. Nepotism counted for nothing—“I was the son of the greatest dramatic author of his time, no-one could have a more powerful protector, but I might as well have arrived from the provinces with an unknown name.” Dumas père’s Théâtre Historique had closed by 1850, and The Lady of the Camellias was turned down by the Gaîté, the Ambigu-Comique, and the Gymnase, which had just mounted Manon Lescaut. Eventually, the new director of the Vaudeville accepted it, but it was immediately banned by the censors. When Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became president of the Second Republic in December 1851, the author’s friendship with his half brother, the Duke de Morny, helped force a cancellation of the veto, but he was told that it would make no difference; the audience would stop the play. The actress cast as Marguerite, the Vaudeville’s diva, thirty-three-year-old Anaïs Fargueil, withdrew after the first reading, and the part was offered to the more suitable Eugénie Doche, a young beauty with something of a louche reputation. Armand, twenty-three-year-old Charles Fechter, was three years her junior, with all the bullish surliness of a conceited young star. When Dumas fils suggested that in Act 4, Armand, overcome by jealousy and anger, should fling Marguerite to the floor, Fechter refused. “It’s impossible,” he said. “The public will never allow it.” Convinced of its effect, the author persisted until finally Fechter shrugged. “As the play will not get to that point, I might as well agree.”
Courtesans, romanticized by legend, had regularly been represented onstage, but only in a historical setting. Hugo’s Marion Delorme took place in the time of Louis XIII, and Scribe’s Adrienne Lecouvreur was set in the eighteenth century, the actress-courtesan’s own time. French theater, with its comedies in couplets and costume dramas portraying kings and cavaliers, was itself embalmed in the past and had never featured characters or situations taken from life. Then suddenly, here was Dumas fils, “a young scamp,” transporting the audience directly into the demimonde, using actual dialogue and the spicy expressions of Left Bank cafés and dance halls. Establishment figures, such as the Louvre’s director, Horace de Viel-Castel, recoiled in horror. “This play is shameful. ... During five acts The Lady of the Camellias unfolds before civilised people the sordid details of the life of a prostitute. Nothing is left out. ... The police, the government tolerate these scandals, and seem to ignore the fact that this will result in the demoralisation of the public.”
In fact, the public was enchanted. At its premiere on 2 February 1852, the play received a thunderous ovation, and twenty thousand printed copies were sold almost overnight. During the Vaudeville’s first run of two hundred performances, Place de la Bourse was blocked by the carriages of grandes dames who found themselves weeping over the fate of a fallen woman, plucking flowers from their corsages and throwing them onstage. Even innocent young girls, chaperoned by their nannies, went again and again, sitting in the upper boxes in floods of tears. “It was the first time I had heard of pocket-handkerchiefs as a provision for a play,” wrote Henry James, who remembered as a small boy walking in the Palais-Royal with his cousins, American girls who lived in Paris, and envying them as they recounted how often they had sobbed while watching Mme Doche as Marguerite. Neither he nor they had any idea of the profession of the lady of the expensive flowers, “but her title had a strange beauty and her story a strange meaning.”
Excerpted from The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh. Copyright © 2013 by Julie Kavanagh. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.