A fallen woman of the Demi-monde, a muse to the great minds of the Romantic era, a chaste idol, a passionate courtesan—Marie Duplessis was a woman of beguiling contradictions. Her short, bright life lit up Bohemian Paris, where she arrived as a penniless girl of 14 and rose to become one of the most famous and desired women in Europe. By the time she succumbed to tuberculosis at the tender age of 23, she'd inspired a generation of artistic geniuses, from the composer Franz Liszt to the dandy Alexandre Dumas fils, who forever immortalized her in his The Lady of the Camellias (a nod to Marie's signature flower).
Now, two new books delve into the courtesan's life and legend: Julie Kavanagh's The Girl Who Loved Camellias, and Liesl Schillinger's translation of Dumas fils' hit novel. The authors sat down with The Daily Beast before a reading at New York's The Strand bookstore this week to discuss Marie and the immense love and fascination she has inspired throughout the ages.
The Daily Beast: What inspired you to do these books at the same time? Did you talk to each other beforehand? Was it just a coincidence?
Julie Kavanagh: Well, I thought it was a coincidence.
Liesl Schillinger: We talked for the first time this weekend.
The Daily Beast: So it was a total coincidence.
LS: Well, I think Penguin knew that Julie was going to be doing this biography, and got to thinking—is there something new and vital that people will like? And they asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, ‘absolutely’.
The Daily Beast: That’s great. So, for both of you what really grabbed you about Marie’s life and this work, The Lady of the Camellias?
LS: Well, as I told Julie as we were speaking this weekend, I wish I could have read her biography before I read the novel. Because I’ve always enjoyed the novel—but reading her biography, you just get so much more respect for who this self-made woman was. And she just seems to be such a determined, visionary, aggressive woman who refused to be repressed by conventional morality. She had her sister bullying her, she had Parisian society bullying her, and then her great love bullying her, and telling her what kind of woman she was supposed to be—and she was having none of it. And so I like the message.
JK: Truly. She’s a modern woman. And it’s something about her voice. There was a biography, which was the first biography of her, by a guy called Romain Vienne, who was in love with her. And it was always repressed because he knew if he made a pass at her, she would banish him from her life. Somehow he just captured the character and the conversations they used to have—and it was almost as if he was using a tape recorder because she just came across [so well].
LS: Her voice was so vital—and the thing that really thrilled me when I was reading through this biography is that Dumas fils has often been accused of being a journalist or a photographer, like Christopher Isherwood—I Am A Camera. So he wasn’t inventive the way his father was, you know, with The Three Musketeers. But he was an awfully good observer. And he was an awfully good recorder of conversations. So when you go back to Julie’s book and you see the actual letters, you hear the voice in which [she spoke]. The real Lady of the Camellias’ name was Alphonsine Plessis, but she changed it to Marie Duplessis. So when you go back and read her letters, her voice, you realize, my god, this woman is talking through [this book]. You know, I had only read this novel before in French, so I absorbed the story, but I wasn’t as aware of the style because I was just reading it. And so just returning to my own translation—her voice comes through authentically in Dumas’ telling, which I didn’t notice in the French, because when you’re reading a foreign language, you’re comprehending but you’re not as critical.
JK: So I think that’s what I found, because I’ve read it the French too and I checked a few things in the other translations. But when I was reading Liesl’s … I started in the middle, I was looking something up, and I just couldn’t stop … I think it’s remarkable because she captured that real modern tone and I can recognize now the real Marie much more easily in the novel. And I can see chunks when I think, ding dong, that’s her in the novel.
LS: I like her more, also, knowing the back story. I certainly liked her very much in The Lady of the Camellias, in the novel, but for the sake of convention and so the book wouldn’t be banned and censored—even though it stirred up all kinds of kerfuffle—he had to make her redeemed. She had to reform and not want to be a courtesan anymore, to be a good girl—and to be a Christian angel, renouncing her own happiness for the sake of another. And that’s kind of insipid. And it doesn’t really seem so unbelievable the way that Dumas fils spins out the story, but it doesn’t seem like anything any woman you and I know would do. And so knowing, that no, she would not have done that, is really gratifying.
The Daily Beast: This is great segue. You mentioned in your introduction to the novel Marguerite/Marie and Armand are these bright young things, like celebrities today. How did that inform how you translated the language? How you modernized the translation?
LS: That’s interesting. The thing is, I’m not taking liberties with this translation. This is my voice, but it’s really word for word, and I’m telling it absolutely faithfully to the translation. So I couldn’t change it so much. But I saw it the way I saw it. The way I see it is very contemporary. So when I was writing, if she jumps into a barouche, she jumps into a barouche, and nobody will know what that means. But just in the language, I made it as unfussy as I could. But, you know, people are very windy in French. There’s lots of persiflage…there are certain things that are you cannot really rid it of. But I wanted it to sound urgent and unfake, and I wanted people to get carried along with the flow of it. Certainly, whenever Marguerite speaks, it sounds absolutely, transparently like now. It doesn’t feel old fashioned. She really has, as someone who I learned about in your biography says, inimitable originality.
JK: She was an original. She was breaking rules.
The Daily Beast: Do you think that’s why everyone was so obsessed with coming to her apartment after she died?
JK: Yeah, I think there’s also a lot of curiosity to set foot in a courtesan’s apartment. That was a huge deal.
LS: And schadenfreude, also. Titillating curiosity.
JK: And, in fact, Dickens was there.
LS: And pretending that he thought it was just unconscionable or inconceivable that there would be such interest in Paris in the passing of this courtesan. But don’t you write that he was interested in the story himself?
JK: Yes, he started almost fictionalizing her life. Because he lived in Paris for a bit. He had an apartment in Paris. And he and John Forster went the rounds doing all the Paris morgue and Saint-Lazare and the prostitutes’ hospital. They were digging around in this sort of Dickensian way. And going to the sale was one of these attractions, almost like a tourist attraction. He was obviously very drawn to fallen women, anyway.
LS: That’s the thing that’s really interesting, the way that the French sensualized chastity. Well not just the French—the Victorians. And we’re talking mid-19th century, the French the English—everyone was obsessed by Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse, they were obsessed by Manon Lescaut, just the idea of these women who look so faint and angelic, but were just devoured by passions. I guess they didn’t like a passionate woman who looked passionate.
JK: And I think that was one of her secrets, that she looked very chaste and childlike. She wasn’t in-your-face sexy in any way. Her favorite garment was a shawl. She wasn’t voluptuous. And I think that was kind of surprising, in a way. So she wasn’t like her contemporary, Lola Montez, who sort of defined the term ‘brazen hussy.’
The Daily Beast: And you also mentioned she tried to make herself well-read.
JK: She was an auto-didact. To move in that world of intelligentsia, she couldn’t just sit there looking pretty. Whereas some did—I think some ballet dancers and ballerinas would be invited along…
LS: Right, but Nestor Roqueplan, who really liked her, who was the editor of Le Figaro, he said, well, he didn’t know if she had intelligence, but she had instinct. When I look at her, she had intelligence. And she had bravado, in a funny way. But she also had, and this was her grace—this is just judging from your book, so correct me if I’m wrong—humility. She knew that this chaste thing, she got it, I don’t know whether she was that, but she knew how to come across. And when you were talking about Saint-Lazare and all that, you mention how there was a woman who was on the edges of the high society that she wanted into, whom Marie wanted to befriend. And so when the woman, Madame Judith, was sick, she sent her beautiful flowers every day and didn’t say who they were [from]. And the woman finally said, ‘Who are these from’? And she said, ‘Well, I am so sorry but I was afraid you would not accept them from me if you knew who I was, because I am so unworthy.’
But see there was another woman who was also a lorette, who was in her world, who did the same thing. And when Judith found out that that woman had sent them, Celeste, she was infuriated and sent her a note saying, ‘This entitles you to one strong shower at the prostitutes’ prison.’ So [Marie] was savvy. But before we get too much into, ‘Oh, she’s such a modern woman,’ this is a romantic story. She inspired love. And she inspired lust. But the enduring love that people felt for her—including Franz Liszt, including the man she in fact married. Which nobody realizes, I guess—she really did get a man to marry her, a count.
JK: A count, yes. She wanted a title. She was quite manipulative.
The Daily Beast: So Dumas fils obviously fell in love with her, as did many other men. What was it about her that inspired not just lust, as so many courtesans did, but made people obsessed with her?
JK: She has a sort of ineffable, poetic quality. Liszt said, ‘She puts me in mind of poetry and music.’ And Frederick Ashton wrote the ballet, created the ballet Marguerite and Armand, and chose Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor for the music. And afterwards, he found out that Liszt had actually had an affair with Marie. And he thought this was extraordinary, that it had somehow fallen into place. And he said, it may not have been Liszt’s memory of her, but it may. So she stayed with Liszt right into his old age…
The Daily Beast: Which of the men do you think she was the most in love with?
JK: I think the first love, her first proper love was the Duke de Guiche. And then I think Liszt. She wanted to give up everything. I mean, he would have been so incredible.
LS: Who was the one she pretended was her amant de coeur? Was it Edouard?
JK: I mean Dumas fils would have been amant de coeur as well. But then there was this incredible 18-year-old, Olympe, who was her friend in the end and was so loyal.
The Daily Beast: I love how, in the [biography], you talk about how it’s such a special relationship, to have the platonic friend, for a courtesan.
JK: Exactly. She hated being flattered. She kept saying, let’s just be friends. Just come and chat to me. And I think she wanted that. And that, again, rang so true in the novel.
LS: There’s this wonderful quote where she’s tried to make this admirer leave, so she can flirt with Armand. And the Count finally leaves, and she’s incredibly rude to him. And her friend Prudence basically says, you know, the man left you a watch on the mantelpiece that costs a thousand crowns, I mean, you shouldn't be throwing this man away. This is easy money. And she says, well, you know, when I lay on one side what he gives to me and on the other side what he says to me, I find he gets his visits very cheaply. Then [her friend] says, ‘That poor boy is in love with you.’ And [Marguerite] says, ‘If I had to listen to all the men who were in love with me, I wouldn’t have time to eat.’
The Daily Beast: If only everyone had those problems.
LS: And in the book, you make it clear that there’s a time that she’s a little worried that her friend Romain Vienne is going to hit on her, and she says, ‘Do not do that, because then our friendship will cease and that’s such a shame.’
The Daily Beast: Of all the people who portrayed her, throughout the opera, on state, in the ballet, is there one who was your favorite?
JK: I see [Greta] Garbo as one of the closest. She’s got that irony and that intelligence, Garbo. That she’s slightly sending it all up, I feel. Which I thought Marie would have done. But I don’t know anything about opera, so I don’t know about [Maria] Callas [as Violetta in La Traviata].
LS: What struck me is how many women who are not French have played Marguerite.
The Daily Beast: That’s a great point.
LS: [Eleonora] Duse was Italian, right? And you have—well, obviously, Sarah Bernhardt was French. But Maria Callas, we think of as a great one—of course, she’s Violetta, but that’s the same. For me, watching Garbo being so Swedish, I was like, couldn’t you have found someone [who] looked a little bit more like Vivien Leigh or something. But there’s a way in which I picture Marguerite as younger. In real life, she was the same age as Armand. And basically I feel that what is so cool about Marguerite is that she was a sophisticated woman of the world who came off as an innocent girl. And Garbo to me didn’t come off as an innocent girl.
I love it when La Traviata debuted as an opera at La Fenice, apparently the audience cracked up with derisive laughter because there was a fat, middle-aged Marguerite as Violetta, and every time she would give a consumptive cough, people would howl with laughter.