Your Saturday Book Review: La Dame Aux Camélias OR The Girlfriend Experience

Marie Duplessis died in 1848, but has been living in our imaginations ever since.

Born Alphonsie Rose Plessis, the lovely Marie came to Paris when she was fifteen and soon became the hottest date in town. She was a courtesan, a high-class hooker catering to an exclusive clientele – men with enough money to support her in the style to which she soon became accustomed. Between her tastes and her gambling habit, she was high maintenance indeed.

Marie died at age twenty-three of consumption, and Charles Dickens who happened to be in town at the time of her funeral was reported to have said  it was as if Joan of Arc was being buried.

One of her lovers “du couer” (as opposed to her paying customers) was the young Alexander Dumas fils. They were both eighteen at the time. Less than a year after she died, Dumas published his novel La Dame aux Camelias a fictionalized version of their story which became a bestseller, and the basis for a play he wrote later (in which Sarah Bernhardt toured for years)/  Verdi’s opera, La Traviata, was also based on story. Verdi changed the names of the fictional characters and had to set it a hundred years earlier as it was considered too scandalous a story to be set contemporaneously.

There are also several film versions including the one with Greta Garbo as the coughing heroine, which was of course sent up (as it should have been) on the old Carol Burnett show (and if around finds that on youtube, please send me the link.

As a fan of the opera, I was curious about the book. While it is considered a “classic,” it’s a slim volume and not one you’re likely to be assigned in a literature class. Certainly, Dumas fils was no Dumas père, and there’s something exploitative about it. While their affair may have involved all the passion of youth, it’s unlikely they meant to each other what the lovers in the book meant to each other. Nor did Dumas père ever visit Marie and beg her to break off the affair in order to assure a good marriage for his daughter and to keep his son from ruining himself. Dumas fils was illegitimate as were Dumas’ other children, and the old man was hardly the model of propriety that Monsieur Duval is portrayed as in the novel. The soul of the novel (and all the later versions) is the heroine’s willingness to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her lover and his family, a sacrifice she is Marie Duplessis is unlikely ever to have actually made.

The story may soon become more popular, as a new translation is coming soon from Penguin, and a new English language biography of The Girl Who Loved Camellias will be released in June.

Is it worth it to read Dumas’ version?

As a historical curiosity perhaps. As a work of “literature”or even an entertaining read probably not.

It’s not badly written, but all of it’s popularity at the time was probably based on its “scandalous nature,” the fame of the father, and Marie’s reputation. It’s an interesting book for its glimpses of what the life of a 19th century Paris courtesan was like, but it’s told from the point of view of a lover, and misses a lot. We learn nothing of Margarite Guathier’s past or how she came to be what she was. History tells us that the “real” Marie Duplessis was likely sold into prostitution by her father when she was eleven, that she came to Paris as a teenager and briefly worked in a dress shop before beginning her notorious career there. Part of her charm seemed to be her ability to simulate wholesomeness, her lack of vulgarity, and this Dumas captures in his portrait.

In the novel (as in the other versions) Marguerite and Armand love each other passionately. Marguerite breaks it off after a visit from Armand’s father, but Armand doesn’t realize the reason until she is near death. In the book, unlike the play, movie or opera,  he doesn’t return to Paris in time for a teary deathbed visit.

It’s hard to imagination anyone reading the book today and “feeling” very much about it. This is in contrast to Verdi’s version which can still be a gut-wrenching experience. The opera is transcendent – a story about mortality and youth itself, as well as a heartbreaking love story about sacrifice.

Verdi and the librettists saw something greater than Dumas, who may simply have been trying to make a quick buck, or subject to his limitations as an artist.

While Marguerite still comes off as “noble” in the novel, giving Armand up out of kindness, their relationship is portrayed as clearly limited. She’s willing to live a quieter live with him, and live on what his income can provide for the two of them, but as Armand makes clear to his father, it’s not as if he would ever “give her [his] name.” While the relationship might be indefinite, it’s hardly a lifetime commitment.

In all the versions there’s an idea that the quieter life Armand offers might restore her health, but that’s never realistic. In the opera, the tragedy is not so much her death, but that they didn’t get to be together during the little time they had. In the opera, the lover’s father is a major character, who openly comes to regret keeping them apart. While he’s still sympathetic in the novel, he doesn’t rush to her deathbed begging her forgiveness.

So I can’t really recommend the novel for its own sake. But damn can I ever recommend that opera (which I am listening to as I write these words). Taking you out is a clip of from the Willy Decker production of La Traviata – the aria “Di Provenza” sung by the father of the lover after he has broken them up.