Friday, March 30, 2012

Love and tuberculosis in Paris

La Dame aux Camélias, Alexandre Dumas fils

I bought this book for fifty cents at a library book sale, because I have never read Dumas fils (despite my three semesters as a French major in college), and because the back cover describes it as "one of the greatest love stories of all time."  The next lines of copy cover on this Oxford World's Classics edition, though, are a textbook example of backhanded compliment: "Resisting criticisms of sentimentality, of an almost Gothic melodrama in certain scenes, and of a view of women that is hardly modern, [it] still has the power to cast the spell that has fascinated generations of readers."

As endlessly adapted as this book has been, the story was new to me (for anyone else unfamiliar with the story, there will be spoilers ahead).  It is also a textbook example of a roman à clef.  In 1844, Alexandre Dumas fils became the lover of Marie Duplessis, an entrancing young woman, one of the most sought-after courtesans in Paris, who was already in the early stages of consumption.  A year later he ended their liaison, and Marie turned to other lovers, including Franz Lizst.  Her health declined as the tuberculosis continued to advance.  She died soon after her 23rd birthday, in February of 1847. In June of that year, Dumas began writing La Dame aux Camélias, the story of the doomed love of Armand Duval and Marguerite Gautier, a celebrated Parisian courtesan already suffering from consumption.  Dumas's friends and Marie's other patrons appear under aliases and discrete initials.  He later turned his novel into a highly-successful play, which inspired both Guiseppe Verdi's La Traviata and several film versions.

Four narrators in turn tell this story.  The first, who is never named, sets the stage when he comes across a notice of an estate sale, which he later learns to be Marguerite's.  He attends the sale, where he buys a copy of Manon Lescaut, with a dedication from Armand to Marguerite.  He later receives a visit from Armand, who begs to be allowed to buy the book back.  A friendship develops between them, and Armand eventually tells him the story of his relationship with Marguerite.  At the end of his recital, he hands over a journal that she kept during the last weeks of her life, which when she grew too weak was completed by her devoted friend Julie Duprat, who remained with her to the end.

Even though I knew from the first page (not to mention the back cover) that Marguerite dies, I found myself completely caught up in the story.  Armand truly loves Marguerite, and he hopes not just to take her away from her sordid life, not just to cure her illness, but to cure her soul, through his love.  And Marguerite, who has been on the town for many years, comes to love Armand deeply.  They run away to a little house in the country, for months of simple life and love, where Marguerite grows stronger.  But she has enormous debts, which Armand cannot hope to meet.  And then Duval père arrives, determined to draw his son back to the straight path.  In Dumas's story, it is Marguerite who breaks with Armand, though it will be long before he understands the depth of her unselfish, self-sacrificing love.

Two things about this book really took me by surprise.  The first is its frankness about sexuality and prostitution (no wonder Louisa May Alcott's books constantly warn against the dangers of yellow-backed French novels).  In the first chapter, the anonymous narrator tells the story of an aging prostitute who forces her own daughter onto the streets to support her; when the girl gets pregnant, the mother procures an abortion for her, the effects of which later kill her.  The introduction notes that the historical Marie began her short but storied career as a courtesan at the age of 16, though her father may have forced her into prostitution even earlier.  The narrator recognizes that prostitution is the last resort for many women, their lives are hard, and their ends terrible. "Poor creatures!" he says. "If it is wrong to love them, the least one can do is pity them."  He argues that
"Jesus was full of love for souls of women wounded by the passions of men . . . Thus he said to Mary Magdalene: 'Your sins, which are many, shall be forgiven, because you loved much' . . . Why should we judge more strictly than Christ?"
Here the unnamed narrator is presumably speaking for Dumas, giving him a second voice in the novel.  Both the first narrator and Duval talk (though not graphically in today's terms) about the pleasures of sex. Duval and Marguerite spend entire days in bed, caught in the frenzy of love.  Would any English-language novel equal this frankness, before the 1920s?

The second point that caught me off-guard was Marguerite's illness.  She has active tuberculosis, with fevers and coughing fits that cause her to vomit blood.  Yet men still flock to her, as they did to the real Marie.  Marguerite begins to fall in love with Armand after he remains with her during one of her attacks, comforting and kissing her, even after she wipes the blood from her lips.  I know that medical knowledge about TB was not advanced, and I also know that in the 19th century there was a tendency to romanticize "consumption."  But having read about the agonizing death of Thérèse of Lisieux, and Betty MacDonald's harrowing account of her stay in a TB sanitarium in The Plague and I, I kept wondering if these men believed themselves immune from the disease?  I see a parallel with AIDS and sex workers in our own day.

On a lighter note, it was interesting to see that Indian shawls are a major status symbol in Marguerite's Paris, when I had just been reading about Emily Eden's many purchases of them in India itself in Up the Country.   And I think I may have to look for a copy of Manon Lescaut, which plays such a part in this novel, as it did in Dorothy L. Sayers' Clouds of Witness, where it gives Lord Peter Wimsey a vital clue.  As he sets off for Paris, he leaves Charles Parker "with a puzzled frown, before the fire at 110 Piccadilly, making his first acquaintance with the delicate masterpiece of the Abbé Prévost."


  1. I love that 'backhanded' blurb. Oh, Oxford World's Classics, this is why I love you. Still, anything that can be described as Gothic melodrama is pretty much sure to make a good opera and what could be more iconic than La Traviata?

  2. The Introduction is even worse. The editor/translator makes a good case for why this book shouldn't even be read, let alone considered a classic.

    I know so little about opera - until I read this, I had La Traviata confused with La Bohème.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!