Marie Duplessis, feted in the 1840s
as the most beautiful courtesan in
Paris, died of tuberculosis at the age
of 23. Her story inspired Alexandre Dumas
the younger to write his most successful
novel, La Dame aux Camelias, and Verdi to
compose his most beloved opera, La Travlata.
In the 19th century, young girls would starve themselves in order to mimic the alluring pallor and feverish bright eyes that characterised consumption - the disease that killed Marie Duplessis.
In the autumn of 1844 the writer Alexandre Dumas met a young Parisian prostitute. But Marie Duplessis was no street girl; she was a 'kept woman' with all the trappings of wealth - an apartment, a carriage, even a box at the opera - and only one lover at a time. Dumas (known as 'the younger', the illegitimate son of the author of The Three Musketeers) was 20 years old and completely besotted. He and Marie became lovers. But one evening when Dumas was at the theatre, he bumped into Marie on the arm of a much older man - Count Gustav Stackelberg, a former Russian envoy. Although Dumas knew that Marie earned her living through her liaisons with other men, he must have found it hard to accept when presented with evidence of her profession. Later that night he ended their relationship.
A NORMANDY PEASANT GIRL
Alphonsine Plessis was born on January 15, 1824, in the hamlet of Nonnant in Normandy. Her home life, with her drunken father, Marin, was miserable and brutal. By the time Alphonsine was ten years old she was begging on the street for food. But within a couple of years, she learnt that there were easier ways for a pretty girl to earn money - her father had noticed the effect his daughter's beauty had on men and had begun offering her to his friends in return for payment.
When she was 15 Alphonsine escaped to Paris. There she learnt to dance, to read and write, to ride and, perhaps most important of all, to appreciate the arts. This allowed her to hold her own in educated company. The final stage in her metamorphosis came with a change of name. Adding Du to Plessis lent an aristocratic air, and she dropped Alphonsine in favour of Marie; she also took to wearing a corsage of camellias - the most expensive flowers available in Paris.
Before long, Marie presided over a salon renowned throughout the city. The men who flocked to her gatherings were very respectable - often older married men sidling out to meet their mistresses, or wealthy youths enjoying a night on the town. Tickets for such evenings were much in demand - a soiree at the salon of Marie Duplessis did not come cheap. But behind the exclusive facade and hectic lifestyle, Marie knew that she was not well.
(Alexandre Dumas' books and plays opposed adultery, prostitution and upheld the sanctity of the family. Under certain circumstances, though, he believed a man could be forgiven his adultery; a woman, never)
She suffered from a troublesome and persistent cough. In 1844 she consulted the leading doctors in Paris who suggested a variety of sometimes improbable cures and advised her to take a break from city life. To recuperate, she toured the health spas of Germany - where she met Count Gustav Stackelberg who had, himself, recently lost a daughter to tuberculosis, and who would became her final patron.
AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER
Perhaps the young Alexandre Dumas was over-sensitive to his beloved's profession but his own family background was not overly respectable to say the least. His mother was a dressmaker who gave birth to him out of wedlock in 1824. His father, the renowned writer Alexandre Dumas, did not legally recognise the boy until he was seven years old, at which point he gave him his name. He also decided that his son needed a good education which necessitated removing him from his mother. The separation hit young Alexandre hard. The pain felt by his mother also made a deep impression, inspiring later tragic 'mother' characters in Dumas' novels and plays. His boarding school education was tough, too - other schoolboys made his life a misery, taunting him about his legitimacy. But at least he had a share of father's wealth and fame. And it was through these connections that he gained entry to the illustrious circle that gathered around Marie Duplessis. Although the ending of his affair with Marie broke the young writer's heart, his story, rewritten as a novel, also brought him worldwide fame. The trigger was Marie's early death, just 18 months after the unfortunate theatre evening. He elaborated on the circumstances of her death, and his fictional heroine, dumped by her rich patrons, dies in abject poverty, giving Dumas the opportunity to write about the double standards of high society in an extraordinarily candid way.
In his novel La Dame aux Camelias, he casts himself as Armand Duval (his initials) - a young man of good family - and Marie Duplessis as Marguerite Gautier, a prostitute. Marguerite is dying of consumption, when Armand's father persuades her to relinquish her young lover - and the only man she has ever loved - for the sake of the family's, and by inference, Armand's, reputation. Marguerite's sacrifice kills her.
Dumas had an interesting explanation for 'The Lady of the Camellias', the sobriquet he created for Duplessis: 'For 25 days in every month the camellias were white, and for five they were red. No one ever knew the reason for this variation in colour which I mention but cannot explain.' The colours of the camellias obviously corresponded to Marguerite's menstrual cycle, so perhaps Dumas wrote this passage to illustrate the innocence of his narrator.
CAMILLE-AN ACTRESS'S DREAM ROLE
The story of the exquisite and warmhearted courtesan who died young, alone and destitute touched people's hearts. It has been frequently reworked, Dumas' novel being just the first in a line of different versions. The stage play, Camille, was a huge success with tragic actresses in the 19th century queueing up to play Marguerite. The great French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, having made the role her own on stage, became the living embodiment of 'Camille' - so much so that, when the play was filmed in 1912, not even the fact that she was 68 years old prevented her from being cast as the twenty-something heroine.
Father and son, or pere et fils
Alexandre Dumas pere (1802-70) was one of the most famous French writers of the 19th century, best known for his historical novels The Three Musketeers, and The Count of Monte Cristo, both written in the period 1844-45.
Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-95) was Alexandre Dumas' illegitimate son. His romantic novel, and later, play, La Dame aux Camelias was a huge success. Other novels include A Prodigal Father (1859), based on his own father and L'Affaire, Clemenceau. His plays include Denise (1885) and Francillon (1887).
As early as 1853, Giuseppe Verdi used the drama as the basis of La Traviata or 'the wayward woman'. The opera keeps Dumas' Parsian setting but the heroine is given an Italian name, Violetta. Italian conservatism necessitated the removal of many of the more risque scenes from the play. Violetta is utterly reliant on the goodwill of her friends - which is swiftly shown to be shallow.
'Poor girl... her death was especially sad, because in her world one only has fair-weather friends.'
FROM ALEXANDRE DUMAS: LA DAME AUX CAMELIAS
She believes that to return the love of a young man such as Alfredo would only lead to her impoverishment and disappointment, a belief which turns out to be tragically correct.
In 1937, the Swedish film star Garbo gave one of her greatest performances as the eponymous Camille in George Cukor's version of the story. The director recalled, 'While we were doing Camille, Garbo didn't talk much to Robert Taylor. She was polite, but distant. She had to tell herself that he was the ideal young man, and she knew if they became friendly, she'd learn he was just another nice kid'. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance.
In 2001, Baz Luhrmann's film Moulin Rouge transposed the story to the Paris of the Roaring Nineties, in and around the eponymous nightclub. Against a chaotic all-singing, all-dancing backdrop, Nicole Kidman's nightclub singer Satine discreetly coughed blood into a white handkerchief while her hopelessly smitten love, Christian, a young poet and composer played by Ewan McGregor, vied with a wealthy rival for her attention.
Alphonsine may not have taken her last consumptive breath in the tender embrace of a lover, but the poor girl from the French countryside, sold into prostitution by her abusive father, has achieved a sort of immortality - and to this day visitors leave flowers on her grave in Paris's Montmartre cemetery.