The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

The little known, riveting story of the most famous courtesan of her time: muse and mistress of Alexandre Dumas fils and Franz Liszt, the inspiration for Dumas’s The Lady of the Camellias and Verdi’s La Traviata, one of the most sought after, adored women of 1840s Paris.

Born in 1824 in Normandy, Marie Duplessis fled her brutal peasant father (who forced her to live with a man many years her senior). Julie Kavanagh traces Marie’s reinvention in Paris at sixteen: as shop girl, kept woman, and finally, as grand courtesan with the clothes, apartment, coach and horses that an aristocratic woman of the time would have had. Tall, willowy, with dramatic dark hair, Marie acquired an aristocratic mien, but coupled with a singular modesty and grace, she was an irresistible figure to men and women alike. Kanavagh brings her to life on the page against a brilliantly evoked background of 1840s Paris: the theater and opera, the best tables at the cafés frequented by society figures, theater directors, writers, artists–and Marie, only nineteen, at the center of it all. Four years later, at twenty-three, she would be dead of tuberculosis.

I first heard of Marie Duplessis because of my love of opera.  She was the inspiration for Dumas’s The Lady of the Camellias, which was the inspiration for my favourite opera of all time, La Traviata.  After watching an amazing version of La Traviata with Anna Moffo in the lead role, I wondered how close her interpretation was to the real Marie Duplessis.  Then I began to wonder who Marie Duplessis the person was, not just the character writers, painters and musicians have made her into over the decades.

Although Duplessis only lived to the age of 23, Julie Kavanagh was able to give us a very in-depth, detailed look at her life.  Not only that, she provided context for Marie’s rise from simple but pretty farm girl to one of the most sought-after courtesans in Paris’ demimonde.  She was a complex woman who could be both unbelievably selfish and petty but at the same time, caring and genuinely kind to the people around her.  Money ran through her hands like water to feed her wardrobe and her general lifestyle but at the same time was known to give generously to charities and was very religious in her later years.  If she were a mere character in a novel she’d probably be called unbelievable and contradictory, but Kavanagh’s highlighting of her contradictions really humanized Marie for me.  She became a living, breathing person instead of this distant legend.

As it says in the blurb, from a very young age Marie was likely sexually abused and when she fled from the countryside she had no illusions about what a wonderful place 1840s Paris was for lower class women.  She clawed her way up the unofficial courtesan hierarchy, first being a grisette (a lover to somewhat poor university students) and then a lorette when she found an older, wealthier patron.  And then, finally when the simple Alphonsine Plessis caught the eye of a young duke, she was transformed into Marie Duplessis, the irresistible courtesan.  It was not an easy path and Kavanagh talks about her struggles in fairly stark language that brings home the idea that while being a courtesan could be glamorous at times, there were many times it was not.

What I especially liked about The Girl Who Loved Camellias was the postscript that detailed the sale of Marie’s estate to pay off her debts and the introduction where Marie’s cultural impact is discussed.  Of course, most famously there’s the book The Lady of the Camellias and Verdi’s opera La Traviata but there have also been films and even ballets about her life.  Even though few people today actually know her name, Marie Duplessis lives on in the beautiful works of art she inspired.

My favourite thing about this biography is that while Julie Kavanagh goes into detail, she does not get encumbered by it as so many biographers do.  While she includes the text from some letters pertaining to Marie’s life, she does not get bogged down in detailing Marie’s correspondence.  Instead, she includes short quotes where it’s relevant (which seems like common sense but sadly all too few biographers do this, preferring to include every single scrap of correspondence they can find pertaining to their subject).  She gives historical context to Marie’s life but again she doesn’t get too bogged down in irrelevant details.  Basically, she tells a detailed but interesting story about a woman who packed quite a lot of living into just twenty three years.

If you’re looking for an interesting biography that’s a fairly fast read, I highly recommend The Girl Who Loved Camellias.  It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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