The story has captured many hearts and minds for over a hundred years, and it has almost become a part of our collective consciousness. It’s La Dame aux Camelias, or Camille, by Alexandre Dumas fils, which chronicles the doomed love affair between a young Frenchman, Armand Duval, and a dying courtesan, Marguerite Gautier. The novel has inspired a play, Verdi’s opera La Traviata, a ballet, and film adaptations including the well-remembered 1936 version with Greta Garbo.
Alphonsine Plessis was born on January 15, 1824, in a village in Normandy, and her family situation was hardly more than ideal. Her father, Marin Plessis, the illegitimate son of a priest and a prostitute, was a cruel man who was brutal to his wife, until she could no longer abide it and left her husband to work elsewhere as a maid, eventually hoping to send for them. Unfortunately, she died when Alphonsine was six years old. Alphonsine’s older sister was sent to live with an uncle, and Alphonsine was sent to live and work on the farm of her mother’s cousin, where, according to biographer Romain Vienne, she was abused by farm workers starting at the age of eleven.
Alphonsine was sent back to her father, who had her apprenticed as a laundress, an occupation which involved grueling work for very little money. It was also during this time that her father left her–maybe even sold her–to an elderly bachelor. She escaped after a few weeks and found work as a maid, but soon her father came for her but soon her father came for her again and she was forced to move around with him.He eventually left her with some other cousins in Paris, where she found work as a dressmaker’s apprentice. She was fifteen years old by now. French writer Nestor Roqueplan recalled his encounter with her at about this time; she was longingly staring at the fried potatoes sold in the street while it seemed she must content herself with an apple. Roqueplan immediately felt pity for her and bought her some of the fried potatoes, which she devoured. This was to signal the beginning of change in Alphonsine’s life.
One Sunday, on an afternoon trip with some friends to Saint Cloud, Marie met and later took up with a restauranteur named Monsieur Nollet. Virginia Rounding writes:
Quite who seduced whom, who exploited whom, is debatable. Alphonsine…was an easy prey for a man with a certain sophistication on the lookout for a young and pretty mistress, while she was quick to realize that, if she played her cards right, Nollet was in a position to offer her a way out of a life of drudgery and relative poverty…Within a month Monsieur Nollet had installed Alphonsine in a small apartment in the rue l’Arcade and given her three thousand francs for her initial needs.
Soon Alphonsine began to crave more than what Nollet could give her, and she began to understand that she could make a life for herself based on her looks and what she could offer to men. Nollet soon was out of the picture as she took up with more lovers who would be able to support her and her emerging desire for finer things and luxuries. A young man by the name of Agenor de Guiche fell for Alphonsine, and wishing for more than just a sexual relationship, he arranged for her to be educated. Alphonsine became an accomplished dancer and piano player and an avid reader and writer. When Roqueplan saw her again, he recalled:
[H]anging on to [Agenor’s] arm was a charming person, elegantly dressed, who was none other than my greedy girl from the Pont Neuf, and whom he was exhibiting with an inventor’s satisfaction.
It was at about this time that she changed her name to Marie Duplessis. She began appearing at Paris’s local hot spots, like the Comedie Francaise and the Maison D’Or. She was known to be “deliciously pretty” and her “large black eyes, with their long lashes [were] penetrating, and the softness of her glances gave rise to dream.” At one moment she would live life to its fullest, but at the next she could be seized by sudden bouts of sadness. She was known to tell harmless little white lies, and when asked by a friend why she did this, she replied, “Lying whitens the teeth.” Surely this was a habit left over from her horrible childhood, one that she carried with her for the rest of her life. Despite her shortcomings, she was known to be charitable, and used her earnings to help women in need.
In addition to Agenor, she had many other lovers who helped to pay the bills accrued from her luxurious lifestyle. They included Edouard de Perrigaux, who left Alice Ozy to take up with her and who went so far as to rent a house in the country for her so that they could be an exclusive couple; Roger de Beauvoir; Count Gustav Ernst von Stackelberg, an elderly gentleman who claimed that Marie resembled his dead daughter and who wished to act as her protector; Franz Liszt, who stated in a letter that he was “strangely attracted to this delightful creature;” and Dumas fils himself, who didn’t have the means to support Marie and became her amant de coeur.
Dumas fils met Marie in 1844, and their affair lasted for a little over a year. As much as he adored Marie, Dumas couldn’t handle not being the only man in Marie’s life and only being able to see her when she wasn’t with one of her other lovers. He began to distance himself from Marie, until she finally sent him a letter reading the following:
[W]hy haven’t you told me how you are and why don’t you write frankly to me? I think you should treat me like a friend. So I hope for a word from you and I kiss you fondly like a mistress or like a friend, whichever you prefer. In any case I will always be devoted to you.
Dumas returned her letter with the following:
I am neither rich enough to love you nor poor enough to be loved as you would like. So let us both forget–you, a name which must mean hardly anything to you–me a happiness which has become impossible to bear. There is no point in telling you how sad I am–for you already know how much I love you. So farewell–you have too great a heart not to understand the reason for my letter and too good a nature not to forgive me for it. A thousand memories.
In 1846, Edouard de Perrigaux married Marie in England, though the marriage would not be recognized in France. By this time she was extremely ill with tuberculosis, and she began to live as though she were trying to outrace death. She gambled excessively, spent even more money than usual, and left excessive debts behind her. Eventually, death did catch up with her, and she succumbed to her illness on February 3, 1847.
Dumas fils immortalized Marie in the character of Marguerite Gautier, yet he made Marguerite into the woman he wanted Marie to be. She was a woman who had fallen through the cracks and who embraced the gay life of the courtesan; though she was not virtuous, she was a good, kind woman who deserved to be loved and deserved a man who was worthy of her love. One could almost say that Dumas fils may have contributed to the creation of the whore with a heart of gold trope with the character of Marguerite Gautier.
Yet in romanticizing Marie to such an extent through the character of Marguerite, Dumas fails to point out that Marie was just as much a human being as anyone else. She was a young woman who had suffered through a horrific childhood of abuse and exploitation, but at the same time, the only way she was able to escape it was through becoming a kept woman. In time, she did learn that as a courtesan, she would be able to pick and choose her lovers and her protectors, yet she was still dependent on their favors and their financial support to maintain her lifestyle. As a courtesan, she had to project a certain image and a certain personality, which explains much of her spending. For all of this, though, there must have been times when she felt terribly lonely and wished that her life could have been different. Her circumstances were really beyond her control; life had dealt her a bad hand, and she was really making the best of it within the restrictions of society at that time.
“It’s not me who is dancing too fast,” Marie once said. “It’s the violins that play too slowly.” Sadly, it was true for her, as she tried to do so much living on her own terms in such a short span of time. I don’t think that she even dreamed that she would be immortalized as Marguerite Gautier and become one of the most well-known tragic heroines in literature. And despite the problematic portrayal of Marie as Marguerite, I think she would be touched to know that she has come to mean so much to so many audiences.
Source: Les Grandes Horiztonales: The Lives and Legends of Four Nineteenth-Century Courtesans by Virginia Rounding.