A Famous Beauty Is Uncovered in ‘The Real Traviata’

Opera aficcionado Rene Weis pulls back the curtain on one of the stage's most enduring characters, Marie Duplessis.

“For me to die so young, and to have suffered so much!”

— Verdi, La Traviata

Even those unfamiliar with19th century French courtesan Marie Duplessis, or the world-famous opera she inspired, La Traviata, are likely familiar with her story. Having first been transcribed into the famous french novel, La Dame Aux Camelias by her ex-lover Alexandre Dumas fils, Marie Duplessis’ life has since been the inspiration for innumerable theatrical productions and works of art, including the films Pretty Woman and Moulin Rouge. Across generations, these works have continued to tell, in some iteration or another, her timeless story: that of a young prostitute who gradually worked her way to become the most desirable woman in France, and a celebrity among the upper class.

In his book, The Real Traviata, UCL Professor of English Rene Weis compiles the first comprehensive history of the woman behind the myth: her immense struggles as a young girl, her rise to fame and fortune among the French aristocracy, and her ultimate struggle with tuberculosis, resulting in her untimely death at age 23. In profiling Duplessis, Weis tells the rags-to-riches tale of “The Lady of the Camellias”, and her immense presence and influence even after her death.

Given our current day and age of Jennifer Lawrences, Taylor Swifts, and Sam Smiths, the story of Marie Duplessis might resonate as one of the earliest examples of the young celebrity: and both the glamour and tragedy that accompanies it. Without modern media, or many opportunities as the daughter of a poor family, however, Duplessis’ story involved the exploitative, old-fashioned way of getting around in the rigid world of men: as an escort. Thrown into prostitution even as a desperate young teen, Duplessis’ story is the tragic, age-old story of sexual servitude. Her first client, Weis explains, was an old shoemaker in her hometown, arranged by her own father.

Tragically, she learnt precociously that sex could be traded for money before she knew about her body’s most basic biology. She had no mother to tell her the facts of life. On the very day she reached puberty she resided in the house of the first person to ever pay her for sex. She was 13 months and 8 years old.

The opening chapters of Weis’ book are a disturbingly illustrative look at lost innocence through adolescent prostitution, a shockingly common practice in early 19th century France, and emphasize the tragic loss of bodily comfort and autonomy in the midst of such trauma. A particularly troubling section even details Duplessis’ rape at the hands of her own abusive father, from whom she later escaped.

Given her introduction to sex so tragically early, and under such appalling circumstances, it’s no surprise that sex defined Duplessis’ life. Over time she quickly learned how to use it to her advantage, learning the ins and outs of how to please men, if you will, and influencing and seducing clients from all walks of life. Gradually, she climbed a ladder of influence and prestige, accompanied by men young and old, who would take turns in financially supporting her so long as they had access to her services.

Weis’ overview of the aristocratic and upper class societies of Europe, particularly France, places Duplessis within a picaresque tale of supposedly powerful men whose true insecurities and desperation present themselves behind closed doors. These include a timid Prince to whom she was briefly married, and a 73-year-old man who pleaded her company and service because she reminded him of his deceased daughter. Weis’ descriptions effectively illustrate the thinly constructed barriers that separated the social classes, as the poor-born Duplessis is easily able to navigate the world of the upper class, simply with the proper manners, knowledge and attire. Often, Weis emphasizes, she was able to impress and charm the very people who sought to condemn her.

Over the course of the book, Weis shows the grand reach of Duplessis’ influence, directly or indirectly, toward some of French history’s most famous artistic figures, including Alexandre Dumas Sr. and Jr. (both of whom, it seems, courted her), Victor Hugo of Les Miserables fame, and, ultimately La Traviata composer Giuseppe Verdi himself. Ultimately, however, as is the case with many successful, powerful women even to this day, there were always those seeking to tear her down. In a statement that rings true even into our modern age of public shaming in the media, Weis quotes Duplessis’ ultimate insecurity of her origins as an escort, no matter how mannered or charming she came across to the world around her.

I realized that my former misdeeds condemned me irrevocably, and that a woman who has once fallen can never rise again, not matter how sincere her repentance.

Duplessis’ lament ultimately highlights the greater tragedy of Duplessis as a celebrity: no matter her intellect or capability, she was ultimately most valued by her ability to please the men who set the rules of decency. Even her courters, whose fascination and idolization of her created the myth surrounding her, demonstrate their superficiality in being swayed by her beauty and sexuality, and seemingly little else. Aside from Dumas fils, who reportedly encouraged her love of literature and theater, few seemed to take interest in anything but her appearance. The book features many eulogies of Duplessis in the books by men who admired her from afar, most coming across as particularly shallow, such as one by novelist and poet Theophile Gautier:

They will have admired those chaste, oval features, her gorgeous dark eyes shadowed by long lashes, the purest arching eyebrows… her aristocratic shape that marked her out as a duchess for those who did not know her. [why had none thought of] spreading a handful of gold in front of a sculptor, and commissioning him to eternalize, in marble of Carrara or Paros, the beauty that was the glory and undoing of Marie Duplessis. That way at least her life would have served a purpose.

In writing a book detailing the life of Duplessis, who has been immortalized as a figure of beauty ala Helen of Troy, Weis does some historical justice in detailing the woman behind her own skin: an intellectual and clever, if materialistic, woman with theatrical interests and aspirations, as opposed to simply timeless eye-candy.

To those who knew her best and were closes to her, such as the younger Dumas who immortalized her, she wasn’t simply a reflection of beauty, but an intoxicating presence. One especially effective part of Weis’ book is in showing how much Duplessis’ story continues even after her death. Having detailed Duplessis’ demise from consumption by Chapter 17, Weis’ remaining six chapters are a fascinating account of Duplessis’ almost ghostly influence and presence even after she’s buried. From her effect on her lovers and closest friends and associates, to her spiritual resurrection as an immortal figure of the theater in La Traviata‘s Marguerite (an occasion, Weis speculates, must have been an especially haunting moment to those who knew her) Duplessis rose even above the grave.

While providing a heavily-researched and factual account of Duplessis’ life and influence, Weis’ writing unfortunately never reaches the level of engaging narrative, and The Real Traviata often reads more like a textbook than a story, making many sections more of a chore than a pleasure to get through. The language used is from time to time excessively academic (i.e., discussing how Duplessis and a lover “enjoyed each other sexually” as opposed to “had sex” or even “made love”), and therefore alienating. Additionally, a discussion of a person either directly or indirectly involved in Duplessis’ life story occasionally diverges into a three or four page tangent of said person’s life, which can come across as jarring despite the history lesson provided.

Still, The Real Traviata is an informative and enlightening, if not always thrilling, read, and serves a common good in profiling the person behind a famous beauty. At the same time, it reminds readers of the not-so-old tale of a woman getting by in the world of men by knowing how to please them. In informing the reader of Duplessis’ struggles and accomplishments, her thoughts and feelings, Weis creates a historical reminder of skin-deep idolization, and provides the real woman so many seemed to overlook in a world obsessed by women’s appearance.

In becoming “La Traviata”, Marie Duplessis may have been mythologized as “the woman led astray”, but her story reminds us she is hardly the first person to blame.

RATING 6 / 10