In 1847, Marie Duplessis died of consumption in Paris at only 23 years of age, becoming one of the most famous of the thousands of young people killed by the disease. The beautiful courtesan was immortalised as the protagonist of first a novel, then a play and finally the opera La Traviata.
Marie Duplessis owed her immortality to Alexandre Dumas (1824–1895), the bastard son of the famous writer by the same name. He was one of countless men enamoured by Marie.
It was no wonder Dumas was attracted to Marie. A portrait remains as a testament to her striking, refined beauty.
Dumas described her as follows: ”Set, in an oval of indescribable grace, two black eyes, surmounted by eyebrows of so pure a curve that it seemed as if painted; veil these eyes with lovely lashes, which, when drooped, cast their shadow on the rosy hue of the cheeks; trace a delicate, straight nose, the nostrils a little open, in an ardent aspiration toward the life of the senses; design a regular mouth, with lips parted graciously over teeth as white as milk; colour the skin with the down of a peach that no hand has touched, and you will have the general aspect of that charming countenance.”
Marie must have been extraordinarily alluring, as her looks enabled her to rise from extreme poverty to become one of Parisian society’s favourite courtesans. Having started off as a seamstress, she found a new life as the lover of a restaurateur. Marie became wealthier and increasingly popular, even getting involved with the son of a duke. The duke, however, feared that Marie’s bad reputation would tarnish the family honour. He commanded her to leave his son, which she promptly did. There was never any shortage of men around Marie, who was also acquainted with the famous composer Franz Liszt.
Alexandre Dumas spent a summer in the countryside with Marie. The relationship didn’t last, and Marie continued her life as a courtesan. She eventually married a count, but the two were soon divorced. Shortly after, weakened by her illness, Marie died. The debtors arrived to sell her possessions, and she appeared to have shared the fate of many others like her – a short life that had left no mark on the world.
I must be free to do as I please, without giving you the slightest details what I do.
One year after her death, Marie re-emerged as Marguerite, the main character of La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias). The novel by the 24-year-old Alexandre Dumas was a work of fiction, but it was very clearly inspired by Marie’s life.
The novel is about the relationship between Marguerite and Armand. Marguerite is a demimonde who wants to be in charge of her own life. At the beginning of their relationship, she says to him:
”But I forewarn you I must be free to do as I please, without giving you the slightest details what I do. I have long wished for a young lover, who should be young and not self-willed, loving without distrust, loved without claiming the right to it.”
The relationship comes to an end, but unlike in La Traviata, the opera based on the novel, Marguerite dies alone. Armand only discovers her final fate from letters sent by her friend, which reveal that she longed for him until her last day: ”Every time the door opens her eyes brighten, and she thinks you are going to come in.”
Marie appeared to have shared the fate of many others like her – a short life that had left no mark on the world.
The sad and romantic story of La Dame aux Camélias was already well received as a novel, but it became a major success after Dumas adapted it for the stage a few years later. Made into several films, the tragedy has maintained its global appeal. Since 1907, it has been filmed an impressive 29 times around the world, should opera films be included. The ballet version charmed the audience of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet in 2017. In winter 2017–18, the story of the Lady of the Camellias is told in Giuseppe Verdi’s stunningly beautiful opera.
Text JUHANI KOIVISTO
La Traviata 10.12.2021–20.1.2022