Harper on Weis (2015)


Weis, René. The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis. Oxford UP, 2015, pp. 416 + 38 b&w illustrations, ISBN 9780198708544

Mary Harper, Princeton University

With his study The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis René Weis offers us a meticulously researched biography of the woman who inspired the art of Alexandre Dumas and Giuseppe Verdi, a densely layered account of demi-mondain Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, and an ode to the cultural, literary, and musical legends Duplessis left as her legacy. Weis’s exhaustive research garners a rich trove of archival, documentary, literary, and visual materials—including rare photographs of nineteenth-century Paris, portraits, and lithographs—that illustrate and sustain the narrative through its twenty-three chapters, concluding with an extensive bibliography, footnotes, “bibliographical note” on sources, and two schematics (cast of characters; overview of DuPlessis’s life). Weis sets out to unravel the interwoven strands of life and legend of the woman who would become “Marie DuPlessis,” beginning with her impoverished, violent, and abused childhood as Alphonsine Plessis (b. 1824), charting her extraordinary ascent under the sexual and social patronage of the Parisian male elite she serviced, to her reign over Paris in the mid-1840s as a “countess with a coat of arms,” “demi-monde royalty,” “the uncontested queen of courtesans.” But it is with her death from consumption in 1847 at the age of twenty-three that DuPlessis underwent the aesthetic transformation that would earn her the tumultuous adulation of le tout-Paris with La Dame aux Camélias by Dumas fils (novel 1848, and stage version 1852), her final “apotheosis” in Verdi’s La Traviata (1853), and the enthusiastic admiration of her biographer.

If Weis devotes the later chapters of his study to the legendary “afterlives” of his subject, it is also there, in his opera-lover’s lyrical account of the courtesan’s idealization into Verdi’s Violetta, that he finds the “poignant charge” shaping his entire narrative quest for the “real” Marie DuPlessis: “a term of moral obloquy [la traviata] has been transfigured into intoxicating beauty and pathos verging on ecstasy” (305). He argues that, retrospectively, “we inevitably ‘hear’ her story through its heart-rending music” (180), a thesis reflected in the subtitle to his study that also underscores the considerable challenge of this biographical project—to disentangle the “real” from the “artful” in “memory and myth,” to uncover the full historical scope of a young woman’s highly mythologized life lived in the depths of rural poverty, in the words and images of men, and in the full glare of the public gaze. To accomplish this goal, Weis meticulously sifts through and evaluates the documented and undocumented shreds of evidence collected by the numerous other biographers of DuPlessis, as well as the anecdotes, gossip and commentary of memoirists, diarists, and journalists of the period, leaving no clue, name, date, or rumor unexamined, and highlighting key discoveries of his own as he narrates his quest for answers (the identity of her “Pygmalion” lover; the fate of her baby; the mystery author of a crucial eye-witness memoir; a new letter by DuPlessis; the significant differences of the first edition of La Dame aux Camélias).

Beyond the intricate layering of biographical detail, this study offers us valuable insights into the particular vulnerabilities of women in nineteenth-century rural France, the world of predatory sex, the daily life and rituals of a courtesan in 1840s Paris just before the ascent of such well-documented “grande horizontales” of the Second Empire as Cora Pearl, La Païva, and La Présidente. While Weis draws a sharp distinction between the luxurious material conditions of these demi-mondaines and the shadow world of gritty street prostitution (330), Luc Sante (The Other Paris, 2015) also reminds us of the commonalities in the traffic of women, as Alphonsine Plessis’s own early story of rape and abuse illustrates, the easy fall from one category in the sex trade to another, and the destabilizing “cross-class affiliations built into a system” (117) that was viewed as “an essential part of the city’s fabric, a place apart…” (111). For scholars of nineteenth-century Paris more broadly, Weis’s microhistory reveals a fascinating material world in the social scene of horse races, the power brokers of the Jockey Club or “rake’s headquarters” (79) for which Marie Duplessis became a sort of “mascot”; her library and favorite reading materials with marginal notes (Manon Lescaut); the contents of her lavish apartment dramatized in Weis’s account of the auction of her effects; the funeral procession and pilgrimages to her tomb in Montmartre.  

The challenge of Weis’s study remains the knotty and provocative question of the “real” raised by his title (without quotation marks). This is, of course, the dilemma faced by any biographer, but more particularly so by the biographer of a woman whose life was so complex, unstable, and spectacularly “reborn in art” (271), whose improbable story lent itself so readily to extravagant flights of male imagination and desire, and whose own voice is heard only in a few remaining, brief letters to her lovers. Weis is highly conscious of the problem of reliability in his sources, cross-checking the claims of the most insightful chronicler and friend of DuPlessis, Romain Vienne, against those of others, while he carefully offers decodings of the concealed identities and transposed events of Dumas’s memoir-novel. Yet Weis also points to Dumas’s “artful conflation of fact and fiction” (265), the intertextual “contamination” of “eye witness” accounts of DuPlessis by readings of Dumas’ fiction (73), and the tendency of narrators to conflate events and behavior around the stereotypes of courtesan legend, to fill in the narrative gaps. As Virginia Rounding has argued (Grandes Horizontales, 2003), Marie DuPlessis was also a skillful agent in her own self-creation, manipulating those with whom she dealt, spinning her own fictions and personae, while ultimately remaining “elusive” and “enigmatic” (73). The representation of such a life provokes us to consider not only the art it inspired in others but also the art of its own construction.