Camille: The Lady of the Camellias

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9780451529206: Camille: The Lady of the Camellias

Marguerite Gautier is the most beautiful, brazen—and expensive—courtesan in all of Paris. Despite being ill with consumption, she lives a glittering, moneyed life of nonstop parties and aristocratic balls and savors every day as if it were her last.

Into her life comes Armand Duval. Young, handsome, and recklessly headstrong, he is hopelessly in love with Marguerite, but not nearly rich enough. Yet Armand is Marguerite’s first true love, and against her better judgment, she throws away her upper-class lifestyle for him. But as intense as their love for each other is, it challenges a reality that cannot be denied....

This Signet Classics version is the only available paperback edition of Camille, a story as old as time and as timeless as love itself.

Translated by Sir Edmond Gosse, with an Introduction by Toril Moi

Includes Photos

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About the Author:

Alexandre Dumas fils (1824–95) was the illegitimate son of a Belgian seamstress and the famed novelist Alexandre Dumas. He was educated in several Parisian private schools and the Collège Bourbon. The elder Dumas acknowledged him as his natural son and for some time made him his constant companion. In 1847, the younger Dumas published his first novel, Adventures of Four Women and a Parrot, followed a year later by Camille (The Lady of the Camellias), and ten other novels over the next decade. Following the great success of the dramatic version of Camille, Dumas was gradually drawn away from the novel to the stage. He was elected to the French Academy in 1874 and continued to produce a long line of successful plays until his death.

Toril Moi is James B. Duke Professor of Literature and Romance Studies at Duke University. Widely known for her work on feminist theory, she is the author of Sexual/Textual Politics; What Is a Woman?; and Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. The editor of The Kristeva Reader and French Feminist Thought, she recently published a book on Henrik Ibsen.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

The germ of The Lady of the Camellias was a long, impassioned poem by the twenty-three-year-old Alexandre Dumas fils. In 1847, after traveling in Spain and North Africa, Dumas had returned to Paris in time to see posters displayed throughout the city for a sale of great interest to him. For four days, from Wednesday, February 24, to Saturday, February 27, the entire contents of 11 boulevard de la Madeleine were to be auctioned—inlaid rosewood antiques, Sèvres vases and Saxe porcelain, bronze figurines, paintings, drawings, a library of French classics, a wardrobe of cashmere, ball gowns, and furs, as well as caskets of exquisite jewels. These were the possessions of Marie Duplessis, the famous young courtesan, who had died of tuberculosis on February 3. She, too, was twenty-three, and had been Dumas’s mistress eighteen months earlier.

At the public preview on February 23, it seemed that all Paris had crammed into Duplessis’s apartment, while carriages arriving from the grand faubourgs blocked the boulevard in front of the house. “Every different world was there,” reported Théophile Gautier. “The best and the worst elbowed each other in the palace of this deceased queen.” When Dumas joined the throng, he watched well-known courtesans being eyed by grandes dames, who were using the sale as a pretext to study these elegant women with whom they would never otherwise have allowed themselves to mingle. As he moved through familiar rooms still haunted by Duplessis’s presence, he observed the prurience of people fingering her belongings and regarding every item as a trophy of prostitution. He learned that Duplessis had died in misery, the bailiffs having seized almost everything except her bed, and that night he poured his memories and impressions into an elegy he called “MD.” Like all the verses collected in his book of juvenilia, Sins of Youth, it is a poor imitation of the French romantics and shows why Dumas fils had no success as a poet. And yet the eye for detail that characterizes his best writing is there, and so is his instinct for pity.

Visiting his father the following day, Dumas broke the news of Duplessis’s death, reminding him that she was the girl who had once taken Dumas père by surprise by giving him a passionate kiss in a box of the Théâtre-Français. He talked about the poem he had written, and how going back to the apartment with all its associations had made him realize what a wonderful book could be made from her life and suffering.

“Well then,” said Dumas père, “you should do it.”

Since the publication of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas père, an irrepressible life force, had become a national treasure, while his son, despite the advantage of his name, was struggling to emerge from his father’s immense shadow. Both had the same strapping physique, fine mustache, and features inherited from their ancestor, a Haitian slave girl—dark, crinkly hair, velvety brown eyes, and a creole tint to their skin. Dumas fils had turned into a typical Parisien flâneur and dandy, squandering his money on what today would be called designer clothes. He describes the look in his novella Diane de Lys: “Cane from Verdier, tie-pin from Janinch, watch and chain from Maclé, shirt, cravat and gloves from Boivin, suits from Staub or d’Humann.” His debts in his early twenties amounted to fifty thousand francs, and he was always borrowing from his father, and relying on him to pull strings. Jovial and famously generous, Dumas père did his best to oblige, badgering his publishers to accept his son’s “magnificent volume of poetry” by offering to write the preface. He urged his son to become his partner and collaborator, claiming this could bring him forty to fifty thousand francs a year, but Dumas fils was determined to forge his own writing career. “I was athirst for fame,” he once confessed. Sins of Youth, published later the year of Duplessis’s death, sold only fourteen copies, and Adventures of Four Women and a Parrot, a high-spirited but unreadably long and rambling novel, made no impact either.

Father and son were constant companions, both relishing the louche pleasures of bohemian Paris and the liberties offered by society women prepared to compromise their respectability for a handsome young poet or illustrious novelist. Dumas père’s boyish exuberance made up for their difference in age, and his enjoyment of his son’s biting wit was matched by Dumas fils’s admiration of his father’s erudition and renown. This bond, though, was recent. For the first seven years of his childhood, Dumas fils’s only family had been his mother, a dressmaker, who gave birth to him at the age of thirty. A clerk without a cent, Dumas père could hardly support himself, let alone a mistress and a child, but he installed them both in a little apartment in Passy, and appeared from time to time. In 1831, following the success of his first play, Dumas père took responsibility for both his son and an illegitimate daughter from an earlier relationship. He wanted Alexandre to have the best possible education, and sent him to boarding school when he was just seven, and then to the Pension Saint-Victor, a daunting institution whose alumni included several famous men of letters. It was there that Dumas fils was forced to endure six years of humiliation and victimization. His schoolfellows, mostly the sons of rich, aristocratic families, taunted him for being a bastard, covered his exercise books with obscene drawings of his “mother,” and brought him close to nervous collapse. Privately he scorned these boys as ridiculous versions of their fathers, destined for the same tedious, bureaucratic careers. But the experience marked him for life, and he re-created every harrowing detail in his powerful late novel L’Affaire Clemenceau. He wondered what the source could be of this compulsion to persecute, and whether his Caribbean blood had made him more sensitive to cruelty by carrying memories of tortures inflicted on men of a different color. These school years were the starting point for Dumas fils’s relentless crusades against social prejudice and injustice. “His great father, le père prodigue, had been all for self,” said the English writer Edmund Gosse. “Alexandre would be all for others.”

By May 1847, renting a room in an inn near his father’s house in Saint Germain-en-Laye, Dumas fils had started work on the novel he was modeling on Marie Duplessis. The auction had given him his opening, and he began tinkering with facts, bringing the date forward to the middle of March and changing the address from boulevard de la Madeleine to 9 rue d’Antin (Duplessis had recently moved from No. 22). Writing in the first person, the narrator who makes his way through the crowded rooms is not the anguished Alexandre of “MD” but an urbane connoisseur appraising the superb belongings of the woman whose identity he has discovered to be that of the courtesan Marguerite Gautier. And yet he is recognizably Dumas the moralist, prepared to interrupt the story in order to deliver a lecture. The boudoir’s gold and silver bottles bearing the initials and coronets of Marguerite’s various lovers prompt a digression about a middle-aged prostitute who has corrupted her own daughter and arranged the abortion that leads to her death. Dumas then recalls the arrest he saw of a weeping girl clasping her baby, a scene that, like many others he had witnessed, overwhelmed him with pity, and led to what he called his “boundless compassion” for fallen women.

Indulgence toward courtesans in poetry and fiction was nothing new. It was a legacy of romanticism, and a favorite subject of his father’s contemporaries Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and Alfred de Musset, all of whom Dumas fils knew. Drawing on this tradition, he made Marguerite Gautier a descendant of Hugo’s redeemed courtesan Marion Delorme, who gives up her wealthy protectors for an impoverished young man. From an earlier literary precedent, the eighteenth-century classic Manon Lescaut, he borrowed his plot device, beginning with the end of the story and having the narrator learn its details from the lovesick hero. Unlike Dumas père, a man George Sand described as “carrying within himself a world of incidents, heroes, traitors, magicians, and adventures,” Dumas fils was no inventor. To be successful, and to make a work his own, he needed to describe, clearly and poignantly, what he had seen. The most vibrant parts of The Lady of the Camellias are the observations, scenes, and conversations he simply reported—something his father understood. “I find my subjects in my dreams,” Dumas père wrote, “my son takes his from real life. I work with my eyes shut, he with his open. I draw, he photographs.”

On returning to Paris in 1844 after a spell of living in Marseille, Dumas fils often saw and admired a lovely girl he knew to be Marie Duplessis. In “À Propos de la Dame aux Camélias,” his 1868 preface to the novel, he recalls:

She was tall, very thin, with black hair and a pink and white complexion. Her head was small; she had long enameled eyes, like a Japanese woman’s, but they were sparkling and alert. Her lips were redder than cherries, her teeth were the prettiest in the world; she looked like a little figurine made of Dresden china.

He had noticed her at the fashionable cafés and restaurants of the boulevard des Italiens; in her little blue horse-drawn carriage heading for the bois de Boulogne; at first nights at the theater or opera, where she sat with her signature bouquet of camellias, box of sweets, and opera glasses resting on the velvet ledge. There was nothing overtly seductive about her appearance; on the contrary, her favorite accessory was a cashmere shawl, which discreetly covered her shoulders and décolletage. One night at the Variétés theater, Dumas fils again caught sight of Duplessis sitting in her box, as he describes in notes he wrote as background for the actors in his play:

She was alone there, or rather, she was the only person one could see . . . exchanging smiles and glances with three or four of our neighbours, leaning back, from time to time, to chat with an invisible occupant, who was no other than the aged Russian Count S—. Marie Duplessis was making signs to a fat woman with a freckled face and a flashy costume who was in one of the boxes of the higher tier opposite to her. This good lady, sitting beside a pale young woman who seemed restless and ill at ease, and whom she had presumably undertaken to “launch” in the world of gallantry, was a certain Clemence Pr-t, a milliner, whose establishment was in an apartment in the boulevard de la Madeleine, in the house adjoining that in which Marie Duplessis occupied the mezzanine floor.

In the stalls beside Dumas fils was his friend Eugène Déjazet, the son of the great actress Virginie Déjazet, and a fellow young roué. Well acquainted with the entremetteuse Clémence Prat, Déjazet volunteered to ask Prat to arrange a meeting with Duplessis. The elderly aristocrat in the box was Count Gustav von Stackelberg, a retired diplomat and Duplessis’s protector, who left the theater with her before the performance was over. The two young men then joined Prat and persuaded her to take them to boulevard de la Madeleine. The novel continues to chronicle exactly what happened next. They have dinner with Duplessis, who drinks too much champagne and becomes more raucous as the night wears on, distressing Dumas fils with bawdy language that sullies his idealistic image of her. She has been coughing incessantly, and when seized by a particularly violent fit, gets up from the table and runs into her dressing room. “Of those who were at supper I was the only one to be concerned,” Dumas fils recalled in his notes to the actors. His immediate impulse was to follow her. In a candlelit room he saw Duplessis lying deathly pale on a chaise longue, struggling to catch her breath. Beside her was a silver bowl she was using as a spittoon, its water marbled with blood. Their subsequent conversation is reproduced in the novel, almost word for word.

Duplessis was touched to see tears in the eyes of this intense young man as he sat beside her and kissed her hand; such tenderness and concern for her health was something her self-regarding suitors had rarely shown. She wanted to keep him in her life as a platonic friend, the relationship a courtesan values more than any other. But “Adet,” as she called him (the French pronunciation of his initials), was already smitten, and craved the role of amant de coeur, which translates literally as “lover of the heart.” As he was too young, too poor, and too possessive to be able to share her, their affair did not last long. Dumas fils claimed it had begun in September 1844 and ended with the letter he wrote at midnight on August 30, 1845, the dates every biographer and Dumas scholar have taken as fact. However, the evidence of a simple rental bill and the appearance of a new young lover make it highly unlikely that they were together for a year. If this attempt to extend the relationship is apocryphal, it is also perfectly understandable, if only as an admission of the profound influence Duplessis had on Dumas fils’s career. “It’s to her that I owe my first success.”

Written in less than a month, The Lady of the Camellias was published by the reputable firm of Cadot in 1848. According to Alfred Vandam, an English journalist living in Paris, its frankness and topicality made it the talk of the town. “It was in everyone’s hands, and the press kept whetting the curiosity of those who had not read it with personal anecdotes of the heroine.” The theater critic Jules Janin, who would write a memoir of Duplessis as a preface to the 1851 edition, was astonished at how much of her life was in it. “People were anxious to know the name of the heroine, her position in society, how much money she had left, the ornaments she had worn, and who her lovers had been. The public, who desire to know everything, and who in the end do know everything, gradually learned all those details, and having read the book, wished to read it again; it naturally came to pass that, the truth being known, the interest of the story was enhanced.” The reason the novel was reprinted only once by Cadot was that its publication had coincided with a year of revolution in Paris. Bloody February had brought barricades into the streets, resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy, and left the country in economic crisis. Rioting had doomed popular entertainment, and Dumas père’s Théâtre Historique, which Dumas fils hoped would mount his stage adaptation of the story, had gone bankrupt by 1849. Pursued by creditors, Dumas père, now bankrupt himself, fled to Brussels. The son went back to being a jobbi...

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Descrizione libro Penguin Publishing Group, United States, 2004. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Marguerite Gautier is the most beautiful, brazen--and expensive--courtesan in all of Paris. Despite being ill with consumption, she lives a glittering, moneyed life of nonstop parties and aristocratic balls and savors every day as if it were her last. Into her life comes Armand Duval. Young, handsome, and recklessly headstrong, he is hopelessly in love with Marguerite, but not nearly rich enough. Yet Armand is Marguerite s first true love, and against her better judgment, she throws away her upper-class lifestyle for him. But as intense as their love for each other is, it challenges a reality that cannot be denied. This Signet Classics version is the only available paperback edition of Camille, a story as old as time and as timeless as love itself. Translated by Sir Edmond Gosse, with an Introduction by Toril Moi Includes Photos. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780451529206

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Descrizione libro Penguin Publishing Group, United States, 2004. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Marguerite Gautier is the most beautiful, brazen--and expensive--courtesan in all of Paris. Despite being ill with consumption, she lives a glittering, moneyed life of nonstop parties and aristocratic balls and savors every day as if it were her last. Into her life comes Armand Duval. Young, handsome, and recklessly headstrong, he is hopelessly in love with Marguerite, but not nearly rich enough. Yet Armand is Marguerite s first true love, and against her better judgment, she throws away her upper-class lifestyle for him. But as intense as their love for each other is, it challenges a reality that cannot be denied. This Signet Classics version is the only available paperback edition of Camille, a story as old as time and as timeless as love itself. Translated by Sir Edmond Gosse, with an Introduction by Toril Moi Includes Photos. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780451529206

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