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The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 11, 2013
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*Starred Review* Kavanagh became intrigued with Marie Duplessis, a svelte, cultured young courtesan in Paris in the 1840s, while she was researching her biographies of Ashton and Nureyev. Duplessis inspired The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils (now out in a sparkling new translation by critic Liesl Schillinger), and Verdi’s opera, La Traviata, and the more Kavanagh learned about Duplessis, one of the great romantic muses, the more deeply she fell under her spell. Equipped with the treasures gleaned from persistent research and guided by empathy, Kavanagh tells the full, whirling story of how a poor, sexually abused peasant girl from Normandy turned herself into a cosmopolitan, free-spirited woman of intellect and desire supported in style by high-society lovers. As clever and observant as she was lithe and lovely, Duplessis not only spent her well-earned cash on the usual luxuries but also immersed herself in literature and the arts while igniting rivalries among her protectors as she indulged her sybaritic nature. Kavanagh is a warm, nimble portraitist, wryly chronicling the glittering if doomed realm of the courtesan while following Duplessis as she attains the heights of adoration only to fall to tuberculosis, dying at age 23. Now Duplessis is a muse once again, this time for an adept biographer who elegantly preserves her indelible true story. --Donna Seaman
The New York Times Editor's Choice
"With her colorful new biography, Julie Kavanagh exposes the tawdry reality behind her heroine's legend."
—Caroline Weber, The New York Times
"Kavanagh succeeds brilliantly in coming as close to her subject as it is possible...A Compelling and moving account of a short, forgotten life which is far more interesting than fiction."
—The Spectator (UK)
‘“It is,” said Proust, “a work which goes straight to the heart.” He was talking about La Traviata, which was first performed in Venice in 1853 and is still performed around the world 160 years on. The plot is as unlikely as the plots of most operas and as full of mad, melodramatic twists. But its story, it is clear from this extraordinary book, isn’t half as melodramatic as the life that inspired it. […] An absorbing, thoughtful, endlessly fascinating portrayal of a remarkable world.’
—The Sunday Times (UK)
“Kavanagh underscores what made Duplessis such an object of fascination…she is La Traviata’s Violetta and Marguerite in the younger Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias…an enigmatic woman who both deeply embod[ied] and brazenly def[ied] the conventions of her time.”
—Mythili Rao, The Daily Beast
“The Lady Who Loved Camellias has it all. Ms. Kavanagh is a well-established biographer and achieved international fame with her previous, definitive biography on the great dancer, Nureyev. This new book cements her well-deserved reputation. We are in [her] debt for shining a light on this woman almost forgotten in the dust of history, allowing her legend to endure.”
—Janet Levine, New York Journal of Books
"Equipped with the treasures gleaned from persistent research and guided by empathy...Kavanagh is a warm, nimble portraitist, wryly chronicling the glittering if doomed realm of the courtesan...Now Duplessis is a muse once again, this time for an adept biographer who elegantly preserves her indelible true story."
—Booklist, Starred Review
“In taking on Duplessis, Kavanagh pieces together the details of a glamorous and tragic life of a woman whose influence as a muse has outlived her own fame.”
—The New Yorker
“Julie Kavanagh ships us into 19th-century Paris and into the boudouir of Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis.”
“Thanks to a talented author, this tragedy is a pleasure to read. Already praised as a biographer, Kavanagh intertwines the adventures of a famous courtesan with a fascinating period in Parisian history, with each scene spotlighting yet another titillating aspect of 1840s bohemia…A thoroughly researched and fascinating account of Duplessis’s short life and lengthy legacy.”
“Marie Duplessis—the tragic inspiration for La Dame aux Camélias and La Traviata—crammed more drama into her short life than either of her fictionalised personas. Her true story has been crying out to be told. Now, at last, the enigmatic Duplessis has found a brilliant biographer in Kavanagh. The Girl Who Loved Camellias is not only a wonderful read: vivid and moving, but full of fascinating discoveries.”
—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War
“I was enthralled by the wholly unexpected life of Mare Duplessis, and entirely captivated by the cinematic realism of this wonderful book’s evocation of her world. Julie Kavanagh plunges you right into the Parisian demi-monde and redefines what it means to be a genuine star.”
—Nicholas Hytner, Director of the National Theater and The Madness of King George, The History Boys, and One Man, Two Guvnors
“Hugely enjoyable—this book is for anyone with an interest in opera, celebrity, sex and money.”
—Richard Eyre, Director of the National Theater, 1987-1997, of Richard III, King Lear, Guys and Dolls and the film, Notes on a Scandal
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Top Customer Reviews
In her lifetime, she was a well-known courtesan - a fashion tend-setter who could often be seen at the theater or at her box at the opera, a woman whose name was mentioned in whispers. While she wasn't invited to the places where she might mingle with "respectable" women, her home became a salon to some of the most well-known and accomplished men. If she is remembered today it is primarily as the woman who inspired the opera La Traviata and the Greta Garbo movie, Camille. Of course, long before Anna Netrebko put on that red dress, there was a novel, La Dame Aux Camilias, written by a young man with a famous name - Alexander Dumas fils. When the novel came out, shortly after Marie's death at age twenty-three from "consumption," it was viewed as an account of their relationship, though Dumas admitted that much of it, including the idea of the whore with a heart who makes a great sacrifice for a "love" was pure fiction. Once the play of the same name became popular, Marie as Marguerite Gautier belonged to the world.
While the book is heavily sourced, Kavanagh quotes often from the Dumas' novel and play, even though these are both fictional portrayals. The author sometimes speculates, for instance wondering if the close relationship Marie had with another courtesan had a "sapphic" character, but also telling us that if it did, Marie would have kept that to herself. Later Kavanagh imagines that a "friend," who was said to have been staying with Dumas while he was writing his book, might have been another of Marie's lovers, and the true inspiration for the character of Armand, but she offers no evidence that Dumas was more than causally acquainted with that particular rival.
The book is useful for learning about Marie's milieu the demimonde, and its interaction and connection to the larger world. There is no modern-day equivalent of the great courtesans. These were women who were celebrated and known. They were independent operators who could choose their alliances, at a time when women had few choices. Unlike the ladies who could not be present when men gathered to speak frankly of ideas, politics and even art, women like Marie were expected to be there and participate.
But there are mysteries at the book's core which are never solved. How did uneducated, abused Alphonsine Plessis manage to transform herself into the glamorous and wealthy Marie Duplessis? That is, we know who kept her and have the dates, but why her? What was it about her in particular? It's hard to know how Marie actually "felt" about anything. She was known to lie, having once quipped, "I lie to keep my teeth white." Often people who knew her wrote entirely different versions of the same events. So while Kavanagh manages to fill in some blanks, we are left with an empty space at the center, and the question remains: Who was Marie Duplessis?
Wow. This was a great biography of the courtesan who inspired The Lady of the Camellias and La Traviata. I read the biography right after reading the original novel, and that was a good choice. I was already immersed in the fictional world of Marguerite and Armand, and then I started reading about the actual woman, who was not quite as exalted as Dumas-fil's tragic heroine who sacrifices her chance at redemption. No, Marie Duplessis in the flesh was much harder than Dumas-fil's Marguerite or Verdi's Violetta.
Kavanagh writes really well; I was thinking about skipping the introduction, but it wasn't dry and uninteresting like introductions can sometimes be. On the contrary, I was immediately drawn into this compelling and fascinating story. It's pretty easy to get into, and Marie is a character one can easily sympathize with, fleeing from her awful circumstances and making a better life for herself. Her basic, basic story in terms of upbringing could be compared to Maude in Belle Epoque, but while Maude becomes a repoussoir, Marie became a courtesan, a high-class prostitute. And many influential men were her lovers, among them the composer Liszt, the director of the Paris Opera, and of course, Dumas-fils himself.
The book was engaging and very easy to get into; I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing and the way this excellent biography was crafted. Kavanaugh provides a lot of detail, and the book seems to be meticulously well-researched. She describes how Marie's parents met, and how it quickly turned out that her father was a brute without straying too far from her subject. There's lush description too, and at times the book almost reads like a novel, as if Kavanaugh herself was transported back to the 1840's to witness Marie's life. It feels as if the reader has been taken back too. I could almost picture the sights and smells, particularly of Marie's early life and the time she lived with her kind-hearted cousins in the country. The whole first chapter of the book is in fact devoted to Marie (or Alphonsine's) early life before she arrived in Paris. It ends with her in Paris having "tangible proof of the luxuries her beauty could buy." In this first case, fried potatoes. Later, she convinces a young student to buy her some cherries. Marie's first time in Paris was spent in the Latin Quarter, where there were lots of students living cheaply.
Kavanagh writes for an intelligent and well-educated audience; there are some terms that she assumes the reader knows, and I liked that. She also does some reasonable interpreting while still sticking to the facts and not indulging in speculation. Often biographers tend to get carried away with an adoration or obsession with their subject; not so here because Marie was a complicated character, deeply flawed, at once sympathetic and very alien to the modern world.
This was an excellent biography, and I definitely learned a lot. I read it comparatively quickly for a nonfiction book; it wasn't overwritten or boring reading at all. Definitely recommended. I received a review copy from Knopf.
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