La Dame aux Camélias and a May-December Romance

As I stated in my last entry, I’m reading Alexandre Dumas Jr.s’ La Dame aux Camélias, since I saw and recapped this book in its opera form, La Traviata, on my honeymoon.

This is also, if you remember, the book that was shocking in its day for referencing menstrual periods explicitly. Actually, in the book they don’t reference it that explicitly. Or they do, but the main character is too much of a dunce to understand. The main character says, “For twenty-five days in every month the camellias [the courtesan wore] were white, and for five they were red. No one ever knew the reason for this variation in colour which I mention but cannot explain” (9).

I understand that he probably couldn’t or didn’t want to go into explicit detail, but surely it’s enough to mention it and move on, without faking total ignorance. “WHAT IS THIS STRANGE SYMBOLISM, I’M SURE I DON’T COMPREHEND IT, LA LA LA, TOO PURE TO UNDERSTAND.” Especially because later on, when they become lovers, she tells him he can’t stay the night, and he goes, “Why?” and she hands him a red camelia and says to come back tomorrow, when she will be able to see him. You understand it, sir. Don’t lie. You understand it.

Anyway, what I really want to talk about is an interesting footnote in the book. As you may or may not know, this story is actually based on Alexandre Dumas Jr.’s real-life romance with a high class courtesan named Marie Duplessis, who died at 23 and was then immortalized as Dumas’ character, the ill-fated courtesan-redeemed-by-love, Marguerite Gautier.

Marie Duplessis
Marie Duplessis, evidently not on her period.

Anyway, as with any courtesan worth her salt, Marie Duplessis had a number of high profile lovers who paid her bills and took care of her. Alexandre Dumas Jr. was only a minor lover amongst many others; he never could have footed her extravagent lifestyle on his relatively meagre income.

In the book, Marguerite Gautier was taken care of by an elderly Duke, who paid for all of her bills on the condition that she give up her life as a courtesan. She, of course, agrees to this and deceives him repeatedly. Dumas writes:

“[S]he was said to be living with just one man, an elderly foreign duke who was fabulously wealthy and had attempted to detach her as far as possible from her old life. This she seems to have been happy enough to go along with.

“Here is what I have been told of the matter.

“In the spring of 1842, Marguerite was so weak, so altered in her looks, that the doctors had ordered her to take the waters. She accordingly set out for Bagneres.

“Among the other sufferers there, was the Duke’s daughter who not only had the same complaint but a face so like Marguerite’s that they could have been take nfor sisters. The fact was that the young Duchess was in the tertiary stage of consumption and, only days after Marguerite’s arrival, she succumbed.

“One morning the Duke, who had remained at Bagneres just as people will remain on ground where a piece of their heart lies buried, caught sight of Marguerite as she turned a corner of a gravel walk.

“It seemed as though he was seeing the spirit of his dead child and, going up to her, he took both her hands, embraced her tearfully and, without asking who she was, begged leave to call on her and to love in her person the living image of his dead daughter.

“Marguerite, alone at Bagneres with her maid, and in any case having nothing to lose by compromising herself, granted the Duke what he asked.

“Now there were a number of people at Bagneres who knew her, and they made a point of calling on the Duke to inform him of Mademoiselle Gautier’s true situation. It was a terrible blow for the old man, for any resemblance with his daughter stopped there. But it was too late. The young woman had become an emotional necessity, his only pretext and his sole reason for living.

“He did not reproach her, he had no right to, but he did ask her if she felt that she could change her way of life, and, in exchange for this sacrifice, offered all the compensations she could want. She agreed.” (9-10).

Of course, in the book she continues to see other men to help pay off her enormous debts and hides it pretty well from the Duke, until she gives up everything and throws caution to the wind by moving in with the main character, Armand.

However, the fun thing is that the character of the Duke is based on a real man. According to the accompanying footnote, “the ‘Duke’ was real enough. The Comte Stackelberg, a former Russian ambassador to Vienna, was eighty when he met Marie in 1844 [she would have been 20 at the time]. It was widely believed that his attraction to her was her uncanny resemblance to this dead daughter. Dumas later asserted that Stackelberg had spread this story himself, to protect his reputation, and that his interest in her was sexual.”

Gustav_Ottonovich_Shtakelberg
The Comte Stackelberg, trying to Eddie Murphy his way out of an awkward sexual situation.

Nope. I’ve looked at many creepy romances on this blog before, but a 60 year age difference, plus a weird sexual connection to someone who looks just like your dead daughter, is far too much for me to handle.

Do not want.

Shut it down.

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2 Responses to La Dame aux Camélias and a May-December Romance

  1. leia131 says:

    Damn, that is some Phantom of the Opera level messed up. “You look just like my dead daughter, wanna bone?”

    Like

  2. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

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