Book review: The girl who loved camellias

While camellias are starting to bloom here, I came across this biography. It’s about someone you know. Her picture is on the cover of Julie Kavenagh’s “The Girl who loved Camellias”. Surely, you know Alphonsine Plessis?

Ah! But probably not under her true name – Alphonsine Plessis. Perhaps under the name she chose: Marie Duplessis? If not,  you are certainly familiar with the legends which surround her. She lives on in novels and operas. For Alphonsine Plessis, or Marie Duplessis, is no other than the girl who inspired Dumas junior’s “La Dame aux Camélias” and Verdi’s “La Traviata”. Adaptations of her life made many, including Sarah Bernardt, a star.

The biography makes clear why Alphonsine reinvents herself again and again. She’s the youngest daughter of a meek, beautiful woman who falls head over heels in love and marries a pedlar. The man is an abusive alcoholic and monster of a father. Mother and two young daughters cope with extreme domestic violence in rural Normandy.

Mum finally breaks away with the help of a former employer. She hides in Paris and works for an English lady, only to die less than two years later. On her flight, she left her two young daughters behind in Normandy, with different sets of relatives.

At first, Alphonsine is fed and taken care of by a young poor couple. But when their family increases in number and they receive no money from Alphonsine’s mother nor father, Alphonsine is turned out to beg for food.

Once Alphonsine’s mother is dead, Alphonsine’s father collects her. By then, Alphonsine is between 10 and 12 years old. In case you presume papa collects her to take care of her: he needs money to fund his habit and sells her off to a seventy-year-old buddy of his. Alphonsine’s friends will later notice she’s quite frank and open about her life, but unable to talk about this period of abuse.

When the community and police finally take action, her father gives them the slip. He collects Alphonsine and drags her off to Paris. There she’s set to work in the shop of yet another set of relatives. Soon, she spends a lot of time with students in the Quartier Latin. Alphonsine becomes a “grisette”.

The relatives throw her out, but she’s taken on by a kind employer. However, when Alphonsine is offered a choice between slaving away the rest of her life earning barely enough to survive – or being set up in a small rental accommodation by a fourty-year-old café-owner, she becomes his “lorette”.

In the Paris of those days, it’s another step on the career ladder with at its dazzling top the glittering “grande horizontales”. This must have been an alluring idea for someone who never had much and was never treated as much. When Alphonsine writes her relatives she opts for a roof over her head, enough food, money to buy clothes – her family disowns her.

Julie Kavenagh traces Alphonsine’s ascent. Alphonsine soon has to find other lovers. The café owner has spent all his money. At sixteen, she falls pregnant of her then lover. An arrangement ensures her baby-son is taken care of by the father’s family. (The child dies at an early age.) After giving birth, Alfonsine returns to Normandy to recuperate. But within a few months, she’s back in Paris.

A few years later, and she has reinvented herself from lower class “lorette” into one of the top courtesans and becomes “La Dame aux Camélias”. Though Julie Kavenagh found proof Alphonsine not only loved camellias. The flowers were a trademark she adopted from one of the rakes.

Alphonsine hosts parties, has her own literary salon, travels through Europe and eventually marries an aristocrat. She meets and has a brief affair with Alexandre Dumas jr. and others, but  contracts TB. Most illnesses were still linked to depression or melancholy, but she is rich enough to seek treatment by doctors. TB treatments consisted of f.i. solutions of strychnine, paste of arsenous acid mixed with black mercury sulfide.

Not surprising, these “treatments” combined with her lifestyle, ensured Alphonsine never recovered. Her rich “protectors” leave. As in Alexandre Dumas’ book, Alphonsine lies on her deathbed when bailiffs enter the house. A rich friend manages to get his family to intervene once. When the bailiffs return one or two days later, Alfonsine orders him not to bother. Within 24 hours she’s dead. Her loyal friend ensures Alfonsine is not buried in a pauper’s grave.

Julie Kavenagh’s book not only describes Alphonsine’s life. It also explains a bit of the mores of the time. The English lady who employed Alphonsine’s mother searches and finds both daughters. She wants to adopt Alphonsine, but Alphonsine knows society will make this impossible and ultimately refuses.

Julie Kavenaugh also shows where Alexandre Dumas fictionalised a life and what this life actually must have been like. The biography dispels a great many legends and romantic ideas. It is sad to read how many people made money and became stars using her life, when Alphonsine was long dead.

“The Girl who loved Camellias”, Julie Kavenagh, pp 290, Knopf, 2013
The book is available in many languages and as hardback, pocket, Ebook.
France has a “Dame aux Camélias” museum.

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