Book Review, Classics

The Lady of the Camellias

If what you’re looking for is a good cry, this is definitely the book for you.

Published in 1848, The Lady with the Camellias (La Dame aux Camélias), also commonly known in English as Camille, is a semi-auto-biographical novel by Alexandre Dumas the son, about his love affair with a courtesan.

Want to get into the atmosphere of the time while you read?

People were listening to Franz Liszt a lot. Play the music here for the right mood:

What was happening in France in 1848?

The Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Springtime of Nations, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe. It remains the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history.

Also, books like “Wuthering heights”, “Agnes Grey” or “Jane Eire” had just been published the previous we are still in a romantic phase of literature.

This is why Dumas’ book is somewhat different. It combines romantic elements with elements from the next phase of literature, realism.

So who was Alexandre Dumas the son?

Alexandre Dumas the son was born in Paris.

His mother, Marie-Catherine Labay, was a dressmaker and was not married at the time she had Alexandre. Later she inspired Dumas’ mother characters; he often depicted the fate of unmarried women in a tragic light.

Marie-Catherine Labay

In 1831, he was finally legally recognized by his father, Alexandre Dumas.

In boarding schools, where Dumas was sent, he was made miserable by his schoolmates who taunted him about his illegitimate birth. He never forgave them. After some studies at the Collége Bourbon, he abandoned further education to devote himself to writing.

At first, Dumas had no success and, by the time he was twenty one, he was hugely in debt. In 1844, he met Marie Duplessis, a peasant girl from Nonant-le-Pin in Normandy. At the age of sixteen she was one of the most sought-after courtisans in Paris.

Dumas and Marie Duplessis knew each other for over a year, before she became in 1844 his mistress. It is true that she loved camellias ‒ they were her calling card. A white camellia meant that she was sexually available to her lovers, while a red one meant she wasn’t.

Marie Duplessis died of tuberculosis at the age 23 in February 1847 in a Paris apartment in the Madeleine.

Her fate inspired Dumas’ romantic novel, La Dame aux Camélias, outrageous at the time.

Marie Duplessis

Why was “The Lady of the Camellias” considered scandalous?

Dumas’ real relationship was far from secret in the social network of Parisian society in the 1840s. And though having a mistress was relatively acceptable at the time, the depiction of such relationships in fiction was not.

Such women were not to be categorized as empathetic or natural, for they threatened the stability as well as the sanctity of the family. Courtesans and mistresses were as much created by society as condemned by it, for they were desired as a distraction from life and condemned as such a distraction.

As Dumas points out, women of “high society” were as jealous as they were curious about courtesans and the wealth these women amassed.

Why did Alexandre Dumas the son write “The Lady of the Camellias”, if it was outrageous?

Alexandre Dumas the son was struggling to generate success for himself as a writer, so he decided to capitalize on the fame surrounding the Duplessis name. In writing the story, he made sure the “intensity of the love he had himself felt,” was obvious, which gave the novel “its merit and interest”.

Within three weeks of furious composition, La Dame aux Camélias was written by June 1847, with little time for editing. Given the famous Parisian courtesan, the exclusivity Dumas had as her former lover and the realism provided into the life she led, the success was assured.

Though he even included real conversations and letters to validate his relationship and the novel performed great, it still did not earn enough money to settle all of his debts.

Shortly after publication, he decided the work would be more profitable as a stage-play and set to write a play consisting of five acts, which he accomplished within a span of eight days.

At first, the stage version was rejected by one theater after another. Moreover, the censors of the French Republic regarded it as too scandalous.

In fact, the government only lifted the censor as an attempt to distract the public from the current political strain as a result of Louis Napoleon declaring himself emperor – After the “coup d’état” of Napoleon III, La Dame aux Camélias was produced by Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris in February 1852.

In England, it still remained banned for more than 20 years.

Why is “The Lady of the Camellias” important?

At the time, it was thought that what makes a woman into a prostitute in the first place is an innate propensity to vice.

Dumas’ portrayal of Marguerite Gautier as redeemable contrasts with the plays that had previously depicted the “fallen woman”. He is challenging the stereotype and creating a complex character. She is more than a courtesan, she is a real woman in love, capable of anything for her lover.

This created a problem, since it was believed that theater had the power to mold the public’s opinion. It was hoped that new plays which depict prostitutes as undesirable would replace “Camille” and many reactionary plays were written in an attempt to combat the obsessive attitude towards the “fallen woman”, but Dumas had already revolutionized the public’s opinion. Margarite Gautier developed many fans and people were forced to recognize the humanity of such women.

The impact is greater, however. Essentially, as realistic literature drew attention to the horrors of the trade, people took practical steps to combat the romanticized view of the profession.

Further works of art drew inspiration from Margarite Gautier’s story

The most famous are “La traviata” (which means “the fallen woman”, opera in three acts by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi) and, more recently, “Moulin Rouge”.

My view on the book – spoiler alert!

I read this book for the first time when I was about 15 or 16. I cried and cried for more than two hours after I finished it. I’ve reread it recently and still cried. I can’t really explain why exactly, as it’s clear from the beginning that she dies. The opening scenes of the book are at an auction for all her belongings. I think I just really, really hoped she wouldn’t have died.

I’m sure it is obvious by now that Margarite Gautier, the heroine of the book, was a young courtesan and Armand Duval, a young man in love with her.

Margarite had a distinction apart from other women of her kind and an exceptional beauty.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

Her lifestyle was busy with parties and plays where she was always carrying camellias with her.

A glimpse of her character is shown the first time she meets Armand:

However little one may have known women like Marguerite, one can not but know the delight they take in pretending to be witty and in teasing the people whom they meet for the first time. It is no doubt a return for the humiliations which they often have to submit to on the part of those whom they see every day.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

Armand falls madly in love with her, at the point of checking in every day while she is ill, though he doesn’t leave his name for her because they hadn’t even been introduced yet.

His passion lasts for two years, while Marguerite is out of Paris.

All the same, my heart began to beat when I knew that it was she; and the two years that had passed since I saw her, and what had seemed to be the results of that separation, vanished in smoke at the mere touch of her dress.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

After they are truly acquainted and spend an evening together, Marguerite takes him as his lover, impressed by his devotion and pushed by the fact that she was very aware of her poor health.

I shall not live as long as others, and I have promised myself to live more quickly.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

Her entire speech to Armand is painful and telling of the life of courtesans at the time:

If I took care of myself I should die. All that supports me is the feverish life I lead. Then, as for taking care of oneself, that is all very well for women with families and friends; as for us, from the moment we can no longer serve the vanity or the pleasure of our lovers, they leave us, and long nights follow long days. I know it. I was in bed for two months, and after three weeks no one came to see me.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

While they are in love, Armand is also aware of her condition and, though happy to be loved by her, he either idealizes her or condemns her. It seems to me he doesn’t accept her as she is.

To be really loved by a courtesan: that is a victory of infinitely greater difficulty. With them the body has worn out the soul, the senses have burned up the heart, dissipation has blunted the feelings. They have long known the words that we say to them, the means we use; they have sold the love that they inspire. They love by profession, and not by instinct. They are guarded better by their calculations than a virgin by her mother and her convent; and they have invented the word caprice for that unbartered love which they allow themselves from time to time, for a rest, for an excuse, for a consolation, like usurers, who cheat a thousand, and think they have bought their own redemption by once lending a sovereign to a poor devil who is dying of hunger without asking for interest or a receipt.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

Then, when God allows love to a courtesan, that love, which at first seems like a pardon, becomes for her almost without penitence. When a creature who has all her past to reproach herself with is taken all at once by a profound, sincere, irresistible love, of which she had never felt herself capable; when she has confessed her love, how absolutely the man whom she loves dominates her! How strong he feels with his cruel right to say: You do no more for love than you have done for money. They know not what proof to give.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

As weeks go by, they somehow manage to surpass jealousy scenes from Armand and she succeeds in changing some of her bad habits so as to get healthier. They even go to the country together to separate from everything and are ready to make a radical change just to be together, no interruptions.

The courtesan disappeared little by little. I had by me a young and beautiful woman, whom I loved, and who loved me, and who was called Marguerite; the past had no more reality and the future no more clouds.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

Margarite is willing to renounce all her lovers, go from spending 100000 francs a year(that is around 650.000 dollars today!) to selling everything she owns in order to pay her debts and be free.

And then… real life happens.

What I loved was her capacity for sacrifice. She knows her sins and is more than willing to change. She feels loved and this helps her not need so much material stuff. On the other hand, Armand gets into bad habits. He starts gambling as a way to cope with the existence of her other partners. I feel the author is trying to show here that Margarite was in the end a bad influence. Not with intent, and that is important, but she is a bad influence nonetheless. It is this mix of a bad influence redeemed by love that makes Marguerite so complex and the story enchanting.

The author insists it’s only she who is special, things shouldn’t be generalized (though this is exactly its effect).

I do not draw from this story the conclusion that all women like Marguerite are capable of doing all that she did—far from it; but I have discovered that one of them experienced a serious love in the course of her life, that she suffered for it, and that she died of it. I have told the reader all that I learned. It was my duty.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

I am not the apostle of vice, but I would gladly be the echo of noble sorrow wherever I bear its voice in prayer.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

The story of Marguerite is an exception, I repeat; had it not been an exception, it would not have been worth the trouble of writing it.

“The Lady of the Camellias”, Alexandre Dumas fils

That’s it, that’s all I’m revealing. Be sure, I left out the most interesting part!

Sources I used for documentation:

3 thoughts on “The Lady of the Camellias”

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    Liked by 1 person

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