A captivating triple biography reveals the women who inspired Marcel Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes.
In his seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, Proust drew on his astute observations of Parisian high society: the dazzling glamour, effete customs, and, as he increasingly noted, superficiality and banality. Focusing on three alluring women who were objects of Proust’s fascination, Weber (French and Comparative Literature/Barnard Coll.; Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, 2006, etc.) portrays in rich detail a French aristocracy threatened by profound social and political change. Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus (widow of the composer Georges Bizet); Laure de Sade, Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné (a descendent of the Marquis de Sade); and Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay, Vicomtesse Greffulhe were the grandes dames who fueled Proust’s “dream of patrician elegance and grace.” Each assiduously developed “a conscious strategy of self-promotion,” honing a distinctive image to achieve recognition and admiration. Élisabeth traded on her beauty, wearing only clothing “designed by her and for her.” Laure, with a particular talent for self-aggrandizement and tireless indulgence for “wild nights” at the notorious Chat-Noir, made sure to publicize her Sadean lineage. Geneviève, who entertained wearing “silky, mauve peignoirs,” had a reputation as “the neurasthenic queen of Montmartre.” Each was married, unhappily, and strived for some measure of independence at a time when women “had the legal status of minors.” As Élisabeth wrote, “women are meant to be trophies, pretty possessions….Smiling, placid, charming. Not leaving the nest, staying in the aviary.” Weber offers intimate details of their love affairs, betrayals, friendships, and rivalries; their worries over money and status; and their “grappl[ing] with mental illness and drug addiction.” She recounts vividly the plush ambience, dress, and décor of their châteaux and palaces as well as the parties and salons peopled by royalty, artists, and writers who mesmerized the young, aspiring, impressionable Proust.
A palpable, engrossing portrait of three extraordinary women and their tempestuous, fragile world.