Intelligent Life contributing editor Kavanagh (Nureyev: The Life, 2007, etc.) attempts to sort out the biography of the short-lived Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis (1824–1847).
We know her as Violetta in La Traviata, but she was Marguerite in Alexander Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias and Alphonsine when she was born in 1824 Normandy. In the ways of the 19th-century French, when a girl became a courtesan, she was to have an apartment, jewels, equipage, a very generous allowance and often tutoring in the finer ways of society. For Duplessis, however, “this was far more than Pygmalion or Pretty Woman transformation,” writes Kavanagh. “The country waif, scarcely able to read or write when she arrived in the capital at the age of thirteen, was presiding over her own salon seven years later, regularly receiving aristocrats, politicians, artists, and many of the celebrated writers of her day.” Lacking Duplessis’ correspondence, the author depends on the accounts of contemporary authors and one of her subject’s childhood friends, as well as the book and play by Dumas. Determining her age in the period when her father apprenticed her to a laundry, gave her to the gypsies, “sold” her to a debauching septuagenarian and “lost” her in Paris proves daunting. Too often, the author refers to Duplessis as Marguerite or Alphonsine and to her lovers by their pseudonyms; the time and places change without warning. Duplessis was quick to adapt to the culture of love in Paris with frequent changes of lovers—so many, in fact, that it’s difficult to keep track. The fact that many of her men overlapped adds to the confusion, as do the many references to men identified only by initials or pseudonyms.
Duplessis’ string of lovers was sufficiently fascinating to become the basis of books, plays and Verdi’s opera. As a chronicle of French life, Kavanagh’s book is great fun; as biography, it’s scattered.