Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review: THE GIRL WHO LOVED CAMELLIAS, by Julie Kavanagh

The Girl Who Loved Camellias, by Julie Kavanagh. Published 2013 by Random House. History. Biography.

As much social history of 19th century France as a biography of the life of courtesan Marie Duplessis née Alphonsine Plessis, Julie Kavanagh's book has romance, glamour, high society, low life, and tragedy. Much like the life of its heroine, Kavanagh's book is short and interesting and just a little sad.

Marie Duplessis, as she came to be known, was the woman on whom Alexander Dumas fils based his book, La dame aux camélias, or The Lady of the Camellias, a book that was adapted for the theater, the opera, the ballet, and the screen. The book came out in 1848, a year after Marie's death at the age of 23. While she lived, she enjoyed wealth and an enviable position in Parisian demimonde society, the lover of many prominent men and a woman respected, to a degree, for her own intelligence and love of literature and learning.

You might not think there would be so much to say about the life of a courtesan (read: prostitute) who died so young, and you wouldn't really be wrong, but Kavanagh manages to string a pretty interesting book out of Marie's story, which is as much about the social and economic life of Paris in the 19th century as it is about one woman and her lovers. Personally I have always found that time and place fascinating. So much great literature and art came out of the period, and it had such an influence on modern life. European and American society was transformed; revolutions and economic shifts created the world we know today. And somewhere in all of that flux were the lives of women who enjoyed considerable economic power for the first time.

Now, granted, that power came at a price, and prostitution at the level at which Marie practiced it had its benefits but we have to be careful not to glamorize it too much. So it's important to read The Girl with a slightly critical eye. I still think it's worth reading if you're interested in the period or in French social history more generally. Prostitution at her level was an established part of Parisian life and she was only one of many women who lived this life. Kavanagh tells Marie's story with energy and good documentation; a glance at the bibliography shows histories, memoirs and novels of the period as her sources. She has a chapter on her sources at the end, and an introduction explaining why we should be interested in Marie's life in the first place with an emphasis on the longevity of her life's story in multiple art forms. It's definitely an entertaining read, a history book for the beach bag. The sad part for me is that even though she died young, she would not have had much to which to look forward had she lived. Her life may have seemed enviable in some respects, but like many women in her position, it was more doomed than it was ever charmed. Kavanagh's book doesn't quite shout that message, but I think it's there anyway.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review.