Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Allure of the Tubercular Courtesan

Greta Garbo as Camille. Photo from

She's a venerable figure in 19th-century literature, beautiful, self-sacrificing, redeemed through suffering and love: the tubercular heroine, and specifically the tubercular courtesan. The lady who began it all is Marie Duplessis, a real-life courtesan who died of tuberculosis just after her 23rd birthday, and whose lovers had included Alexandre Dumas fils. Dumas turned her into Marguerite Gautier, his Dame aux camélias (Lady with the Camellias, aka Camille), Verdi adapted this into La Traviata featuring Violetta Valéry, and they inspired Baz Luhrmann's "Satine" in Moulin Rouge. (The DVD features reveal that his original plot was even closer to the Camille/Traviata story than it is in the final film--Christian and Satine had an idyllic interlude in the country, etc.)

These ladies may die, but their story is deathless: modern-day academics analyze the trope of the tubercular heroine and lately, I've been thinking about it too. I dressed up as Marguerite Gautier for Halloween, as well as two other times in the past year. And I'm jealous that one of my dearest friends is named Marguerite Camille--wouldn't I love to be named after a literary heroine!

I read the original novel last year for a music course focusing on how works of literature get adapted into operas. Of course it's a sentimental tearjerker, and the hero, Armand Duval, is annoying, weak, and whiny. If Dumas was like this in real life, I wouldn't want to have known him! But Marguerite is always vivid and sympathetic (Verdi had the right idea to make her the central character) and the book has an interesting narrative strategy. Like Wuthering Heights, it's one of those 19th-century novels where narrations nest within one another. The first narrator is an unnamed man who hears that courtesan Marguerite Gautier has died, and becomes intrigued by her life. Then he encounters Armand, Marguerite's lover, who tells his sad story to Narrator #1. Then the climax of the story comes in Marguerite's confessional letter to Armand--a third nested narrator.

The most surprising part of the book is the true meaning of Marguerite's famous camellias. I'd always assumed they were purely symbolic--their virginal whiteness denoting that although Marguerite is a courtesan, she has an unstained and noble heart. But actually, the camellias serve a much more mercenary function...
Every time a new play opened, one was sure to see [Marguerite] there, with three things she never left behind [...] : her lorgnette, a bag of bonbons, and a bouquet of camellias. For twenty-five days out of the month the camellias were white, and for five they were red; no one ever knew the reason for the change in color, which I mention without being able to explain it. (my translation)
Oh Narrator, stop being so coy! You know the reason perfectly well--we all do. Yes, you wrote at a time when people were supposed to pretend that women don't menstruate or indeed have any bodily functions--but your novel is about a woman who sells her body! So stop with the faux innocence. It's tipped over the line into salaciousness. (Anyone want to add "wearing red camellias" to the list of euphemisms like "visiting Aunt Flo" or "on the rag"?)

After his novel became a success, Dumas adapted it into a play that served as a star vehicle for many actresses including Sarah Bernhardt (see the beautiful Alphons Mucha poster at left--image from

Now, when I was in France, my fantastic host family insisted that I throw a dinner party for my friends, and, naturally, I chose French Theatre for its theme. Everyone had to dress up as a character from a French play, and I went as Marguerite Gautier. After all, it's an incredibly easy costume--all you have to do is look pretty and wear camellias. I couldn't find any cut camellias (only potted bushes) in Paris flower shops, so I made do with a silk flower in my hair. I wore it with a black skirt and a black silk top with a small white floral print. None of my friends guessed who I was, which disappointed me.

Then, last week, a French professor held a Halloween party at his apartment where everyone had to dress up as a French literary or historical figure. Out came the Dame aux Camélias outfit again! This time, I had more silk camellias--two in my hair, one in my sash, one at my neckline--and wore them with a red velvet dress that I bought in France. And I did my makeup more elaborately, aiming for that consumptive complexion, pale with very flushed cheeks. I was a "modern" Marguerite--I didn't have a big froufrou 1850s gown, but I tried to catch the character's essence. It was kind of like Anna Netrebko's costume in this video of the "Brindisi" from La Traviata--not that I claim to look like Ms. Netrebko, opera's glamour-girl!

More people guessed who I was this time, and one of my friends even chastised me for not carrying around a big bloodstained handkerchief and coughing into it. And I suppose if someone had asked me to do a "trick" to get a "treat," I'd have sung "Sempre libera," albeit very poorly and with much fudging of lyrics. Certainly not like Angela Gheorghiu, whose great rendition seems to have become the YouTube standard for this aria:

Yesterday, my Tubercular French Courtesan outfit got yet another airing, because one of the dorms on campus had a "Moulin Rouge"-themed party and I helped distribute free crêpes for the French Club. This time, I made the costume less the ethereal, self-sacrificing Marguerite, and more the fun-loving bohemian cancan girl, by tying up the skirt of my red velvet dress with a red ribbon to make it shorter, and wearing black lace stockings. My friend (the same one who'd said I needed a bloody handkerchief) now told me that my drapey tied-up skirt looked "very Poiret," which I took as a great compliment.

This story all comes full circle, though, because my inspiration for buying that red dress in the first place was... Moulin Rouge! The movie came out when I was 13, the perfect age to fall in love with it; it quickly became my all-time favorite and I still adore it. (Further IMDB-review thoughts here.) Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor have never looked better nor had to cover so much ground in a performance--singing, dancing, comedy, tragedy... And as soon as Kidman stepped out in that gorgeous red satin gown, I got a craving for a red dress of my own--even though it's not my best color.

The more direct reason I bought my red dress is that the other student who lived with my host family in France was throwing his dinner party a month after mine, with a "Red" theme. In between the two parties, I'd fallen out with this guy and his friends, so I was not exactly looking forward to the occasion. But damn it, it gave me the excuse to buy the red dress I'd always wanted, and when I walked into La Redoute, and saw the deep-red velvet dress massively marked down, and available in my size only...well, it was meant to be, n'est-ce pas? I knew I'd be the best-dressed party guest--overdressed perhaps, but I didn't care. (Isn't there a whole history of red dresses symbolizing defiance? See Gone with the Wind or Jezebel.)

Still, I felt deeply hurt underneath my external defiance. And so when I listen to "Sempre libera" and Violetta sings "Sola, abbandonata, in questo popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi!" (Alone, abandoned, in this populous desert called Paris!) the words strike me to the heart. I know how it feels, Violetta.

And while researching this blog post I just discovered that Paul Poiret designed Sarah Bernhardt's costumes for years--including for the film of La Dame aux camélias.

Really, it all comes full circle.

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