The Real Traviata

The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis
René Weis
Oxford University Press
Softback. 400 pages, 216x142mm, ISBN 978-0198828297

“A young woman of exquisite demeanour . . . chaste oval features, gorgeous dark eyes, a nose of the most exquisite and delicate curve” was how Marie Duplessis (1824-1847) was described in an obituary after her death aged just 23. The writer went on to describe her “beautifully turned feet” and “soft skin, the texture of camellias”. Such gushing homilies might be considered a trifle over-enthusiastic, but Marie Duplessis’s ultimate legacy to history was becoming the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas the younger’s novel La Dame aux Camélias and later Verdi’s La traviata, based on an 1852 play of that book. The Real Traviata, first published in 2015 and now available in paperback, tells the story of this remarkable young woman.

Her childhood and early teenage years in Normandy was sexually abusive. and she escaped to Paris at 15, quickly becoming the focus of Parisian fashionable life as a courtesan. Adding a noble ‘Du’ to her birth name of Plessis, by a combination of street-wise intelligence and youthful beauty, she gathered a large army of supporters and lovers, including members of the royal family and the government, many artists, and musicians of the calibre of Liszt, who she wanted to elope with. She was a mistress of Dumas around 1844 before taking up with Franz Liszt.

She managed to keep good relations with her ex-lovers and was briefly married to a Count in the year before her death, aged just 23. Obituaries elevated her from a Countess to ‘a princess’, despite her humble birth and dubious lifestyle in Paris. Her legend grew with the publication of Dumas’s book, which was soon followed by Verdi’s using her as the basis for the character of Violetta Valéry.

The detailed and well-researched book plots the life of this remarkable woman and the extraordinary life she led in Paris in the early 19th-century. With 24 pages of detailed end-notes and a timeline of her life, René Weis successfully combines scholarly research with telling a good story.

As is often the case with paperback versions of a hardback book (which was 234x156mm rather than 216x142mm), the text is rather small and the black and white photographs are not of the highest quality. For some unexplained reason, the book is printed with a wide margin on the outside of the pages, and a narrow one on the inside of the page, close to the binding edge. This means that you have to bend the spine back to read. Many publishers do this, and it is irritating and, as far as I can see, pointless.