La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi is one of the most performed operas in the world. An unashamed tear-jerker, it contains some of the most heart-wrenching, lush and lyrical music ever composed. “La traviata” literally means fallen woman. Our heroine, Violetta Valéry, is a doomed young courtesan, and the opera is unashamedly her story from beginning to end.
But the character of Violetta was inspired by a real courtesan whose brief, gaudy career was even more painful, lurid and eventful than the operatic depiction. Marie Duplessis was the most desirable and fêted courtesan of 1840s Paris. One of her lovers described her as “tall, very slim, with black hair and a pink and white face. Her head was small and she had long lustrous Japanese eyes, very quick and alert, lips as red as cherries and the most beautiful teeth in the world.”
Duplessis was queen of what the French called the demimonde, a glamorous but disreputable underground of bohemians, playboys, kept mistresses, naughty noblemen, pimps and whores. It was definitely not polite society. Nevertheless, at the height of her success, Duplessis swanned about first nights at the Opéra adorned with a corsage of fresh camellias, rode in the chic Bois de Boulogue, and was hailed as the best-dressed woman in Paris.
Édouard Viénot’s portrait of Marie Duplessis
She entertained diplomats, journalists, dancers and composers at her salon in the rue de Madeleine. And despite the constant traffic of men through her boudoir, Duplessis always managed to convey the impression that her mind was on higher things. After her death in 1847, journalists raved about her “natural elegance and distinction”, and “her indefinable but genuine air of chastity”. One of her lovers, the composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, swooned: “I had for her a solemn and elegiac attachment which inspired me to poetry and to music.”
Yet all this high-flown praise masks the realities of a prostitute’s career, and gives no hint of the abuse over which Duplessis triumphed. She was born Alphonsine Plessis in poverty in peasant Normandy, with a violent alcoholic for a father. When her mother ran away, scared for her life, the little girl was left to the intermittent care of relatives and her vicious father. He pimped her out to an elderly paedophile to make money. She was also reported sleeping rough, begging for food in return for sexual favours and wandering the fields with blood dripping down her thighs.
By the age of 15, she’d fetched up in Paris, working in a laundry, unable to read and as hungry as ever. She was spotted eyeing up sizzling fried potatoes on the Pont Neuf by man about-town Nestor Roqueplan – he bought the waif-like girl some pommes frites that she devoured in under three minutes. The next time Roqueplan met the girl she was on the arm of a duke. Within a year, the child prostitute had remade herself into a betwitching “grande horizontale”. From then on, her rich protectors set her up in apartments of increasing splendour.
Gabriela Istoc as Violetta in La Traviata
But this was no rags-to-riches fairy tale: by the age of 17 she had already lost a baby, whose very birth had to remain a secret. Seven members of the raffish Paris Jockey Club even formed a syndicate so they could afford to share Marie’s favours – this demure-looking beauty reduced to the status of horse-flesh. They bought Marie a dressing table with seven drawers so each could keep their own things in it. Even that charming white camellia announced her availability for hire, though for a few days a month she swapped it for a red one to warn her clients that she was indisposed.
Although now largely forgotten, Duplessis was one of the great celebrities of her era, as pursued as any minor royal or Hollywood starlet. Her death of TB, aged 23, only added to her legend. She entered the literary canon a year later, when one of her former lovers, the young Alexandre Dumas fils, penned a thinly veiled account of their affair called La Dame aux Camélias. Giuseppe Verdi saw a stage adaptation, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In each successive version, Duplessis was sanitised, the abused hungry girl who liked sex and pretty things replaced with a self-sacrificing martyr to love. Only a whore who saw the error of her ways could be redeemed in the eyes of God and accepted by a mid-19th-century audience. Moreover, Verdi was forced to set his opera in the past in historic costume, to distance his world still further from that of the audience in the stalls. The fact that it was sung in Italian doubtless made it seem more exotic and less sordid to English listeners. Nevertheless, Verdi was still asking his audience to pity and identify with a prostitute.
An English National Opera production of La Traviata from earlier this year
When La Traviata opened in London in May 1856 it caused a sensation. Moralists and leader-writers recoiled at the glamorisation of vice and focus on the travails of “a paid strumpet”. The “libretto contains a tale which never should have been exhibited on any stage, in the presence of decent womanhood,” thundered The Times. Yet decent women flocked in their hundreds to witness Violetta’s noble suffering. Perhaps the louche glamour and comparative freedom of the demimonde, as described in Violetta’s Sempre libera aria, offered guilty pleasure and a fantasy of escape to the chaperoned virgins and dutiful housewives of prim and proper Victorian England.
A high-octane tragedy of the tart with a heart, La Traviata spotlit female dilemmas from beginning to end. The men exist only as accessories to the woman. And what a woman – beautiful, universally desired, generous, loving, heroic, morally courageous, wronged and killed off in her nightie. Pass me the hankies.
Amanda Vickery is Professor in Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London
La Traviata: Love, Death and Divas is on BBC2 tonight (Saturday 20th June) at 9.00pm