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Camille: The Lady of the Camellias by…

Camille: The Lady of the Camellias (1848)

by Alexandre Dumas

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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    La Traviata [complete recordings] by Giuseppe Verdi (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: What the younger Dumas started, Piave and Verdi transformed and turned into something greater.
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Alexandre Dumas fils

La Dame aux Camélias

Oxford University Press, Paperback [2008].

8vo. xxv+215 pp. Translated, with an Introduction [vii-xx] and Notes [205-15] by David Coward.

First published in French as La Dame aux Camélias, July 1848.
Reprinted with a preface by Jules Janin, 1851.
Third edition with minor corrections by the author, March 1852.*
This translation first published as a World's Classic paperback, 1986.
Reprinted as an Oxford World's Classic paperback, 2000.
Reprinted, 2008.


Note on the Text
Select Bibliography
A Chronology of Alexandre Dumas fils

La Dame aux Camélias

A Note on Money
Explanatory Notes

*This edition was used for the translation. In 1872, the “Note on the Text” tells us, Dumas prepared a new and much more heavily revised edition in which he “modified a number of passages in such a way as to reduce the readers sympathy for Marguerite the courtesan.”


My interest in this charming little novel is purely operatic. I would not have read it if Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave, his faithful librettist, had not turned it into La Traviata (1853). So this, I’m afraid, is going to be an operatic review. You have been warned. First, however, a word or two about the novel.

Here Be Dragons, e.g. spoilers!

If The Count of Monte Cristo (1845) is anything to go by, the younger Dumas is nowhere near as great a writer as his father. He has serious trouble telling even such a simple story as that of a young courtesan with golden heart who renounces profligacy for love and dies very young of consumption. He starts with a first-person narrator who knows Marguerite Gautier, the courtesan in question, only slightly and Armand Duval, the male part of the love equation, not at all. He fumbles aimlessly through the first seven chapters with awkward transitions between past and present until he wins Duval’s friendship, sighs with relief and leaves Armand to tell the whole story in the first person more or less without interruption. Even so, the narrative is not without its wordy byways and blind alleys. As for the writing, Mr Coward’s description in his introduction cannot be bettered; note also his perceptive historical parallel:

In historical terms, La Dame aux Camélias is a transitional novel which moves away from Romantic excess towards a more restrained presentation of social and psychological realities. Indeed, it impressed its first admirers as a remarkably sober and understated picture of contemporary manners. Modern readers, however, will be impressed rather by its sentimentality and by the melodrama which, in the exhumation scene, verges on the Gothic. Poses are struck, rhetorical flourishes subvert plain speaking, and noble sentiments of stupendous pomposity are paraded without embarrassment.

Nevertheless, this very short novel (possibly the slimmest volume ever published in Oxford World’s Classics) makes for an enthralling and affecting read. There is a great deal more to it than meets the eye. Judging by reviews, quite a few readers never went below the melodramatic surface. Don’t be afraid to dive deeper than that. The water’s cold but invigorating.

Marguerite is a genuine tragic heroine. She is frank, smart and brave. It is just as easy to forgive her reckless living on the edge, which is done more in defiance of death and out of loneliness than for any other reason, as it is hard not to be moved by her tragedy. Towards the end, Dumas has the brilliant idea to fill the gaps of his story with Marguerite’s diary and he works the narrative up to a heart-rending conclusion. Both male narrators, so far as they are different, express general sympathy for the sordid gaiety of the courtesan life, but they insist that Marguerite is “an exception”. “Had it been a commonplace, [her story] would not have been worth writing down.” She won my admiration and affection, if not with her first appearance, certainly with the very beginning of her affair with Armand. This starts almost like a contract between a nurse and a patient, but quickly develops into something much more serious:

‘So you’d look after me?’
‘You’d stay by me every day?’
‘And even every night?’
‘For as long as you weren’t tired of me.’
‘What would you say that was?’
‘And where does this devotion come from?’
‘From an irresistible attraction that draws me to you.’
‘In other words you’re in love with me? Just say it straight out, it’s a great deal simpler.’
‘I may be: but if I ever tell you some day that I do, this is not that day.’
‘It would be better for you if you never said it.’
‘Because there are only two things that can come from such an admission.’
‘And they are?’
‘Either I turn you down, in which case you will resent me, or I say yes, in which case you won’t have much of a mistress; someone who is temperamental, ill, depressed, or gay in a way that is sadder than sorrow itself, someone who coughs blood and spends a hundred thousand francs a year – which is all very well for a rich old man like the Duke, but it’s not much of a prospect for a young man like yourself. And, if it’s proof you want, the fact is that all the young lovers I have ever had have never stayed around for very long.’

Nobody can accuse Marguerite of falsely encouraging her penniless suitors. In the end, rather earlier than that actually, she becomes Armand’s mistress for obviously non-financial reasons. Finally, she sacrifices both her old life and her new love on his account. By the way, she is sharply contrasted with the perfectly named Prudence, ostensibly a milliner but really a female pimp and most calculating “friend”, and the flighty Olympe, a typical example of the courtesan species. Neither of these worthies would dare sacrifice so much for so little as did Marguerite. Least of all twice!

The younger Dumas seems to have been that rare kind of male author who is more successful with his female characters. Armand is much less interesting than Marguerite. He has little of her nobility, intelligence and courage. But he is a wonderfully realised character study of a man in love – and out of it. When requited, love brings out the best in people. When scorned, it brings out the worst. It’s hard to disagree with one of Armand’s rare flashes of wisdom: “What sublime nonsense love is!” To do him justice, he is intelligent enough to confess that the hard-boiled, clear-eyed and mercantile lectures of Prudence (What a perfect name for a pimp! “Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?”) are as true as her suggestions are reasonable. Also, it must be noted that he clearly recognises the subjectivity of his love and the double standard to which courtesans are subjected:

[Olympe] was the archetypal courtesan who has neither shame nor heart nor wit – or at least she appeared so to me, for perhaps another man had shared with her the idyll I had shared with Marguerite.

But when God allows a courtesan to fall in love, her love, which at first looks like a pardon for her sins, proves almost invariably to be a punishment on her. There is no absolution without penance. When such a creature, who has all the guilt of her past on her conscience, suddenly feels herself gripped by a deep, sincere, irresistible love such as she had never dreamed herself capable of experiencing; when she finally declares her love – how complete the power of the man she loves! How strong he feels once he has the cruel right to say: ‘What you do now for love is no more than you have done for money.’

When that happens, they are at a loss for ways of proving what they feel. A boy in a field who, so the fable goes, persisted in finding it amusing to shout ‘Help!’ to disturb some workmen, was eaten one fine day by a bear, without it occurring to those he had so often deceived that this time his shouts were real. And so it is with these wretched girls when they genuinely fall in love. They have lied so often that no one believes them any more and, beset by remorse, they are eaten by their love.

Which explains the great self-sacrifices, the austere self-seclusions of which a few such women have afforded examples.

The novel, indeed, is no less a personal tragedy than a harsh social critique. Our first narrator doesn’t spare his contempt for Marguerite’s nagging creditors, those vultures who wait for her death to devour her property (“How right were the Ancients who had one God for merchants and thieves!”), or for those upright society ladies so anxious to take a furtive look at the dead courtesan’s private chambers. More importantly, he clearly sees that the whole courtesan business is rooted, not in the personal depravity of the ladies in question, but in the social injustice to which they are subjected, never mind the crude imagery and the unnecessary religious overtones:

I am quite simply persuaded of a principle which states that: To any woman whose education has not imparted goodness, God almost invariably opens up two paths which will lead her back to it; these paths are suffering and love. They are rocky paths; women who follow them will cut their feet and graze their hands, but will at the same time leave the gaudy rags of vice hanging on the briars which line the road, and shall reach their journey’s end in that naked state for which no one need feel shame in the sight of the Lord.

Both paths were offered to Marguerite Gautier. She took them boldly, and paid the highest price.

All in all, not bad for a writer in his middle twenties. For all its rhetorical grandiloquence, the novel often has unexpected simplicity and subtlety. The plot is entirely artificial, but the characters – especially Marguerite – have a transcendental truth about them. It’s not hard to see why it would have made an excellent opera. So it did.

But before it was an opera, it had become a play. Verdi saw it in February 1852 in Paris, at its premiere or shortly after that, and he immediately recognised the operatic potential. So far as I can gather from the French original, which is easily available online, the play is a very ingenious adaptation that significantly compresses, rearranges and possibly improves on the novel. I have not been able to find an English translation, however, so my knowledge of the play rests mostly on Charles Osborne[1]. According to him, Piave skipped Act 2, but followed Dumas relatively closely for the other four acts. Verdi’s librettist was certainly not above lifting situations and even dialogue verbatim. As in the case of Hugo, Piave knew good lines when he saw them.

Marguerite: Ordonnez, je suis prête.
Duval: Il faut lui dire que vous ne l'aimez plus.
Marguerite: Il ne me croira pas.
Duval: Il faut partir.
Marguerite: Il me suivra
Duval: Alors...

Violetta: Imponete.
Germont: Non armarlo ditegli.
Violetta: Nol crederà.
Germont: Partite.
Violetta: Seguirammi.
Germont: Allor…

[English translation by Charles Osborne:]
Violetta: Command me, I am ready.
Germont: Tell him you no longer love him.
Violetta: He won’t believe me.
Germont: Leave.
Violetta: He will follow me.
Germont: Well, then…[2]

Now, it must be said that Verdi and Piave improved on the original. Indeed, they had specialised in the field. Few years earlier they had likewise elevated Hugo’s terribly long-winded, wildly romantic and today totally forgotten dramas Hernani (1830) and Le roi s’amuse (1832) to immortal masterpieces of much more immediate appeal like Ernani (1844) and Rigoletto (1851), respectively. So they did with the play Dumas fils adapted from his own novel. In the libretto, the plot is abridged, the number of characters reduced, and the dialogue highly compressed. The final result is just as artificial, but shorter and more powerful. Of course, it doesn’t work without the music. Marguerite Gautier is now called Violetta Valéry and Armand Duval becomes Alfredo Germont, but otherwise the story and the principals are recognisably the same, even though some parts of the opera are almost entirely original in conception. Violetta’s magnificent scene at the end of Act 1 has hardly a counterpart in the play, much less in the novel:

È strano!... è strano! In core
scolpiti ho quegli accenti!
Saria per me sventura un serio amore?
Che risolvi, o turbata anima mia?
Null'uomo ancora t'accendeva… Oh, gioia
ch’io non conobbi, esser amata amando!
E sdegnarla poss’io
per l'aride follie del viver mio?

Ah, fors’è lui che l'anima
solinga ne’ tumulti
godea sovente pingere
de’ suoi colori occulti!...
Lui, che modesto e vigile
all’egre soglie ascese,
e nuova febbre accese,
destandomi all'amor.
A quell'amor ch’è palpito
dell’universo intero,
misterioso, altero,
croce e delizia al cor!


Follie!... follie!... delirio vano è questo!...
Povera donna, sola,
abbandonata in questo
popoloso deserto
che appellano Parigi,
che spero or più? Che far degg'io? Gioire!
Di voluttà ne’ vortici perir!

Sempre libera degg'io
folleggiare di gioia in gioia,
vo’ che scorra il viver mio
pei sentieri del piacer.
Nasca il giorno, o il giorno muoia,
sempre lieta ne’ ritrovi,
a diletti sempre nuovi
dee volare il mio pensier.

[English translation by Andrew Huth:]
How strange! How strange!
That voice has struck deep into my heart!
Would true love be so terrible?
What do you think, my troubled spirit?
No man has ever inspired you… Oh, I have never known
the joy of loving and being loved.
And could I reject him
for my life of empty pleasure?

Ah, perhaps he is the one that my heart,
lonely even among crowds,
would often delight in imagining
in mysterious colours.
He, who modestly and attentively
came to me when I was ill,
and brought on a new fever
by awakening love in me!
The love that beats
like the pulse of the whole world;
mysterious, unattainable,
the torment and joy of my heart.


It’s madness! It’s just a silly fantasy!
I’m a poor woman,
lonely and abandoned
in this teeming desert
they call Paris;
what have I to hope for? What can I do?
Live for pleasure!
Drown in the whirlpool of the senses!
Live for pleasure!

I must be entirely free
to flutter from one joy to another,
I want my life to continue,
along the paths of pleasure.
As each day comes, as each day goes,
I shall always gaily turn
to new delights
to make my spirit.

Of course, these lyrics are quite incomplete without the music. Yet they marvellously capture Marguerite’s complicated character, her doubts, self-pity, passion and pathos, as depicted by Dumas.

The second act of the play deals with Marguerite’s decision to live with Armand in the country. In the opera, the second act opens when this has already happened some three months before. That’s opera, or rather music drama, at its best. It leaves out the insignificant details and concentrates entirely on the essentials. The second act of the opera is almost entirely occupied by the great scene between Violetta and the old Germont, one of those extended father-daughter duets, much like the ones in Rigoletto, in which Verdi excelled. In the novel, this scene is related second-hand by Marguerite in her diary. In the play, it is pretty much the same as in the opera, except that it’s impossibly long-winded; both parties have plenty of verbose speeches that seem to go on forever. All this is beautifully abridged by Piave and sublimely set to music by Verdi. Germont’s arguments are the same, but it’s quite another story to hear them as “Pura siccome un angelo” and “Un dì, quando le veneri”. Absolutely the same is true of the short scene between Violetta and Alfredo after that. Verdi’s glorious “Amami, Alfredo” is all you need to hear to know that Violetta certainly doesn’t leave him by her own accord. No music-less stage can achieve so penetrating an effect.

The case with the second scene from Act 2 (sometimes incorrectly given as Act 3) from the opera is very similar. It has no analogue in the novel. When Armand wants to revenge himself on Marguerite, he resorts to becoming lover of another courtesan and writing nasty letters to his old mistress. It’s all rather tedious. The situation in the play is far more effective and copied, heavily abridged of course, in the opera. Armand/Alfredo follows Marguerite/Violetta to a party and publicly insults her by flinging a bunch of banknotes into her face. The great difference is that this is how the scene in the play (IV.6.) ends, while in the opera a breathtakingly beautiful ensemble does the job far better.

Astonishingly, Mr Osborne declared himself unable to understand why Piave brought the old Germont to the party where his presence is “both unnecessary and highly unlikely.”[4] Little exercise of thought easily solves this “riddle”. The presence of the father is necessary because he is the first, together with the crowd, who scorns Alfredo for his cruel behaviour with bitter words like “Dov’è mio figlio?.. Più non lo vedo” (“Where is my son? I do not see him”). Germont’s presence at the party is also very likely because he is present when, in the end of the previous scene, Alfredo discovers where Violetta has gone and follows her. It’s only natural that his father, knowing only too well what and why Violetta has done, would follow his son and try to prevent the horrible scene at Flora’s party.

The finale in the play is much the same as in the opera, but significantly different than the one in the novel where Armand and Marguerite don’t meet again before her death. Dumas does achieve an extraordinary dramatic effect with Marguerite’s last entries into her diary, but on the stage reunion and reconciliation of the lovers certainly work better. Piave even retained Violetta’s brief illusion of health:

gli spasimi del dolore!
In me rinasce, m’agita
insolito vigor!
Ah! ma io ritorno a viver…
Oh gioia!

My pains
have ceased!
I feel a new strength
rising in me, stirring with me!
Ah, but I’m returning to life…
What joy!

She comes downstage, raises her hands victoriously, sings a high B flat – and drops on the floor, never to rise again. The “fallen woman” has finally fallen for good, but it must be a heartless spectator who takes “for good” literally.

Note on the Edition

Mr Coward’s Introduction and Notes, expectedly yet disappointingly, are preoccupied with the real foundations of the story and the characters. If you’re the type of reader who finds this stuff improving your appreciation, you will enjoy Mr Coward’s editorial contributions more than I did. I found all this information, including minute details about streets, cafés and shops, more confusing than enlightening. The real story of Marie Duplessis (1824–1847), so far as one can sift fact from fiction, is fascinating. By the age of sixteen (16!), she had already completed the transformation from a simple country girl born in Normandy to the most fashionable courtesan in Paris. Few weeks after her 23rd birthday, she was dead, not quite so impoverished and lonely as presented in the novel, but just about. By all accounts, she was extremely beautiful, witty and irresistible, yet almost certainly she was incapable of the love and sacrifice Dumas attributed to Marguerite. No doubt this is why he made Armand’s father a central force in the break-up. Dumas pére had nothing to do with his son’s affair in the real life. Interesting as all this might be, it is quite irrelevant. It makes the novel neither better nor worse.

Being an academic, Mr Coward is faced with an interesting dilemma. He obviously likes the novel very much, but he cannot possibly hail it as a masterpiece without incurring the everlasting contempt of the venerable academic circles. After some preliminary fidgeting, he comes with the compromise that Marguerite Gautier “does not properly belong with Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina on the high slopes of literature, but with Juliet, Frankenstein’s monster, Madame Butterfly, Tarzan and James Bond at the centre of the collective consciousness.” In other words, the novel may not be a masterpiece, but it is “that far rarer thing: a popular myth.” I don’t know about Bovary and Karenina, but Marguerite is certainly a great deal more complex and compelling character than Juliet and Madame Butterfly, not to mention puerile stuff like Tarzan or James Bond.

The “Note on Money” is a charming curiosity. It does explain why Marguerite is constantly running debts. Mr Coward provides plenty of prices and wages to get a pretty good idea of the sick social context that forms the background of the novel. Believe it or not, each of the camellias Marguerite buys in serious amounts on daily basis would cost as much as the daily wage of the average worker, about 3-4 frs (for men; women got twice less). A single meal in Café de Paris could cost up to 500 frs, the most fashionable hat about thrice more than that. The boxes she keeps in theatres and opera houses would cost something like about 5,500 frs on a six-month lease. No wonder she needs, as mentioned several times in the novel, some 100,000 frs a year to keep her usual lifestyle. No doubt, either, that even the wealthiest aristocrat cannot afford to support her alone. She must always have at least two clients.

[1] Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi [1969], Da Capo, 1988, p. 267-9.
[2] Ibid., p. 269.
[3] Copyrighted by Decca and taken from the booklet of the recording with Sutherland, Bergonzi and Merrill (Decca, 2006, originally recorded in 1962).
[4] Osborne, op. cit., p. 268.
[5] English translation by Andrew Huth. See note 3. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Apr 4, 2016 |
I wanted to name my daughter Camille but I didn't want her life to follow the name and gets the girl's bad. But "Camille" makes me think of a legendary beauty.
  mrsdanaalbasha | Mar 12, 2016 |
The narrator buys a courtesan's old book at a whim. Some time later, the man who gave her the book comes looking for it, and shares with the narrator their tale of love and sorrow. They had but a few short months together before her debts and his family's need to maintain their reputation came between them. I hadn't realized how closely the movie Moulin Rouge was based on this--the broad outline and many of the visual details (like the courtesan visiting her true love one last time, pale and waxy under her black veil) are the same. That said, Ewan McGregor's character was far less frustrating (nay, hateful!) than Armand Duval, the "hero" of this tale. But the courtesan of this tale is even more affecting than in the bombastic movie. I was helplessly crying near the end, distraught at Marguerite's courage and how little she hoped for (in vain, as it turns out).

"...I am tired out with seeing people who always want the same thing; who pay me for it, and then think they are quit of me. If those who are going to go in for our hateful business only knew what it really was they would sooner be chambermaids. But no, vanity, the desire of having dresses and carriages and diamonds carries us away; one believes what one hears, for here, as elsewhere, there is such a thing as belief, and one uses up one's heart, one's body, one's beauty, little by little; one is feared like a beast of prey, scorned like a pariah, surrounded by people who always take more than they give; and one fine day one dies like a dog in a ditch, after having ruined others and ruined one's self."
( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
The story is very similar to Manon Lescaut which is referenced a couple of times. But contrary to that tale, the characters are real, their behavior plausible and the story grips your emotion. The reader for this French edition does a superb job and had me crying during the final stages of the book. ( )
  sushicat | Jan 14, 2016 |
Cuenta la historia que el problèmatico hijo de Alejandro Dumas , Alejandro Dumas (hijo)-valga la redundancia- se enamorò perdidamente de una prostituta de dieciocho años llamada Marie Duplessis . Una mujer hermosa y -supuestamente ,segùn los ojos de quien la amò y sufriò su traiciòn- cruel que lo llevò a la ruina un par de veces . Ruina tanto econòmica como mental .

Marie ,igual que Marguerite deja y regresa varias veces a su "amante amado" . Quizà lo amò , quizà no pero siendo su trabajo lo que fue ,nunca tuvo mucha opciòn .

"Mi querida Marie: No soy lo bastante rico para amaros como quisiera, ni bastante pobre para ser amado como quisierais vos.Olvidemos, entonces; vos, un nombre que debería seros casi indiferente; yo, una felicidad que se ha hecho casi imposible para mí. Tenéis mucho talento para comprender por qué os escribo esta carta y mucha inteligencia para no podérmela perdonar"

Asì se despide Armand/Alejandro de su Marie/Marguerite .

Y la puta ,como en el libro , como en la òpera , como la Garbo en la pelicula y como en todas las interminables adaptaciones , muere de tuberculosis tiempo despuès . Igual que La Dama De Las Camelias.

"La dama..." es una historia màs del estilo de "buen hombre se desespera por femme fatale" . Presente en esta historia como en "Una Venus en Visòn" o en "El angel azul" (dos libros mejores , claramente ,asì como tambièn mejores sus respectivas adaptaciones al cine).

De dònde saldrà esta necesidad del ser humano ,hombre y mujer ,por obsesionarse con quien lo rechaza ,lo humilla .

Una historia que se ha escrito miles de veces . ¿Que tiene esta en especial ,entonces?
Leanla y me cuentan. ( )
  LaMala | Jun 7, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dumas, Alexandreprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bigliosi, CinziaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hardekopf, FerdinandTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Klaiber, HarriatIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maurois, AndréPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Raffalli, BernardEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Secondo me, non si possono creare personaggi se non dopo aver studiato a lungo gli uomini, così come non si può parlare una lingua straniera se non la si è imparata molto bene. Non ho ancora l'età in cui s'inventa, quindi mi accontenterò di raccontare.
Esorto il lettore a credere alla veridicità di questa storia, di cui tutti i personaggi, ad eccezione della protagonista, sono ancora in vita.
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Camille was written by Alexandre Dumas fils (the son of Alexandre Dumas). Please correct your author to the right person.

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0451529200, Mass Market Paperback)

With a new introduction, this Signet Classic is the only available paperback edition of Camille, the instantly-famous story of passion versus class that remains as timeless as love itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:50 -0400)

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This Signet Classic is the only available paperback edition of the famous story of passion versus class that remains as timeless as love itself. Features a new Introduction and a 16-page photo insert. Reissue.

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