The Lady of the Camellias and Her Myth

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The Sun is about to enter Libra, the sign of refined elegance ruled by Venus. Two countries associated with Libra in mundane astrology are France (the Sun in Libra) and Japan (the Ascendant in Libra). One expression of the archetype of Libra are courtesans and geishas associated with Libran qualities of beauty, pleasure, grace and erotic love.

I came across a very interesting article in the last issue of The New York Review of Books dedicated to the most famous French courtesan, Marie Duplessis, otherwise known as The Lady of the Camellias. Dumas wrote a popular novel about her, Verdi composed a famous opera (La Traviata). She captured the imagination of her contemporaries, who mourned her premature death, and the two artists gave her immortality.

In her article “Broken Blossoms,” Anka Muhlstein writes:

In the pecking order of the demimonde of nineteenth-century Paris, the courtesans ranked highest. Merchants of love though they were, they stood apart from the prostitutes who walked the streets… A courtesan never burdened herself with any career other than the one she pursued flat on her back…

From our modern perspective, it is quite easy to share the journalist’s ironic view of the courtesan’s career. I also could not help rolling my eyes when I read about a typical day of Marie Duplessis at the height of her wealth and influence. She would wake up at eleven, drink a cup of hot chocolate and read a little bit. She would spend a few hours deciding what to wear, afterwards she would go shopping or for a carriage ride. She would spend her evenings in the opera, theatre or at parties. Shallow, you may think, but why do these women still hold a fascination in our culture?

The institution of courtesan goes back to ancient Greece. The ancients had temple prostitutes on the one hand, who were vessels of the ecstasy of the goddess. They were free women without any marital bonds, who acted as divine conduits and initiators of men. I am planning a blog post on sacred prostitution some time in the near future, so today I would like to focus solely on the French courtesan. She appears to be more directly related to the ancient Greek institution of the hetaera. The hetaeras were well respected in ancient Greece as educated and refined companions, beautiful and skilled in erotic love. There is a clear connection between the Second Empire France, where courtesans ruled the salons, and ancient Greece with the hetaeras, whose patron goddess was of course Aphrodite. As I see it, neither in Greece nor in France of that time was marriage was a union of love, but it was rather an expression of a stifling patriarchal social order, one chiefly meant to suppress women. The bourgeois wife was expected to be pious, virtuous and respectable. The courtesan was the opposite of all these qualities, and yet she commanded her own brand of respect.

Marie Duplessis (born Alphonsine Rose Plessis) died of tuberculosis at the age of 23. She was mourned by the whole Paris. Her real life story is considerably different from the one portrayed by Dumas or Verdi. She came from a humble background having been born in the French countryside. Her father was brutally abusive to her mother, who fled from him and died shortly after from distress. Marie came to Paris with nothing and managed to find a job in a fashionable boutique. She learnt very fast how to dress fetchingly and surrounded herself with a wide circle of girlfriends. On a night out in a restaurant she managed to seduce its owner, who subsequently bought her an apartment in a good neighbourhood and presented her with a large sum of money. But he was not rich enough for her. She cast her nets wider and soon enough met the rich aristocrat Agenor de Guiche, who taught her how to behave in high society. According to her contemporaries, she oozed exquisite charm, and was described as witty, graceful, tactful, discreet and intelligent.

She was famous for being incredibly expensive. To sustain her lavish lifestyle she had to juggle crowds of male visitors. Her richest lover was a Russian count, Gustav von Stackelberg, aged 80, father of twelve. He set her up in real splendour: a grand apartment with a chambermaid, a cook, a coachman, a valet, and a groom. Her signature was a camellia flower in her black locks – a white one twenty-five days a month and a red one when she was indisposed. Sadly, little is known of her true personality, as she left no letters or memoirs.

In his novel, Dumas portrays her as a heroic woman who sacrificed her love to spare the reputation of her aristocratic lover. She stepped aside to save the young man’s career and reputation. The part of “the hooker with a heart of gold” was coveted by both actresses and operatic divas alike. Greta Garbo is said to have played the role splendidly. Says Anka Muhlstein:

With the stroke of a pen, Dumas rescued the image of the kept woman, turning her into the pitiable victim of bourgeois selfishness. … Alexandre read the novel to a friend. Both men broke down sobbing.

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The play based on the novel was also enormously successful:

When Dumas climbed onto the stage to take his bow, the women in the audience showered him with bouquets wet with their tears.

Dumas’ novel may be touching, but it is not a masterpiece. I must admit that I read it in my teenage years and I remember being engrossed in it. However, La Traviata is a feat of genius and it has incredible emotional power. Artists have told the myth of Marie Duplessis, not a true story of her life or personality. Yet there is a profound truth in the myth: deep down we all crave to achieve the union of erotic, pleasurable and esthetic love (symbolized by Libra, ruled by Venus) with the emotional depth, accompanied by true commitment and security. Isn’t this a deep wound of our culture that these two aspects are so often in conflict?

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31 Responses to The Lady of the Camellias and Her Myth

  1. Happy to see a new area of exploration here at symbolreader. I am fascinated with these women, I doubt I would be able to pull off a proper courtesan, because descretion has never been my strong suit 🙂 I agree with you about marriage, why do millions of young girls dream of this confectionary cotton candy fluff? we need something better to replace it with! so many people do not realize marriage and love is a modern notion! I am not saying people should not marry, just that so many do not see it clearly.

    I eagerly await your sacred prostitution post, my book is handy!!

    BTW, how was your trip?

    love, Plutolinda

    • Dear Plutolinda, thank you so much. I am still not done with Grof, but needed a respite.
      About marriage, I know what you mean, but a lot of men dream of cotton candy as well. I am not against marriage, far from it – I was really happy to get married.
      About the trip – had to postpone it. Thanks for asking.

  2. Oh yes Monika~ A topic of great interest. When I read about Aspasia the hetairai and the mistress of Pericles and friend to Socrates, I wanted to write a screen play, but I do not have enough historical knowledge. I even started a blog to use as a storyboard. I think it would make a great movie.

    http://aspasiaofathens.wordpress.com/

    You are probably and hopefully going to discuss her.

  3. A fascinating article… it’s amazing how much influence these courtesans had on the cultures and politics of the societies in which they lived.

  4. Don says:

    “deep down we all crave to achieve the union of erotic, pleasurable and aesthetic love (symbolized by Libra, ruled by Venus) with the emotional depth, accompanied by true commitment and security. Isn’t this a deep wound of our culture that these two aspects are so often in conflict?”

    I agree Monika, the yearning for both these aspects is profoundly real. I think the pain and the conflict has come out of the fragmentation of the two, more than often enforced by cultural norms that have certainly not done anything to nurture a healthy form of integration. Perhaps the fact that conflict remains has a healthy side to it. It shows that at least we’re still struggling with the process to integrate the two, or does it; I hope so. It raises all sorts of issues and questions. Again, thanks for a marvellous post.

  5. escarinae says:

    Yes, it is a very deep wound of our culture, as you say in the end, that the various aspects of femininity are unnaturally split into the various social roles assigned to the woman. In none of these would you be allowed to be your complete feminine self. You either have to be the wife, or the (revered or not so revered) prostitute, or the mother. You cannot be all of these although nature has given you the possibility to be all of it. I think this is just as dissatisfying for women as it is for men. Due to social conditioning, men would keep craving a kind of connection that they will never find in just the wife or just the lover or just the mother. Yet the same role -plays are being repeated incessantly without recognition of the true sources of the problems.

    I somehow feel that this topic has become very important at the moment, as it does cyclically. I guess humanity is slowly urged to open up for the complexities of the issues raised and shake off the centuries old conditioning. Only in this way will the path towards restoring original harmony be opened.

    I am very interested in what you will write on sacred sexuality. I avoid the word prostitution here, because it is so loaded with connotations. When you write about this, I may have something to add.

    And yes, it is impressive how the image of the woman who was intelligent and educated,and who naturally wanted to be independent and go her own path of personal development was dumped under the image of the prostitute. Women were not to be allowed to believe they could choose about their lives – as soon as they wanted to, society spat them out. They were not fitting for wives. This was rather the case in ancient Greece which has also strongly influenced European culture, as you suggest.

    In Babylon, there was the separation into categories of women as in other places, but at least these women, who were dedicated to the goddess Istar and called istaritu, were revered in society. In Akkadian you have two different words for a prostitute and a woman who serves in a temple. The latter had a special status in society, yet restricted again through the very concept of it. You were supposed to be either this or that.

    In India, you would have had no source of sustenance if you were not married, so prostitution was the alternative including in the cases where your husband died or dumped you. You may enjoy watching a movie “Water” by Deepa Mehta. I must warn you you may cry your eyes out upon it, but it is an incredibly revealing movie on the life of women in India.

    I can write tons on this, but I am looking forwards to your next post.

    • Thank you so much for this amazing and thoughtful comment. I admire people who say they can write tons on a subject. I feel I am always so succinct – do not really like to talk or write too much. And by the way, I love your writing style – long posts so full of great meanders.
      I agree with what you said about the split in our culture. It is also the inherent tension between the signs of the cardinal cross maybe. But of course there is also the social “spitting out” of the women who dared to make choices and refused to follow the narrow, assigned path.
      As you suggest, perhaps it is correct to avoid the word prostitute. I will try although all the sources use it so it will be tough. Liz Greene uses the word “temple harlot.” On a personal note, I was one of these women in a past life. Ishtar happens to be a goddess closest to me.
      Thank you again for a great comment.

      • escarinae says:

        Interesting that you would mention the cardinal cross in connection with this separation. I have to let this go through my mind…

        I also have past life experiences as you mention. In various cultures, most notably India, Babylon, Egypt. But I also have not so “holy” incarnations, one in Gomorrha. I have been on the holy and not so holy sides of such experiences, as we all do in order to find out what they are about. Venus trine Pluto is the most exact aspect in my chart, adding to a quite exact trine between the Moon and Lilith. So I guess I am also quite ready for the jump into uniting all of the feminine aspects – within myself but also as reflected in the environment.

        We seem to share a path there, no coincidences.

      • So you worked for that trine for centuries… I think my whole blog writing is an attempt to express my 12-house Venus in Leo. That is why I chose the 8-pointed star of Ishtar as the emblem. Thanks again, really there are no coincidences. I feel motivated to delve into the subject now.

  6. I was rereading comments as I am known to do, and read about your 12 house Venus in Leo is your blog’s ” signature.” I totally agree with you and am very pleased to see your declaration in writing today! I am also intrigued about your past-life statement. So many seem to know who they were with such certainty. I am taking another look at reincarnation and I am less sure of any prior notions. Buy my exploration continues ……

    makes me wonder how my chart activated my blog ???

  7. shreejacob says:

    Loved the article…and eager to know more. I agree the age when men suppressed the women caused all sorts of problems we carry even to this day. It is something to work to, to embrace the receptive feminine energy and to work with our masculine side…I mean, if even God has both sides in His nature…then why fear it?

  8. Soul Fields says:

    Oh, how I love this post and your approach. I became interested in her side of the story, too, what a pity that there are no notes from her. And on the other – that´s one thing to remain a mystery (though maybe not consciously designed from her, just playing with the idea). I love how you geared the story for today, as the balance of feminine and masculine energies is such a relevant issue in the world, and the relationships/coupling patterns being in transformational process.

    PS. Like Linda, I too enjoyed you telling the signature of your blog being your 12th house Venus in Leo. My Venus is in Capricorn in the 11th house conjuction Mars in the 10th/MC. Both Venus and Mars make sextiles to my Asc (I have often thought that the Venus sextile has been a true gift and blessing to me). Anyways I myself think that the conjunction of Venus and Mars describes why equality with men has been a natural issue to me for one thing. (There are other explanations why coupling with men although being in love on the other hand has been a challenging inward issue to me, no problems with them as friends and colleagues, and it has always been important to me to have both female and male friends.) At the moment Venus is touring through my large 7th house through Virgo, Libra and Scorpio.

    • Oh, what a lovely comment, thank you. I think these topics are always relevant but especially at the equinox we often feel the need to talk about balance and imbalance, especially in relationships. Very interesting about your Venus! I have also learnt to appreciate mine and blogging has helped. It’s all about relating to like-minded people – like yourself.

      • Soul Fields says:

        Thank you, dear like minded. 🙂 PS. My natal Venus has also other aspects, like trine both Uranus and Pluto being in conjuction in Virgo in the 7th house (where I also have Sun conjuction Neptune in Scorpio, no planets in Libra). I shared the sextile (it is with Saturn in Pisces/Asc too) because I especially love them, for to me they are symbols of ease, and usually of qualities that we already naturally master, qualities that just are (learned in the past lives perhaps). During transformational times it has been important to me to focus also on them and on he other easier aspects. Generally spoken and like it is to many of us my astrological interpretations may or may not follow the book.

      • So many planets in the seventh! Mine is empty, oh sorry – there is Lilith! I am also a fan of sextiles. I’ve got a lot of them.

  9. Soul Fields says:

    conjuction = conjuction 😀

  10. Theresa says:

    Fascinating – Jung’s archetypes support this.

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