Alexandre Dumas



“But it’s the title of the book!”

Violetta coughed, then winced. “Then you will need to change the title. Trust me, darling. The camellias have to go.”

Alexandre’s voice was very nearly petulant. “But Violetta, it’s a lovely metaphor. And a beautiful one, don’t you think? Flowers to represent her beauty, her passion, the purity which she has rejected…”

“Her monthlies…”

“And to call her the Lady of the Camellias – it flows so romantically from the tongue…”

“Not usually. And I have to say, that’s an even more disgusting image than your first idea.”

“A sweet name will make her more sympathetic. I want my readers to see her inner beauty, despite her profession. You of all people should appreciate that.”

Violetta’s snort of disgust turned into another cough. She waved away Alexandre’s proffered handkerchief. “Darling, that’s rubbish, and you know it. There is absolutely nothing romantic about bleeding – from any orifice – and only a man would ever compare the experience to a red flower. You chose camellias because you like the image, just as you are writing this story because it’s the story you want to write. It has nothing to do with me at all.”

She reached out and patted his hand. “It’s alright, dear. It’s sweet of you to claim me as your inspiration, but there’s no need to pretend.”

Alexandre looked stricken. Men. They might shrug and allow you to be unfaithful to their love; their self-esteem was another matter. And God himself knew that Alexandre had a lot of self-esteem to wound. He probably believed that he really was writing this novel for her. Still, he had leased her a very comfortable apartment to die in, and he had continued to visit her while she was doing so, even though her breath now stank of rot in a fashion entirely unromantic and absolutely unconducive to poetry. Or lovemaking.  As lovers went, she could do far worse.

But that didn’t mean she had to encourage menstrual camellias. Violetta coughed again, and tried for a milder tone.

“I’m sorry darling. You know the pain makes me short at times. But really, for your own sake, you need to get rid of the camellias. Think of your poor heroine! You have her wear a white camellia what, twenty five days a month, and a red one for the other five, and you really think nobody will figure out what the red symbolizes? Now, I’ll be the first to admit that most men are rather stupid, but I can assure you that they are very accomplished when it comes to noticing matters which are relevant to their private parts. Believe me, Marguerite’s lovers are going to notice if she wears a red camellia whenever she is closed for business.”

This time, it was Alexandre who coughed as though he was about to choke. He walked over the window, looking down on the streets below. Hiding a blush, she suspected. Sure enough…

“Do you have to be so vulgar, Violetta?”

“My dear, consider my profession. Of course I do. I hope you don’t plan to make Marguerite too proper, by the way. That whole ‘courtesan with the heart of gold’ motif is all very well, but make her convincing. Take it from me, men who seek out courtesans are looking for a woman who doesn’t mind a few dirty jokes, and has a few of her own, not an icon of fallen purity.”

She coughed again, and then sighed, leaning back against the arm of the chaise longue. Dying was a tiring business.  “Those girls never do so well, anyway. There has to be some fun in it, or it’s no life at all.” She looked over at her lover, who was unmistakably red in the face. “And now I’ve embarrassed you. However did you find yourself seeking me out in the first place? You make a terrible hedonist, you know, darling. You are much too well-behaved for the role.”


Alexandre shook his head, but moved away from the window to come and sit beside Violetta on the chaise longue, letting her rest her head in his lap. She smiled up at him, as sweetly as she knew how. “Lose the camellias,” she advised again.

Alexandre laughed, then leaned down to kiss her forehead. He could laugh at himself, at least, if prompted. And he had always kissed nicely.  He had kissed her lips for the last time weeks ago, and she rather missed it, not that consumption was a great enhancer of pleasure, or that she had the energy to follow through.  Still, these were all redeeming features, important to consider when one was spending the last days of one’s life in a man’s company.

“I really don’t think any of my readers will figure it out, Violetta. Most gentlemen – lacking your helpful instruction – are remarkably ignorant of a woman’s body. You know this as well as I do. And those who do read it and realise will simply think themselves very clever and feel superior as a result.”

“Men do enjoy feeling superior,” Violetta agreed. “But there is a portion of your audience who you have not considered.”

“And who might that be?”

“Why, the women, of course. I assure you, they will know exactly what the red camellia means, and they will not find it even slightly romantic.”

Now Alexandre looked truly shocked. On the negative side of the balance, he really was a bit of a prude. “No respectable woman is going to read a book about a courtesan!”

Violetta began to laugh, then had to get Alexandre’s assistance to sit up, so that she could cough. The fit was prolonged, and at the end, she lay back against his shoulder, exhausted and pale. Alexandre stroked her hair back from her forehead. “I’m sorry. Should I go? All this talking is bad for you, I think.”

Violetta shook her head, still fighting for breath. “Please stay. You have no idea how boring it is, just – dying. I can’t sing any more. I can’t go out. I would rather shorten my life with conversation than prolong it with staring at the wall. And now I’ve upset you again.”

Alexandre smiled, looking pained. “Only when you suggested that respectable women would read my book.”

Violetta smiled faintly, rewarding the unsubtle (but gallant) attempt to change the subject. “I could point out that there are many, many less respectable women who enjoy reading a good story.  And their money is just as good as money earned by proper means.” She coughed. Again.

“But then, I hardly have to, my dear. You yourself have told me it’s a very moral tale indeed. Does not your courtesan repent of her wicked ways and die, graciously, saving the sister of her beloved from disgrace? Incidentally, you really have to do something about her lover. I can cope with a hero who is stupid, but that Armand is such a sanctimonious piece of work.  I have no time for him, and I am certain he is terrible in bed. Marguerite deserves better.”

Alexandre’s smile grew even more pained. “I think you are tired, love. Let me carry you to bed and call your maid.”

Apparently he had had enough literary criticism for one afternoon. Violetta suppressed a sigh, acquiescing. Patience was a far larger part of the courtesan’s skill than any man would ever appreciate, and it was getting harder to muster, knowing that her time was so short.

Though, really, did he have to write her so foolishly? She made one last attempt.

“It’s a good story love. I just don’t think it’s the best one you are capable of writing. Not yet.”

But Alexandre simply smiled down at her again, and then lifted her into his arms to carry her up to her bedchamber. She didn’t weigh much these days.

Propped up on her pillows, Violetta smiled once more at her lover, pressing her lips together hard as he closed the door behind him, suppressing the cough that wanted to come. He didn’t need to hear it, and he deserved that much consideration from her.

As for what he did need to hear… well. She would be dead before the novel was published, and did it truly matter how the world saw her when she was no longer there to witness it? She had hardly minded what the world said when she was still in it. Still.

The next cough racked her with pain, and left a clot of blood and something else on the towel she had laid down to protect her sheets. Her maid murmured something anxious, but Violetta didn’t hear it. Her ears were still ringing with the words she hadn’t spoken.

If you are going to claim me as your inspiration, love, don’t make me into an insipid erotic fantasy, and don’t make me a romantic fool. If I am to sacrifice myself for my lover’s virginal sister – and darling, have I ever told you what a dreadful double standard that is? – let me sing and dance my way through life first, always free, hurrying from pleasure to pleasure along the path of delight, not alone and abandoned in this crowded desert which men call Paris. Don’t make your readers remember me as a wretched fallen woman who died for love – show them instead a woman who lived her life boldly.  Show them a woman who knew what she wanted, who lived a full seventy years worth of bloody, passionate, painful, ridiculous life, in the twenty years she actually had. Make my memory a living woman, not a perfect, soulless icon.

And for God’s sake, don’t make me wear a camellia.


Alexandre Dumas Père, Fils, et Gare

Alexandre Dumas is the name of a station on the Paris Metro 2 line. The station opened on January 31, 1903, with the original name ‘Bagnolet’, and was re-named ‘Alexandre Dumas’ in 1970, in honour of the 19th century French author. Alexandre Dumas wrote more than forty novels and plays, including Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers), Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo), and La Reine Margot (Queen Margot).

The Alexandre Dumas of my story, and the author of La Dame Aux Camelias (The Lady of the Camellias) is actually the son of the Alexandre Dumas for whom this station is named.  (They are referred to, originally, as Dumas père and Dumas fils.)  Dumas fils was 24 when he wrote this novel, which tells the tragic story of Marguerite, a courtesan gives up her lover for the sake of love, and then dies of consumption.  His young age at the time of writing almost makes the character of Armand Duval forgiveable, but only almost. He later turned the novel into a play, which was adapted into an opera, La Traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi (La Traviata later became the inspiration for Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, so Dumas fils has a lot to answer for).

Verdi renamed Marguerite as Violetta, and then, apparently out of sheer perverseness, made her sing a demanding aria at the end of Act III, while dying of consumption. Opera is not known for its realism, but this is a bit special even by operatic standards. Still, one can forgive a lot for the sake of good music.   I recommend listening to the Natalie Dessay recording of Sempre Libera while reading Violetta’s final soliloquy. I shamelessly stole several of her lines from the libretto…


Philippe Auguste fleurdelis-left Alexandre Dumas fleurdelis-right Avron

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