Proust's Duchess

Proust Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin de Siècle Paris by Caroline Weber


Caroline Weber has given us a meticulously researched, well written, and generously illustrated book that is a must read for anyone interested in the fin-de-siècle milieu in which Proust lived and especially in the lives of the three muses from which he drew inspiration for his great work, In Search of Lost Time. Weber’s book contains a treasure trove of information both serious and entertaining. The illustrations alone, a number of which are in color and many of which are usually unavailable to the general reader, make this a book worth having in one’s hands and on one’s shelf. One also finds at the back of the book a section giving “A Timeline of Political Régime Changes in France, 1792-1870,” another on “Proust as Social Columnist,” notes, a thorough and up-to-date bibliography, and an index.

Weber traces in abundant detail the lives of the three muses who posed unwittingly for Proust’s creation of the beautiful, haughty, and ultimately shallow Duchesse de Guermantes: Laure de Sade, who became Mme de Chevigné, Élisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, who married the extremely rich and constantly unfaithful Comte Greffulhe, and Geneviève Halévy, daughter of distinguished composer Fromental Halévy. Geneviève wed Georges Bizet, and later, some years into her widowhood, accepted (with misgivings) the marriage proposal of the well-connected lawyer, Émile Straus. It would be difficult to imagine a more vain and self-centered person than the Comtesse Greffulhe, but her beauty, elegance, and sense of fashion intoxicated many of the men who saw her and tried, always in vain, to seduce her. Her beauty, her hauteur, and unique sense of fashion are those of Proust’s duchess. As for the duchess’s blond hair and birdlike facial features and mythological origin, Mme de Chevigné was the model. Geneviève Straus’s primary contribution to the duchess was her wit, known in the novel as “the Guermantes wit.”

I would have liked the portraits of Mme Straus and Proust himself to be more nuanced. Theirs is a lifelong relationship about which we know far more for certain than we do about his relationship with the other two muses (Greffulhe and Chevigné), who inhabited the rarefied world of the aristocracy and who wanted little or nothing to do with Proust. Mme Straus, of Jewish descent, was one of the brightest stars of Paris bohemia; her salon was frequented not only by members of the aristocracy but also by many of Paris’s most important artists, writers, and composers. In addition to noting her often hilarious bons mots, Proust often called on her to provide details about high fashion. In describing the early relationship between Proust and Mme Straus, Weber quotes passages from Proust’s letters in which the young writer and would-be suitor laments Mme Straus’s refusal to take seriously the literary and philosophical subjects that he proposed, let 

alone his own amorous outpourings. Weber reads Proust’s words and tones in such letters as constituting a rejection and even an attack on his muse. In fact, Weber’s depiction of Proust reaction to Mme Straus’s behavior is one of constant disillusionment and condemnation. Weber even suggests that Proust may have rejoiced that Mme Straus was not on Robert de Montesquiou’s highly select guest list for the Fête littéraire that the count gave to inaugurate the Pavilion Montesquiou at Versailles—an event about which Proust wrote a society column for Le Gaulois. In the epistolary exchanges between Mme Straus and young Proust, no offense was intended and none was taken. Weber does not

take into account that young Proust, in his letters to Mme Straus and to his classmates at Condorcet, was often posing, trying out literary genres, characterizations, and writing parodies, a genre for which he later became famous. (If anyone understood literary license it was certainly Geneviève Halévy Bizet.) The playful, mischievous Proust is missing from Weber’s pages. Proust observed and demonstrated in his letters and mature writings that each of us consists of multiple selves (les moi successifs) and taking this important belief into consideration might have yielded more complete and lifelike portraits of Mme Straus and the author himself. Mme Straus remained, with Reynaldo Hahn, Proust’s lifelong friend and confidant. The many letters she and Proust exchanged throughout his life show that he adored her (no Proustifying there) and placed her on a very high pedestal indeed. Not only did he continue to consult her about fashion, but he also wrote to her some of his most thoughtful passages about music, aspects of language and style, and the genesis of his novel. The first notebook that Proust used to begin writing what was to become A la recherche du temps perdu was a notebook given to him by Mme Straus.

Such reservations aside, one can only admire what Weber has accomplished here. One of her many strong suits is her knowledge of etiquette and protocol in the aristocratic families, descendants of those of France’s ancien régime. The details given and commented by Weber provide invaluable insights to understanding Proust’s own research and the courtly rituals he describes in passages in the novel. Weber is also an expert on fashion, as was amply demonstrated in her previous book, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (2006). The portraits that Weber gives us of Proust’s three muses constitute impressive and informative biographies of each of the women that include informative and often entertaining details about the men in their lives. These revealing episodes focus on some of the more memorable figures of the period, such as Guy de Maupassant, and on others who today are mostly forgotten, such as Lord Lytton and Georges de Porto-Riche. Other men who figure prominently in this book include Comte Robert de Montesquiou, Mme Greffulhe’s cousin and one of the primary models for Charlus, Comte Robert de Fitz-James, and librettist Henri Meilhac. There are cameo portraits of other figures as well, sketches made available perhaps for the first time to Anglophone readers. Weber also deserves credit for filling gaps left by other scholars and biographers and indeed by Proust himself in his own writings. These welcome contributions include a description of the attacks made by anarchists on some of the members of the aristocracy, including relatives and friends of the Greffulhe’s. These bombings and attempted assassinations occurred in the early 1890s during the period of Proust’s “fascination with the grandes mondaines.”


Any reader interested in the art and history of Paris during the fin-de-siècle, one of the most fascinating epochs of the modern era, and especially in the genesis of Proust’s novel, will be greatly rewarded by reading Caroline Weber’s superb new book.




                                                                                Reviewed by William C. Carter

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