Proust’s Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women
Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siècle Paris
by Caroline Weber
Knopf. 736 pages, $35.
IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, the novel Marcel Proust wrote about Parisian society at the end of the 19th century, contains innumerable characters, but the main ones really amount to no more than four: Swann, the æsthete who falls in love with a cocotte named Odette; Madame Verdurin, the philistine middle-class hostess; the Baron de Charlus, the homosexual dandy; and the Duchess of Guermantes, the reigning beauty who stands at the summit of the snobbish social order named after the Faubourg Saint Germain, the Parisian neighborhood in which most of the “gratin” (the crust) lived. Caroline Weber’s new book, Proust’s Duchess, is about the three real women who were the models for the Duchess of Guermantes.
Proust said there wasn’t one key to the characters in what used to be titled Remembrance of Things Past but is now translated as In Search of Lost Time (though, as Weber points out, “temps perdu” means not only lost, but wasted time—i.e., time spent in society salons not writing his book).
Proust was afraid that his friend Robert de Montesquiou would recognize himself in the Baron de Charlus, but when asked about real-life models, Proust said there were too many for each character to enumerate. Still, he admitted when pressed that for the Duchess of Guermantes there were three: the Comtesse de Chevigné (Laure de Sade—a descendant of the infamous marquis); Geneviève Straus (the widow of Georges Bizet); and Élisabeth Greffulhe, an extremely well-born beauty who married one of the richest men in France, Vicomte Henry Greffulhe.
It has always been clear that Proust’s book grew out of a very rich soil—the soil of a culture that seems to have come to some sort of æsthetic climax at the end of the 19th century in Paris. But Weber’s exhaustively researched book describes this context better than any of the biographies of
Proust that this reviewer has read. And she’s done it simply by focusing on the lives of these three women from childhood to the moment when they decided to make a career for themselves as mondaines—women of the world (the “monde”) whose power came from the salons they created. Indeed, it’s only when she has established these women’s stories that Proust comes onstage, a third of the way into the book, as a young student at the Lycée Condorcet, a demanding school to which rich Jewish families sent their sons. This is where he met and fell in love with his fellow students Daniel Halévy and Jacques Bizet—and wrote letters to each one trying to convince them that “pederasty” was perfectly acceptable by citing the ancient writers they were studying at the time. Perhaps only in France would these two adolescents have stopped harassing their frail classmate simply because they recognized in these letters Proust’s literary talent. But they did, and went on to start a literary magazine to which they sold subscriptions in the salon that Geneviève Straus, Jacques Bizet’s mother, had created in her home near Montmartre. Proust was admitted to this salon after graduation because of his friendship with Jacques, though Halévy and Bizet felt it was a waste of Proust’s time and talent. Proust instinctively recognized it for what it was: a rich source of material.
The salon that Bizet’s mother created was known for mixing aristocrats and bohemians—composers like Gabriel Fauré, Charles Gounod, and Jules Massenet, writers like Guy de Maupassant and Georges de Porto-Riche. Proust turned out to be not the only writer to use the “monde” as his subject. Porto-Riche wrote plays about cold-hearted society women breaking men’s hearts. De Maupassant used the monde in at least two novels: Strong as Death and Our Heart. All of them seemed to come to the same conclusion. The monde’s code of honor was “Thou Shall be Polite,” but it was also snobbish, anti-intellectual, and heartless, or, as Élisabeth Greffulhe lamented, a world where real emotion was frowned upon and only appearances mattered—a world in which everything, said Maupassant, was “a simulacrum,” not the thing itself.
What exactly went on in a salon? On the surface, these evenings at home were about conversation. The salons thrived on witty remarks that would be repeated to the author’s credit all over the Faubourg Saint-Germain, if not the city itself. The wit was always mocking. A woman would be described not as “a cow” but an “entire herd.” Mme Straus’ most famous riposte came when the composer Charles Gounod turned to her during the intermezzo of the premiere of Massenet’s opera Herodias “and declared in sententious tones, ‘I find the music octagonal,’” whereupon Mme Straus exclaimed: “I was JUST going to say that!”
Gounod and Massenet both went to Mme Straus’ salon, sometimes accompanying her on the piano when she sang. But while wit was the sport of the salons, the subtext was more complex. Reading Weber, one can only conclude that the salons were a way of dealing with a strange amalgam of anxieties—political, social, æsthetic—related to the overwhelming sense of change in late 19th-century Europe. On the surface, the salons were based upon snobbery—either artistic talent or having been “born” into one of the great families of France. But they were also about the aristocrats’ fear of losing their status—due to the rise of the middle class, the mass media, and the mass man—all the things the Faubourg made a point to disdain and exclude. As Princesse Bibesco, a friend of Proust, wrote: “in the middle of Paris, [the monde]formed a world as distant from ordinary people on the streets as the moon is from the earth.”
Part of this was the Æsthetic Movement—the religion of art. Proust met Oscar Wilde in Mme Straus’ salon (and invited him home afterwards, only to have Wilde turn on his heel and walk out the minute he saw Mme Proust’s furniture). Élisabeth Greffulhe patronized the painters Gustave Moreau and James McNeil Whistler and composers like Gabriel Fauré. The music most associated with the Belle Époque is probably Jacques Offenbach’s comic operettas—the high-kicking can-can, say, from Orpheus in the Underworld. But if one wants to be transported back to the salons of Mme Straus and Élisabeth Greffulhe one should turn instead to the dreamy, otherworldly beauty of Debussy and Satie, or Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess (inspired by a pavane that Fauré dedicated to Élisabeth Greffulhe). Proust, one of whose most famous passages is the description of an evening at the opera, not only began his novel with an Overture, but also created a fictional composer named Vinteuil, whose violin sonata contains a “little phrase” for which Swann waits when he attends a musical soirée because it reminds him of his love for Odette.
And then there was Wagner, whose music epitomized the nostalgia for a medieval, courtly, romantic ethos that characterized the Æsthetic Movement in both England and France. There was a reason these women with the swan-like necks were being examined through opera glasses as they sat in their boxes at the Palais Garnier. Sexual desire was a component of this milieu as much as wit or the love of gossip or the arts. Perhaps the oddest thing about the at-homes, at least to the modern reader, is that all these accomplished men (“les vieux”: the oldsters) hung around because they thought they had a chance of going to bed with the women who presided over these gatherings: Geneviève Straus, Laure de Chevigné, and even Élisabeth Greffulhe. And the women knew this. Laure de Sade had a mouth like a stable-boy’s, but her celebrity was based in part on the fact that she was descended from the woman to whom the 14th-century poet Petrarch had written his sonnets. Élisabeth Greffulhe dreamt of a lover like Petrarch, but in the meantime she knew that to hold the men who came to her salons, she had to keep them dangling.
But this suited Proust perfectly in the first salon to which he gained admittance. “In addition to disguising his homosexuality,” writes Weber, “the fiction of Proust’s infatuation with Mme Straus served as an alibi for his assiduous presence at her at-homes.” Proust, Weber says, had a pattern: He’d fall in love with boys like Jacques Bizet and Daniel Halévy, find himself rebuffed, and then transfer his adoration, at least in the case of Bizet, to his mother. And since, in Madame Straus’
salon, all the men were paying court to her, he blended right in. When Proust had sex, it was with men his age. His longest-lasting boyfriend was the Venezuelan composer Reynaldo Hahn. But in Mme Straus’ salon, Proust was ostensibly as enraptured by his hostess’ physical allure as were the rest of her guests, though the society journalist André Meyer claimed that “one out of three men in the monde are pederasts.” To her credit, when someone warned Mme Straus that her tolerance for homosexuals would ruin her salon, she simply replied: “They don’t hunt the same prey we do, so where’s the harm?”
This attempt of the salonistes to keep their male guests enthralled with a promise of romance was, alas, contradicted by real life. Their husbands, for starters, shattered any notions of platonic romance. Women had virtually no legal rights in fin-de-siècle Paris, and these husbands seemed to have treated their wives as trophies or as means to an end. Only the Comtesse de Chevigné seems to
have escaped; her husband was a mild-mannered geographer who was probably gay and let his wife do what she wanted. Mme Straus’ domestic life was another matter. Married when young to the composer Georges Bizet, she lost him after a brief marriage. As Weber tells it, the failure of the premiere of Carmen was so devastating to Bizet that he entered a physical decline, sealing his doom by taking a swim in a country river that led to a fatal chill. Geneviève was the Widow Bizet the rest of her life—visible even today on a statue of Bizet at the Opéra Comique. But she remarried a social-climbing, boorish lawyer named Straus. And when she finally gave in to Guy de Maupassant—a famous womanizer—she was so “disgusted by Maupassant’s brutality” in bed that she told him she “never wanted to submit to a second experience.”
Which leaves Élisabeth Greffulhe, married at eighteen to one of the richest men in France, a domestic tyrant whom Robert de Montesquiou (the model for Proust’s great homosexual character Baron de Charlus) always referred to as the Big Blockhead. Henry Greffulhe was so assiduous about visiting the over 300 mistresses he kept in Paris that his horse had learned to stop at their doors without being urged to—so that on his wedding day, as he and Élisabeth rode from the church to the reception, he was terrified that the horse would do just that. Greffulhe was so anti-intellectual that he didn’t like his wife reading, and so narcissistic that he once ripped a book from her hand with the remark, “Loving me is better than any novel!” He was what we’d call today a male chauvinist pig, who put up with his wife’s social ambitions only because being married to the most stylish and beautiful woman in Paris flattered his vanity. But not only did he humiliate her in front of dinner guests by spitting in her face, he may have beat her—although he did not do what Monsieur Straus did to Geneviève (so Weber concludes through some archival detective work): break his wife’s nose on learning of her infidelity with Maupassant. In other words, for all the pavanes, poems, and parties, these lives were not particularly pretty.
Yet being pretty, nay beautiful, was everything. “What a delicious thing to be young, beautiful, and alluring, to feel one’s power over others,” Élisabeth Greffulhe wrote in a journal she kept. Encouraged by Montesquiou, Comtesse Greffulhe took as her model the swan in Lohengrin. Imprisoned in her own vanity, a vanity mixed with some strange idealism and ideas of self-sacrifice to compensate for the abuse of her philandering husband, Élisabeth was convinced that “a woman who is young and beautiful feels that Paris is her kingdom; she adorns herself, shows herself off, sacrifices herself to the monde by offering up her beauty at random, to anyone who happens to see her.” And she vowed: “Always say to myself when meeting someone else: I want this person to carry away from our encounter an image of prestige like none other.” But when she finally decided she needed a lover, the man she chose, a handsome Franco-Italian prince with “La Rochefoucauld eyes” named Giovanni Borghese, she began writing an epistolary novel based on their platonic relationship and fantasized it would turn carnal when they went on a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, only to realize that Borghese was gay. Worse, his closest friend was Frederick of Saxe-Cobourg, a man so effeminate that Queen Victoria said “he must be stopped” when he was named Prince Regnant of Bulgaria.
The mythical, medieval, feudal world that Élisabeth and Giovanni Borghese admired in Wagner was only one expression of a nostalgia for the past, Weber suggests, that finally explains the monde. The French aristocrats in these salons considered their ancestors to have been martyred by the Revolution. Indeed, until the last pretender to the French throne, the Duc d’Orléans, was finally exiled to England, the “gratin” was hoping for a restoration of the monarchy, which, after all, had been restored three times in the hundred years since the Revolution. Restoring the monarchy seemed to be the only solution to the déclassement de gratin that the monde felt was occurring around them. Not only was the bourgeoisie on the ascendant, making money, succeeding in every field, but many of the grandest families were so poor that their sons were forced to marry commoners to get the money needed to maintain their estates. To these aristocrats, Weber writes, France had turned into “an enormous, deformed body without a head.” Instead of the head there was “modernity and mass rule, publicity and populism.”
Meanwhile, all they could do was create a world that excluded everyone who was not born with a great name. As the Duc de Doudeauville said when vetoing the low-born but talented Paul Bourget for membership in the Jockey Club: “I’d like to think there’s still one place in Paris where individual merit doesn’t count for anything!” Even more cutting was what Montesquiou said to Proust when the latter asked if he would help him get invited to Élisabeth Greffulhe’s at-home: “Do you not see that your presence in her salon would rid it of the very grandeur you hope to find there?”
Proust presumably took a lot of insults in stride in order to get the material he wanted. The gratin was rife with anti-Semitism. (According to Henry Greffulhe, “You can smell the yid from miles away!”) But as Maupassant observed: “Society people ought to realize that it is as dangerous for them to open their doors to novelists as it is for a grain merchant to raise rats in his store.” In the end, Proust turned on them all. The first note of disillusion was sounded when a young Proust was still going to Mme Straus’ salon. “Madame,” he wrote in the first of three letters:
I love mysterious women. … But I can no longer love you, and I am going to tell you why. … One generally sees you with twenty other people, or rather one sees you through twenty other people, because it is always the young man who is kept at the greatest distance. … Even worse, if one speaks to you about books, you find one pedantic; if one speaks to you about people. you find one indiscreet or nosy; and if one speaks to you about you, you find one ridiculous.
His third letter contained the “The Truth About Madame Straus”: “At first, I thought you loved only beautiful things, and that you understood them very well—then I realized you don’t give a toss about them. Then I thought you loved only People [until]I figured you don’t care a whit about them either.”
Reading Weber, one can only conclude that Mme Straus inspired the character of Madame de Verdurin, the nightmarish bourgeois social climber, even more than she contributed to the Duchesse de Guermantes—though Weber doesn’t mention this. And yet, according to Fernand Gregh, one of Proust’s contemporaries, “everything Proust knew about the monde, he learned at Mme Straus.’”
As for the Comtesse de Chevigné, the disillusion came at the start: When Proust had just begun his campaign to enter the monde, he would set out every morning to stalk her when she took her walk (accompanied by a footman, as women of her class had to be in public), till one day she turned around and shrieked, “I am going to see Fitz-James [one of the most fashionable members of the monde]!” It’s a moment that mortified, if not terrified, the young Proust at the time, one which he never forgot, since she was putting him in his place not only as a stalker but as a “non-born.” His letter to the Comtesse de Chevigné came toward the end of her life, however, and began: “When what one used to love turns out to be very, very stupid…” Chevigné, he told an American author, was simply “a tough old bird I mistook, long ago, for a bird of paradise.”
But it seems, reading Weber, that the inspiration for Oriane de Guermantes was mostly Élisabeth Greffulhe; and it’s only in the last chapter of Proust’s Duchess that Proust finally meets her—at a party given by Montesquiou to which Proust has been invited as a society journalist (his nom de plume was “Tout Paris”) who’d give Montesquiou the publicity he wanted. (The monde depended on publicity for its ability to exclude and incite envy.) The countess wore a lilac-colored dress (recently displayed in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology). Although Proust cited all three women as models for his duchess, Greffulhe seems most like Oriane de Guermantes. Straus and Chevigné, Weber makes clear, were just steppingstones; when Proust met Greffulhe, he’d finally reached his goal. Yet she never accepted Proust. When he was asked to her house, it was as a “toothpick”—someone invited after dinner to amuse the other guests.
Weber’s book clarifies much of what’s in Proust’s novel by giving us the historical and social context. The bibliography is exhausting just to look at; one can’t imagine reading it all. But Weber (whose previous book was What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution) has put it all together in a 700-page book that is one unending stream of quotable anecdotes. Forget The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. These people, in Weber’s rendition, were guilty of almost incredible vanity and selfishness. In New York in the 1970s, people used drugs to get high; in the Belle Époque, it was snobbery (though Mme Straus had a morphine habit, Porto Riche used psychotropic drugs, and Lord Lytton was addicted to opium). Imagine sitting in a corset and heavy gown beside Giovanni Borghese listening to the Liebestod. No wonder people went crazy. (Jacques Bizet ended up a drunk, a drug addict, and a suicide. And his mother, when sent to Dr. Blanche’s institute for, as Mel Brooks might put it, the Very Very Nervous, was told not to worry about the crazy people there because she “knew them already.”)
Weber’s book is a fascinating portrait of a segment of Parisian society, a wonderful slice of social history. But it’s almost too good. In a way, I wish she hadn’t written this book that I couldn’t put down. Fiction is a magic act. Nonfiction wants to show you the magician’s props. One feels after reading Weber, for instance, that the actual model for the Duc de Guermantes was an even more theatrical and interesting character than the one Proust created. And the women—even Mme Straus—are far more sympathetic than the creations in Proust’s novel. Élisabeth Greffulhe may have been comically vain, but she also gave financial support to Madame Curie, patronized Whistler and Gustave Moreau, and founded an institute to encourage young French composers. Greffulhe was also a writer—Weber quotes copiously from her journals, essays, and even the novel she wrote with Giovanni Borghese in her attempt to seduce him. But here is the irony: It is Proust who’s the reason we’re reading about her, Proust who gave the monde, despite his withering judgment of the people in it, whatever lasting grandeur its ephemeral moment may have had.
What Weber’s book makes clear is that, despite the scientific detachment Proust would achieve in his novel, he had to suffer humiliations to get the material he needed. The monde was a Mont Blanc of put-downs. Even Charles Haas, the so-called “Jockey Club Jew,” the model for arguably the most sympathetic character in Proust’s book (Swann), would neither speak to or even look at Proust when their paths crossed—because, Weber presumes, they were both bourgeois Jews social-climbing in the same drawing room. Years after the novelist had died, Élisabeth Greffulhe remained indifferent to her toothpick. “She never really warmed to him,” Weber writes. “In old age, she remembered Proust to her grandchildren as ‘a displeasing little man who was forever skulking about in doorways.’” And “when asked about him by an American author, Mme Greffulhe said, ‘I didn’t like him. … He was tiresome.’”
But he was tireless in his labor to produce an original work of art. In a sense, Proust’s Duchess has nothing at all to do with Proust. One need only open the novel to any page to see why. In Search of Lost Time is ostensibly about a man dealing with insomnia. “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” is the deceptively simple sentence with which the novel begins. But what thoughts come to him as he lies awake waiting for dawn! For almost 4,000 pages we are inside one man’s extraordinary mind. Proust’s novel isn’t really about his characters; it’s about Proust. Here is the novelist talking about the kind of literal biography that Weber has amassed:
The writer is envious of the painter; he wishes he could make sketches, take notes, but if he does so, he is lost. Yet when he writes, there is not a single gesture of one of his characters, not a single tic or accent, that his inspiration hasn’t taken from his memory; there is not one invented character under whose name he could not put the names of sixty people he has seen, borrowing from one a grimace, from another a monocle, from still another a flash of anger or an attractive arm gesture, etc. … For never was there a moment when, listening to people talk, however stupid or foolish they may have sounded, repeating like parrots the things that all people of their type always say, he did not see and hear them transformed by their very chatter into birds of prophesy, mouthpieces of a psychological law. He remembers only what is general.
Andrew Holleran’s fiction includesDancer from the Dance, Grief, and The Beauty of Men.