In the first volume of his sprawling 19th-century novel, In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust chronicles the tale of Charles Swann, an upper-class member of French society, and his obsessive love for Odette de Crécy, a popular and attractive Parisian courtesan. Although Swann is able to buy Odette’s time and body, he is unable to buy her thoughts and feelings, and he is reduced “to utter confusion” when suddenly forced “to perceive that Odette had an existence which was not wholly subordinated to his own.” “When Odette had just done something which she did not wish to disclose, she would take pains to conceal it in a secret place in her heart,” which Swann, no matter how much money he spent, could not access. Since Odette’s material well-being—and survival—wholly depended on being wanted and desired by men who supported her, Swann was never able to tell whether “her love for him was based on a foundation more lasting than . . . mere commercial interest.” Unable to possess all of her, Swann grows increasingly obsessed and eventually decides to marry her, convinced that he will finally be able to reach her, but to his surprise, even as his wife – legally bound to obey him – Odette remains unreachable, leaving Swann in “the painful and continuous anxiety which dwelt in his mind.”
“A ‘kept’ woman—an iridescent mixture of unknown and demoniacal qualities,” Odette is a quintessential courtesan of her era, quixotically enigmatic, inscrutable, and self-possessed. Although it captures a particular lifestyle of upper-class French society at the turn of the century, Proust’s novel is also perhaps one of the better psychological and philosophical treatises of the complex and enduring question of love, sex, and money. What can and cannot be bought, and for what price? From Dumas’ 1848 The Lady of the Camellias, on which Verdi’s La Traviata is based, to contemporary movies like 1990’s Pretty Woman, with Julia Roberts, and 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, with Nicole Kidman, male artists have been fascinated by the idea of the “kept” woman, and Verdi’s heroine is just one of the many “kept” women who recur in art, literature, and opera. La Traviata, the title of which literally translates as “The Fallen Woman,” tells the story of Violetta Valéry, a beautiful courtesan of Paris, and Alfredo Germont, a young and idealistic man from a respectable provincial family. In the story, and many others that followed, Violetta is the prototypical ‘whore with the heart of gold’ who rejects her lover as the ultimate proof of her devotion, aware that association with her will most likely ruin his future societal prospects. Thus redeemed by her selfless sacrifice, Violetta is finally accepted by Alfredo’s family, which nonetheless doesn’t save her, as she ends up dying from tuberculosis to her lover’s despair.

Roland Barthes noted that the myth of the Lady of the Camellias is “probably the most popular feminine myth of the bourgeois era” (quoted in Salo: 61). The purified and idealized image of Violetta (and of all other Fallen Women of the era modeled on her story) captures the socioeconomic incongruities of the 19th century’s changing gender relations, particularly the transition from courtesan to trophy wife as the ultimate symbol of male economic status. The 19th century was dominated by the idea of the upper-class “lady” of leisure. Labor was considered vulgar and “unclean;” only women of the lower classes worked, and their options were significantly limited to menial household jobs or agrarian fieldwork. To afford a leisurely, ladylike lifestyle, a woman needed a man who could support her. Conversely, to be considered successful, a man needed a ladylike woman whom he would support. At first, the position of “lady” was occupied by high-class courtesans, but with the emergence of the bourgeois class, the status of woman of leisure was taken up by the trophy wife. 

In 1899, in The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen argued that while upper-class men were required to devote themselves solely to the pursuit of wealth, their courtesans and, later, wives became “decorative objects,” fully devoted to the pursuit of a ladylike ideal, which testified to their husbands’ wealth and power: “In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it was not sufficient merely to possess wealth and power. The wealth and power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only in evidence” (36). The courtesan, and later, the trophy wife, highly decorated in expensive dresses and jewelry, and requiring a cohort of servants to attend to her and her elaborate wardrobe, provided evidence of a man’s wealth: “Women are highly valued, both as an evidence of wealth and as a means of accumulating wealth” (Veblen 53). It became a woman’s main objective to conform to the role of “trophy,” displayed for the same purpose that hunting trophies were displayed. The display of wealth was simply part of the new economic reality. The rise of capitalism required a well-defined system of economic indicators that would differentiate the newly-emerging bourgeois class from the rest of the society, but that would also provide a system of indicators by which males could recognize among themselves the most successful of the group.  Thus, the display of courtesans, wives, and hunting trophies allowed for recognition of the leaders whom others could profit from, flatter, and emulate. An expensive courtesan, like other commodities, symbolized a male’s status quo: he could afford to pay for her leisure. The more expensive her lifestyle, the better it reflected on the man who supported it, and the better it showcased his social and economic status.

Contrary to the mythology, the real-life Violetta, Marie Duplessis (1824–47), on whom Dumas’ heroine was based, was a pragmatic and keen businesswoman. In a letter to one of her prospective lovers, she wrote quite candidly: “Monsieur le baron, I realize that mine is a sordid profession, but I must let you know that my favors cost a great deal of money. My protector must be extremely rich to cover my household expenses and satisfy my caprices.” With few viable options for a dignified life, it’s no wonder that 19th-century women remained enigmas in the eyes of men of their era. Out of necessity, from navigating and surviving in such a world, only a woman could know the “secret place in her heart.” Like Proust’s Odette, Verdi’s Violetta’s character and motivations are scrutinized thoughtfully, revealing the paradoxical relationship between love and money. After all, can love ever be bought, or can it only be given freely by a free human being, and what does it really mean for a woman to love freely in an unfree society?

The Ruined Maid
by Thomas Hardy, written in 1866 

“O ’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
 Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
 And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
 “O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

 — “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
 Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
 And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” —
 “Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

 — “At home in the barton you said ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’
 And ‘thik oon,’ and ‘theäs oon,’ and ‘t’other’; but now
 Your talking quite fits ’ee for high compa-ny!” —
 “Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

 — “Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
 But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
 And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
 “We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

 — “You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
 And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
 To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —
 “True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

 — “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
 And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
 “My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
 Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

Originally posted at Boston Lyric Opera blog (9/26/14).

Read more:

Cross, Milton. Complete Stories of the Great Operas. 1st ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1947. Print.

Dumas, Alexandre. Camille: or, The Fate of a Coquette. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson & Brothers, 1880. Print.

Edwards, H. Sutherland. Famous First Representations. London: Chapman and Hall, 1886. Print.

Kavanagh, Julie. The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.

Martin, George Whitney. Verdi: His Music, Life and Times. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963. Print.

Parker, Roger. The New Grove Guide to Verdi and His Operas. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu, published in seven volumes, 1913–27). Volume 1: Swann’s Way (Du côté de chez Swann, sometimes translated as The Way by Swann’s). Paris, 1913. Print.

Remarks on the Morality of Dramatic Compositions, with Particular Reference to “La Traviata,” etc. London: J. Chapman, 1856. Print.

Roberts, Nickie. Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society. London: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Sala, Emilio. The Sounds of Paris in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Trans. Delia Casadei. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.

Veblen, T. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. New York; London: Macmillan, 1899. Print.