I have a couple of Facebook friends who frequently repost literature-related birthday announcements from the Writer’s Almanac and decided I would follow suit today since there are two French Lit related postings.

The first is Molière. My soft spot for him comes from the fact that I enjoy using a small piece of Le Malade imaginaire with my French students when we are doing a chapter on health and fitness, in which they learn vocabulary of the body, of exercising, and of various diseases (and they learn to say “Professeur, j’ai la grippe!”).  I’m grateful to Molière for the ability to actually make them laugh as they begin to comprehend snippets of dialogue between Argan and Toinette.  Joyeux anniversaire, M. Poquelin!

The French playwright Molière, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (books by this author), was baptized in Paris on this date (1622). Known as the father of French comedic theater, Molière wrote The School for Wives (1662), Tartuffe (1664), and The Misanthrope (1666). Although he poked fun at the peasant and bourgeois classes, he was careful to leave the church and the monarchy alone; as a result, he never ran into trouble, he was a favorite of Louis XIV, and he always had work. He collapsed onstage during a performance in 1673; he finished the performance, but died of tuberculosis later that night. Because was no priest around to administer the Last Rites, he couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground. After his widow appealed to the king, Molière was buried in the section of the cemetery reserved for unbaptized babies.

Molière, who said, “All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing.”

The second is Marie Duplessis.  Now, she is not someone I ever really heard of.  I figured as I began reading that she was like any other “courtesan” and her story started to remind me a little of Zola’s insufferable (sorry, there’s no other word for it) Nana (Lord I hated that book!). But for Duplessis, it’s the Dumas Fils connection that I found most compelling.  Ah, Violetta, Un di felice, indeed…

It’s the birthday of French courtesan Marie Duplessis, born Alphonsine Plessis in Normandy (1824). She was a beautiful young woman: petite, dark-haired, and slim. She was working as a laundress at the age of 13 when her father decided that prostitution paid better. He sent her to live with a rich and elderly bachelor in exchange for cash. After a year, she went to live with cousins in Paris. For a time, she was kept by a restaurant owner, who gave her a place to live in exchange for her favors. It wasn’t long before she set her sights higher. She learned to read and write, and she studied a wide variety of subjects so that she could hold her own in any social situation. She started appearing at places where the rich and powerful were likely to be, and she attracted lots of attention.

She suspected she had tuberculosis when she developed a cough that only got worse. She was treated with everything from spa cures to strychnine to hypnotism. And through it all, she kept dressing up and holding salons and going to the opera. Having grown up in poverty, she couldn’t get enough of luxury. Noblemen from all over Europe would call on her whenever they were in Paris, and they brought her expensive trinkets, which she sometimes pawned to support herself between lovers.

She began an affair with Alexandre Dumas the younger when they were both 20 years old. He was a struggling writer, and he wasn’t able to give her lavish gifts like her other lovers. He kept her with him out in the country for a while, for the sake of her health, but she missed the lively Paris scene and went back to the city after a year. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore, and broke it off with her, writing in a letter, “I am neither rich enough to love you as I could wish nor poor enough to be loved as you wish.”

Duplessis never answered Dumas’s letter. She was too ill, and she had begun an affair with the composer and pianist Franz Liszt. She wanted Liszt to bring her along on his concert tour, but he was afraid he would catch tuberculosis from her, so he left her behind. He promised to take her to Turkey one day, but he never saw her again. After she died at the age of 23, Liszt regretted not coming to her bedside, and said: “She had a great deal of heart, a great liveliness of spirit and I consider her unique of her kind. […] She was the most complete incarnation of womankind that has ever existed.”

Four months after Duplessis’s death, Dumas published his novel The Lady of the Camellias (1848). It’s the story of a courtesan named Marguerite Gautier, based on Duplessis. She breaks the heart of her lover — Armand Duval — to spare him from ruin. Dumas wrote it in four weeks. It was later made into a play, which in turn inspired Verdi’s opera La Traviata (1853).

Quotations from: “The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor.” RSS. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.