Colm Tóibín

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - by Caro­line Weber

Proust’s Duchess: How Three Cel­e­brated Women Cap­tured the Imag­i­na­tion of Fin-de-Siè­cle Paris

Proust’s Duchess: How Three Cel­e­brated Women Cap­tured the Imag­i­na­tion of Fin-de-Siè­cle Paris by Caro­line Weber. Knopf, 715 pp., $35.00

In June 1885 Henry James re­ceived a let­ter from John Singer Sar­gent in Paris ask­ing him to see two friends of his who were com­ing to Lon­don. One was Dr. Sa­muel Pozzi, whom Sar­gent had painted in a red dress­ing gown in 1881, “a very bril­liant crea­ture”; the other, Sar­gent wrote, was “the unique ex­trahu­man Mon­tesquiou of whom you may have heard [Paul] Bour­get speak with bit­ter­ness . . . . (Take warn­ing and do not bring them to­gether.)” There was a third man in the group: Prince Ed­mond de Polignac, a com­poser.

James de­voted July 2 and 3 to en­ter­tain­ing these three gen­tle­men. “Mon­tesquiou is cu­ri­ous, but slight,” James wrote to a friend. On the sec­ond day, he in­vited Whistler to join the group. Even for James, who was in­trigued by the lines that con­nect art and life, his­tory and lit­er­ary his­tory, it would have been strange in­deed had he re­al­ized that he was in the com­pany of the man on whom Baron de Char­lus in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time would be based, that be­side him was the doc­tor who would be used in the mak­ing of Proust’s Dr. Cot­tard, and that Proust would be­come a friend of Polignac’s once he was in­tro­duced to him by Mon­tesquiou in 1894. There is a won­der­ful en­counter in Proust’s Within a Bud­ding Grove, as the nar­ra­tor is walk­ing close to the zoo with the Swanns, when an old lady “smiled at us with a ca­ress­ing sweet­ness.” Swann takes him aside to ex­plain that they are in the pres­ence of the Princess Mathilde, a niece of Napoleon I and friend of Flaubert and Sainte-Beuve:

And the whole per­son was clothed in an out­fit so typ­i­cally Sec­ond Em­pire that—for all that the Princess wore it sim­ply and solely, no doubt, from at­tach­ment to the fash­ions that she had loved when she was young—she seemed to have de­lib­er­ately planned to avoid the slight­est dis­crep­ancy in his­toric colour, and to be sat­is­fy­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of those who looked to her to evoke the mem­ory of an­other age.

The en­counter, and what the princess had to say for her­self, have an aura of pure, dis­tilled re­portage. The princess be­longed to many kinds of his­tory that fas­ci­nated Proust. She her­self was aware of how re­cent the Bon­a­partes were, re­mind­ing oth­ers: “With­out the French Rev­o­lu­tion, I’d be sell­ing or­anges on the streets of Ajac­cio.” Proust re­ferred to her as “my first high­ness.” Flaubert had replied to her in 1867 when she asked, “Who ever thinks of me?”:

All those who know you, Princess, and they do more than think. Writ­ers, peo­ple whose job it is to ob­serve and to feel, are not stupid! I also ob­serve that my close friends, the Gon­courts, Théo [Théophile Gau­tier], fa­ther Beuve and I are not the least de­voted among your en­tourage. This sense of a past, filled with shad­ows and in­tri­ca­cies, be­fore his own past be­gan to fill up with them too, gives this pas­sage in Proust’s novel its par­tic­u­lar in­ten­sity. The writ­ing and the qual­ity of the ob­ser­va­tion seem nat­u­ral, aris­ing from a mo­ment that had never been for­got­ten, un­til we no­tice a let­ter writ­ten in 1915 from Proust to Lu­cien Daudet, son of the novelist:

You, who saw the Princess Mathilde when you were very lit­tle, must de­scribe one of her cos­tumes for me, a spring af­ter­noon, the crino­line-like dress she wore in mauve, per­haps a hat with stream­ers and vi­o­lets, just as you must have seen her, in fact.

Cour­tesy, thus, of the weird, ironic art of fic­tion, char­ac­ters can travel to Lon­don and have supper with nov­el­ists, who have other nov­els on their mind, be­fore they are fully imag­ined and put firmly in their place by later nov­el­ists. And Proust, the arch-re­mem­berer, can write to a friend to help him de­scribe a scene that he would ren­der so closely that it seemed fully real, but in­stead was imag­ined all the more in­tensely be­cause that was what was re­quired in his novel just then. In Mon­sieur Proust, Céleste Al­baret, who was Proust’s house­keeper, wrote about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the char­ac­ters in his novel and the peo­ple they were based on:

I’d say that fun­da­men­tally he was as lit­tle con­cerned about the keys to his work as about the keys to his apart­ment . . . . And so what dif­fer­ence did it make if the char­ac­ter of the Duchess de Guer­mantes was based partly on Count­ess Gr­ef­fulhe, and partly on Mme. Straus and the Count­ess de Che­vi­gné, and partly on ten or a dozen oth­ers? In a hun­dred years, what would it mat­ter that any­one should know this, and who would re­mem­ber these ladies? But the Duchess de Guer­mantes and the other char­ac­ters would still be alive in his books and in the eyes of new gen­er­a­tions of read­ers.

Al­baret, how­ever, goes on to spec­u­late about the use that her em­ployer made of the Count­ess de Che­vi­gné:

What he took from her for his Duchess de Guer­mantes were her bear­ing and her clothes; the grace­ful neck and the car­riage of the head he took from Count­ess Gr­ef­fulhe. The duchess’ wit was more that of Mme. Straus. He used to draw a clear dis­tinc­tion in talk­ing about the three mod­els.

Caro­line Weber’s Proust’s Duchess is an ex­haus­tive, en­gag­ing, bril­liantly re­searched ac­count of who these three women were and how they each, in dif­fer­ent ways, cre­ated an al­lure that so fas­ci­nated Proust. It is also a por­trait of Paris in a time when it was still un­clear to a se­lect group that the French monar­chy might not some­how re­turn, when priv­i­lege and an elab­o­rate set of man­ners and sys­tems of so­cial be­hav­ior were still fully in place so that a small breach in them could mean ei­ther so­cial doom or a rep­u­ta­tion for bril­liance and orig­i­nal­ity.

It is also a book that throws con­sid­er­able light on Proust’s method as a novelist by let­ting us see the sheer amount of in­for­ma­tion avail­able on these women: where they came from, where they went each sea­son, what their hus­bands were like, what lovers they had, what their dis­ap­point­ments and hopes were. It al­lows us to see more starkly how Proust’s method works, how lit­tle he was con­cerned with the ac­tual minu­tiae of in­fi­deli­ties and love af­fairs and se­cret trysts, how he al­lowed the reader to take these for granted, and how much, on the other hand, he was in­trigued by what was vis­i­ble in a sin­gle mo­ment in a room, at a gath­er­ing, how many gen­er­al­iza­tions he could make from a sin­gle glimpse or glance or change in the so­cial air.

He was con­cerned with man­ners as a painter might be in­ter­ested in shade or con­trast, as a com­poser might be in­ter­ested in melody. And he was fas­ci­nated by the sen­si­bil­ity of his nar­ra­tor, his de­sires, his ways of re­mem­ber­ing, his close and frag­ile ways of notic­ing, reg­is­ter­ing, sift­ing ev­i­dence, and study­ing what lay on the sur­face, see­ing what peo­ple wished to re­veal of them­selves when they ap­peared in the so­cial world. Proust then made mu­sic from this, be­ing more in­ter­ested in mu­sic than gos­sip, and only tan­gen­tially in­spired and nour­ished by ac­tual tit­tle-tat­tle about rich women in a con­fined quar­ter of a chang­ing city.

His aim, at the be­gin­ning, how­ever, was not clear to his friends. One of them re­mem­bered: “In those days, Proust seemed much more de­ter­mined to get in­vited to cer­tain aris­to­cratic houses than to de­vote him­self to lit­er­a­ture, and this pref­er­ence made no sense to us.” In Jean San­teuil, the un­fin­ished pre­cur­sor to In Search of Lost Time, Proust wrote about men of let­ters who sought to in­fil­trate the grand sa­lons:

Sel­dom are the[se] men of let­ters as naively snob­bish as the world makes them out to be. When [such a man goes into so­ci­ety] he does not say to him­self: “I want to ar­rive, I want to be sought af­ter in the monde . . .” No, [he] says to him­self: “I want to feel ev­ery­thing, ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery­thing . . . . In order to be able to de­pict life some­day, I want to live it.” (Still, this ra­tio­nale

does not im­pel him to seek out poverty..., which just as much as op­u­lence qual­i­fies as a form of life.)

“In the mid­dle of Paris,” wrote Princess Bibesco, who mar­ried into this realm, it “formed a world as dis­tant from or­di­nary peo­ple on the streets as the moon is from the earth.” As a doc­tor’s son with a Jewish mother, Proust came from the earth. And, more than any­thing, as he wrote about the moon, he found drama in the pos­si­bil­ity that his nar­ra­tor could so eas­ily be ban­ished from it, or would miss the point of a mo­ment that would be ca­su­ally clear to ev­ery­one else. Weber quotes Proust’s friend Fer­nand Gregh:

Back in 1890 or so, Proust’s birth barred him, or at least he be­lieved that it barred him, from the Faubourg .... When he was first start­ing out in so­ci­ety, Proust saw the Faubourg as a for­bid­den realm; and that is why he dreamed of it with such pas­sion, the way a child who col­lects post­cards or stamps dreams of Tahiti or Cey­lon. And like the early car­tog­ra­phers of Africa, Proust filled this terra incog­nita with roar­ing lions and birds of par­adise. The lions, for him, were the men, all those no­ble­men with their cel­e­brated names . . . ; the birds were the women.

The first woman whose sa­lon Proust en­tered was Geneviève Straus (1849– 1926). She was Jewish, the daugh­ter of a com­poser. She mar­ried the com­poser Georges Bizet in 1869; he died of a heart at­tack six years later. Their son, Jac­ques, was a school friend of Proust’s. In­deed, when he was seven­teen, Proust made his feel­ings for Jac­ques clear to him: “Still, it sad­dens me not to get to pluck that de­li­cious flower while we still can, be­cause if we were to pluck it later, by then it would have ripened into—for­bid­den fruit.”

In the years when Geneviève was mar­ried to Bizet, she lived in the same build­ing as her cousin the writer Lu­dovic Halévy, and this house be­came, Weber writes, “a fa­vorite gath­er­ing spot for artists in the area,” in­clud­ing De­gas, Tur­genev, Massenet, Gounod, and Fauré. Be­sides cul­tural fig­ures, Geneviève was also in­ter­ested in peo­ple with money. Princess Mathilde Bon­a­parte, who had been a pa­tron of her fa­ther’s, later noted: “It’s in­cred­i­ble, ev­ery time there is a Roth­schild any­where in sight, Geneviève just has to latch on to him!” Af­ter Bizet’s death, Geneviève gave what Weber calls “a com­mit­ted per­for­mance” as his griev­ing widow. She was still wear­ing black two years later (longer than was cus­tom­ary) “when she sat for a por­trait by her friend Élie De­lau­nay. With her per­mis­sion, De­lau­nay showed the paint­ing at the 1878 Sa­lon de Paris: a haunt­ing study in black veils, black clothes and sor­row­ful black eyes” (see il­lus­tra­tion on op­po­site page). For three years more, Geneviève con­tin­ued to wear black. But even though the world be­lieved her to be in deep mourn­ing, her nephew, also a friend of Proust’s, re­marked that “she wasn’t a lonely widow for a sin­gle day.” In 1881, she be­gan to see the lawyer Émile Straus, whom she mar­ried in 1886.

The sa­lon she then cre­ated was a mix­ture of the artists she had known when her hus­band was alive, the Roth­schilds, and what­ever mem­bers of the so­cial elite she could gather. In other words, the bo­hemian and the well-born got to see one an­other at her house. They in­cluded, for ex­am­ple, a young poet and a gen­eral who had fought on dif­fer­ent sides of the bar­ri­cades in 1871: “Yet the young poet and the old sol­dier in­ter­acted cor­dially at Geneviève’s, mod­el­ing har­mony be­tween their re­spec­tive camps.” At the be­gin­ning, Geneviève en­cour­aged the writ­ers to bring new work:

She some­times even re­cited a few po­ems or sang a song or two her­self, with Gounod or Massenet ac­com­pa­ny­ing her on the pi­ano .... But over time Geneviève re­duced the cul­tural heft of her sa­lon, hav­ing gleaned from her pa­tri­cian friends that speak­ing earnestly about high­brow top­ics vi­o­lated the monde’s ba­sic re­quire­ments for el­e­gant con­ver­sa­tion (that it re­main light­hearted) and wom­an­hood (that it ex­clude book­ish­ness).

Princess Mathilde was often ac­com­pa­nied by Ed­mond de Gon­court, who, while he did not ap­pre­ci­ate the num­ber of Jewish guests, ap­pre­ci­ated the conversational tone that Geneviève en­cour­aged: “amus­ing and friv­o­lous, as in an eigh­teenth-cen­tury sa­lon—full of finely ma­li­cious dou­ble en­ten­dres, and barbs like scorn­ful smiles.”

Fer­nand Gregh wrote: “Ev­ery­thing Proust knew about the monde, he learned at Mme Straus’s.” What he learned first was that it did not do to talk about books or ideas there. In The Guer­mantes Way, Proust wrote that the Duchess de Guer­mantes never sounded as “lit­er­ary, to my mind, as when she spoke about the Faubourg Saint-Ger­main, and never seemed to me more stupidly ‘Faubourg Sain­tGer­main’ than when she spoke about lit­er­a­ture.” Dur­ing his first din­ner party at her house, the nar­ra­tor dis­cov­ered that “when she was with a poet or a mu­si­cian, she found it [more] el­e­gant to con­verse with them about the weather” than about their work. “To the un­in­formed vis­i­tor, there was some­thing dis­turb­ing, even mys­te­ri­ous, about this ab­sten­tion,” and above all when it in­cluded “a cel­e­brated poet he had been dy­ing to meet.” So, too, at Geneviève’s sa­lon, as Weber writes, “like an aris­to­crat’s feigned in­dif­fer­ence to lin­eage, her dis­re­gard for ge­nius ac­cen­tu­ated her in­born right to take it for granted.” In this world, Proust had to re­press his own sharp mind. Later he re­called:

A youth stands a bet­ter chance of suc­ceed­ing in [the monde] if he is dull rather than in­tel­li­gent . . . . I was very young in that mi­lieu. At first I only said the sil­li­est things. One day, I spoke in­tel­li­gently. I was banned from [smaller gath­er­ings] for six months, and only in­vited to the [big­ger] crushes.

“The long­ing,” Weber writes,

to see the monde from within shaped not only Proust’s sex­ual per­sona but his man­ners more gen­er­ally. When study­ing Mme Straus’s up­per-class friends, he did not con­tent him­self with re­mark­ing upon their over­ween­ing in­vest­ment in mat­ters of form. He ob­served the myr­iad, sub­tle shad­ings of speech and de­port­ment that char­ac­ter­ized their in­ter­ac­tions.

It mat­tered, of course, that their talk was silly, with lit­tle flashes of wit, but with no real con­tent. Proust did not have to bother lis­ten­ing to these peo­ple too much. Their ways of mov­ing were more in­ter­est­ing, as were their habits and their ori­gins, their elab­o­rate sys­tems of gath­er­ing, with all the in­clu­sions and ex­clu­sions. What they did not say be­came one of his sub­jects. He was not a di­arist, but some­one in­ter­ested in tex­ture and tone. He had no in­ter­est in telling se­crets. In­stead, it was how close the sur­faces seemed to some­thing deeply se­cret that en­gaged his imag­i­na­tion.

What he re­ally needed was to im­merse him­self in the world of these peo­ple as though it mat­tered. It was his ge­nius not to see their idle­ness as vacu­ous, or their man­ners as ab­surd, or their so­cial life as empty, or their pres­ence in Paris as filled with ur­gency as the life of di­nosaurs in the time af­ter di­nosaurs. He saw what he could do with them. That is why he sought to get close. De­spite his ef­forts, how­ever, they made sure that he kept his dis­tance. When Proust tried to en­cour­age Robert de Mon­tesquiou to in­tro­duce him to Élis­a­beth Gr­ef­fulhe, he re­sponded: “Do you not see that your pres­ence in her sa­lon would rid it of the very grandeur you hope to find there?”

There is an in­ter­est­ing let­ter that Proust wrote to Geneviève Straus be­fore The Guer­mantes Way ap­peared, let­ting her know that he had “in­cor­po­rated the red shoes” into his nar­ra­tive. Ge­orge Painter writes in his bi­og­ra­phy of Proust:

It was Mme Straus who once put on black shoes in­stead of red when dress­ing for a fancy-dress ball, and like the Duchess [de Guer­mantes] was com­pelled by her an­gry hus­band to change them; but it was in no such cir­cum­stances of cru­elty and self­ish­ness: Proust ran up­stairs to fetch the red shoes, and all was well.

This scene as fic­tion is one of the most dis­turb­ing in Proust’s novel: Swann has ar­rived to let the Guer­mantes know that he is ter­mi­nally ill, but they, need­ing to get to a ball, make light of this, and then have to rush. They can­not be late, un­til the duke dis­cov­ers that his wife is wear­ing black shoes rather than red and makes her go and change, declar­ing, “But we have all the time in the world!” Since Weber has done so much re­search, she can pin­point the evening Geneviève Straus was wear­ing a red dress: March 2, 1892, when, decked out as the Queen of Hearts, she went to a cos­tume ball with Proust and oth­ers. Since Swann is “based” on Charles Haas, who was not dy­ing in 1892—he lived for an­other decade—Weber writes:

Nonethe­less, an­other of Geneviève’s most de­voted, long­time friends, com­poser Ernest Guiraud, did pass away at fifty-five just two months af­ter the ball. It is thus not out of the ques­tion that Guiraud showed up . . . on the evening . . . with tid­ings akin to Swann’s. And if one con­sid­ers Proust’s the­ory that Geneviève didn’t “care a whit” about other peo­ple—or [her

nephew] Daniel Halévy’s ob­ser­va­tion that she was “as ego­tis­ti­cal as a mon­ster and as un­think­ing as a doll”—it is not im­prob­a­ble that if Guiraud did try to tell her about his fail­ing health, she re­acted flip­pantly, in the man­ner of the fu­ture Mme de Guer­mantes. What­ever hap­pened that night, it made a last­ing im­pres­sion on Proust, com­pound­ing his dis­en­chant­ment with Mme Straus and ac­cel­er­at­ing his search for a new model of mon­dan­ité.

It is much more likely that, in real life, no man came that night in 1892 to tell Mme Straus that he was dy­ing. All that hap­pened was the episode with the black shoes and the red shoes. That was enough for Proust when he needed drama. The small real episode nour­ished the larger imag­ined one. The ques­tion of the shoes be­came, in Proust’s imag­i­na­tion, one of the great morally dra­matic mo­ments in his book, a mo­ment he ren­dered with pro­found sub­tlety and care. He did not judge the Guer­mantes crudely for their haste; he made clear that this was what we all might have done, in one way or an­other, in the face of some­one else’s death. Move on; be­come busy. He let us see what it looked like so we would know. It seems to me more likely that this bril­liantly se­ri­ous mo­ment was merely ca­ressed or helped into place by the small mem­ory of the shoes. While he bathed richly and reg­u­larly in this world of grandeur, Proust often needed very lit­tle to make a char­ac­ter. JeanYves Tadié in his bi­og­ra­phy notes that while Proust mod­eled the fig­ure of Swann on Charles Haas, “it is sur­pris­ing to dis­cover that one of Proust’s main char­ac­ters [Swann] was based upon a man whom he did not know very well.” This is help­ful, per­haps, in read­ing Caro­line Weber’s book, since two of her three “duchesses” were not close friends of Proust’s at all, nor did he spend much time at their sa­lons. In­stead, he found out what he could about them; and, as much as he was al­lowed, which was not much, he moved in their world. These two fig­ures, more elu­sive and per­haps more beguil­ing than Geneviève Straus, are the ones men­tioned by Céleste Al­baret—Laure de Sade, Count­ess Ad­héaume de Che­vi­gné (1859–1936), and Élis­a­beth de Ri­quer de Cara­man-Chi­may, Count­ess Gr­ef­fulhe (1860–1952).

Élis­a­beth’s wealthy hus­band, Henry, was in­ter­ested in horses and also in mis­tresses whom he

bed­ded...daily, one af­ter an­other in rapid suc­ces­sion, when he was in town. So punc­til­iously, in fact, did Henry ad­here to this sched­ule that [his] horses . . . stopped au­to­mat­i­cally at each ad­dress on his daily route, with­out any prompt­ing from the driver.

While he bought art­works and rare books, this was only for sta­tus. At din­ner, his fam­ily, in­clud­ing his ghastly mother, talked about horses and other an­i­mals. Henry, who was a bully, saw Élis­a­beth’s in­ter­est in read­ing as a char­ac­ter flaw. She was thus a young, rich, lonely, book­ish, and beau­ti­ful woman, in need of res­cue.

Soon, feel­ing pas­sion­ate about Élis­a­beth be­came all the rage in these in­ner cir­cles. Even Prince Ed­mond de Polignac joined in. “His en­thrall­ment with Élis­a­beth,” Weber writes, “was the most ar­dent emo­tion the gratin [the class about whom Proust wrote in The Guer­mantes Way] had ever seen him dis­play; it was well known that his erotic tastes did not run to women.” Laure de Che­vi­gné, the next “duchess,” was de­scended from both the Mar­quis de Sade and her name­sake, Laure, beloved of Pe­trarch. Her fam­ily was roy­al­ist. While Élis­a­beth was re­fined, Laure was wild; she used rough words and took up smok­ing. In 1879, she mar­ried Count Ad­héaume de Che­vi­gné. From a mi­nor branch of an old fam­ily, he was one of Henri V’s pri­vate sec­re­taries, which might have meant some­thing had Henri V ever ruled. In­stead, “mildly cross-eyed, grossly fat, and lame from a long-ago rid­ing ac­ci­dent . . . [and with] prodi­gious rub­bery jowls all drooped in an at­ti­tude of per­ma­nent de­feat,” the Bour­bon pre­tender lived in ex­ile at Frohs­dorf in Aus­tria, where his court was run with all the same pro­to­col as though the Sun King were in res­i­dence. Laure would base the sub­se­quent al­lure that grew around her in Paris not only on her own an­ces­tors, but on the fact that Henri V, who died in 1883, had seemed to en­joy her com­pany, and had even made a draw­ing of her. Af­ter his death, the king-in-ex­ile, whom few in France had ever ac­tu­ally met, was a sub­ject of great rev­er­ence among roy­al­ists. Princess Mathilde Bon­a­parte called the fra­grance she used af­ter him. Princess Bibesco noted that Laure, as she fu­eled the pale fire of monar­chist nos­tal­gia, could “im­pose a poetic vi­sion of her­self on those around her, to reimag­ine her­self as a new and fab­u­lous char­ac­ter, and to project that char­ac­ter—her dou­ble, so to speak—into the mir­ror of the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion.” Proust, hav­ing found out where Laure lived, be­gan to shadow her in the street un­til one day in the spring of 1892, when he was not yet twenty-one, she turned and glared at him and screamed that a man by the name of Fitz-James was wait­ing for her, a man rather grander than the young son of a doc­tor, how­ever smit­ten.

Two years later, Proust would be in­tro­duced to Élis­a­beth Gr­ef­fulhe. He wrote to Mon­tesquiou, who was her rel­a­tive (she called him her un­cle): “The whole mys­tery of her beauty is in the sparkle, and above all the enigma, of her eyes.” Mon­tesquiou, af­ter Élis­a­beth’s mar­riage to the un­couth and phi­lan­der­ing Henry, had be­come one of her con­fi­dants. He called her hus­band “the Big Block­head.” Henry hated him in re­turn. Mon­tesquiou was fa­mous for his an­tics. As Huys­mans de­scribed in À Re­bours, he sent his pet tor­toise to have its shell gilded and set with pre­cious stones, which killed it. Among his pos­ses­sions was the bul­let that had killed Pushkin and the bed­pan Napoleon had used af­ter Water­loo. It was noted that “on a smooth, ta­per­ing fore­fin­ger he wore a large signet ring set with a crys­tal that had been hol­lowed out to con­tain a sin­gle hu­man tear— whose, he never dis­closed.” It was through Mon­tesquiou that Proust would catch his glimpses of Élis­a­beth. In wait­ing for these so in­tensely, he saw enough of Mon­tesquiou to be able to make use of him too when the time came to cre­ate the strange, iras­ci­ble Baron de Char­lus.

While Proust, once he had taken what he needed, got on with his work, his “duchesses,” all of whom out­lived him, left let­ters and di­aries. For ex­am­ple, Élis­a­beth Gr­ef­fulhe’s “per­sonal ar­chive,” Weber notes in her ac­knowl­edg­ments, con­sists of “thir­tytwo lin­ear yards’ worth of pri­vate writ­ings,” some “de­vel­oped on the ba­sis of a nine­teenth-cen­tury form of stenog­ra­phy.” This was cre­ated at a time when women in Élis­a­beth’s world still pre­sumed that how they lived would mat­ter in the fu­ture, lit­tle know­ing that it would in­deed, but by cour­tesy only of an in­ter­loper.

At the end of the nine­teenth cen­tury, Weber writes, the French aris­toc­racy “was dy­ing as a po­lit­i­cal force while res­ur­rect­ing it­self as a myth.” The novelist Jules Re­nard wrote in 1898: “Since the Rev­o­lu­tion, our repub­lic hasn’t made a sin­gle step to­ward [equal­ity] or lib­erty. It’s a repub­lic where all peo­ple care about is be­ing in­vited to [Élis­a­beth] Gr­ef­fulhe’s.” As Weber notes: “De­scribed by still an­other com­men­ta­tor as ‘the tri­umph of the duchesses,’ this con­tra­dic­tory state of af­fairs per­sisted for as long as mondain so­ci­ety did, only to col­lapse along with it in the chaos of the First World War.” In this ar­ti­fi­cial world, with all its flick­er­ing shad­ows, Proust watched as through glass, while the duchesses and their guests pa­raded in­side, un­der the il­lu­sion some­how that they were fully real.

Élis­a­beth Gr­ef­fulhe in her ‘swan’ per­sona; pho­to­graph by Otto We­gener, circa 1887

Geneviève Straus in mourn­ing for her first hus­band, Georges Bizet; paint­ing by Elie De­lau­nay, 1878

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