Finding Proust’s Duchess

Clear-sighted literary commentary, and a guilty-pleasure read

Hollie Harder
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

In the Acknowledgments section at the end of Proust’s Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siècle Paris, Caroline Weber expresses the modest hope that her book will inspire readers “to take another crack at Swann’s Way,” the first volume of Marcel Proust’s seven-tome novel, In Search of Lost Time. Weber’s engrossing and intelligent work far surpasses this humble goal. Like a masterful storyteller, she weaves together personalities, places, and events drawn (mostly) from Paris of the late 1870s to early 1890s in this snappy, fun-to-read, exhaustively researched, astute account of three society women who served as models for the Duchesse de Guermantes, Proust’s iconic figure of fin-de-siècle French aristocracy: Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus (1849–1926), Laure de Sade, Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné (1859–1936), and Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay, Vicomtesse (and later Comtesse) Greffulhe (1860–1952). If these real-life femmes du monde are still somewhat known to us today, it is almost exclusively thanks to their inimitable gestures, habits of thought, speech patterns, sense of style, and physical traits, which live on in Madame de Guermantes (and in a few other memorable characters) in the Search. Proust’s Duchess serves to flesh out the lives of these Parisian mondaines and restore to them a level of depth and complexity “in three dimensions”: we see them as children, as young women in search of (rich) husbands, as unhappy wives, as ambivalent mothers, as up-and-coming figures in the Parisian social world, and, of course, as leading tastemakers and style setters of the beau monde. Moreover, Weber recounts in fascinating detail the process through which these women transformed themselves into embodiments of the French aristocratic ideal, and she shows the degree of independence they were able to attain despite considerable obstacles posed by their personal lives and by the social and gender norms of the period. So if Geneviève Bizet Straus, Laure de Chevigné, and Élisabeth Greffulhe found their way into the Search, it was because they had managed to intrigue and mesmerize not only the likes of Proust, but all of Belle Époque France. This, then, is the story that Proust’s Duchess undertakes as well, the “tale that has not yet been told” of how these three women, only two of whom were titled, came to occupy the imagination of an entire generation. To this effect, Weber skillfully guides readers through the heyday of fin-de-siècle France, unveiling its beauty and elegance, its cleverness and charm, but also its contradictions and inequities, its cruelty and wretchedness, a world that seems at times as repellant as it is enchanting.

Readers with or without the benefit of previous knowledge of the Search will delight in Weber’s lively and detailed treatment of this era and its cast of high-society characters. Proust’s Duchess provides a rich panorama of historical, political, biographical, artistic, social, and cultural information, the product of six years of extensive archival research. (One wonders how Weber could have gleaned so much information in such a relatively short time.) As it uncovers the complicated and often sordid stories of those who occupied the highest strata of the Parisian monde, the book appeals to readers’ curiosity to find out who was doing what, where, and with whom, and it inspires admiration for the socialites’ piquant quips and salvos, as well as for their often extravagant sartorial flair. For uninitiated readers who have not (yet) treated themselves to the Search, and for those whose recollection of the four-thousand-page novel may have faded, Weber includes a brief yet impressively complete summary of Proust’s opus that helps contextualize her references to characters, episodes, and motifs.

In Proust’s Duchess, section titles pair musical terminology and bird imagery, two essential metaphors in the Search, to evoke not only the trajectories of the women profiled but also the evolution of the beau monde they inhabited. Weber’s “Overture: Like a Swan” introduce the central themes of her book, drawing numerous parallels between the transformations taking place among the upper classes, as they struggled to maintain their social and cultural authority, and the changes that Mmes Straus, de Chevigné, and Greffulhe were undertaking in their own lives in order to make their way to the top of the Parisian social firmament. In this opening section, in which the swan–a bird of mythic grandeur and elegance that is reputed to sing as it dies–emerges as the defining image of Laure de Chevigné and Élisabeth Greffulhe in particular, Weber provides an overview of Proust’s relationship with each of the three femmes du monde, whose moments of glory (and decline) he will come to chronicle in his novel. In successive chapters of Part 1 of Proust’s Duchess (“Leitmotif: Pretty Birds,” “Improvisations: Trills and Feathers,” and “Chorale: Lovebirds,” for example), musical terms suggesting generation, invention, and harmony are coupled with avian images that evoke beauty, independence, love, and joy to trace the ascent of Proust’s three muses to their lofty social perches. Part 2 articulates their descent into times of disappointment and disillusionment, and the musical compositions that lend their names to the section titles (such as “Variations” and “Cadenza”) are initially ornamental or virtuosic, as though highlighting the cult of appearances that drives these socialites once they are part of the beau monde. The musical pieces then become slow and stately (“Pavane”) and openly expressive of mourning (“Lament”). The birds in this second part are encaged, fettered, or heartbreakingly sad, signaling the emotional and social downfall that the mondaines eventually experience. Weber follows up with a “Rondo” (in musical terms, a composition of which the principal theme repeats between subordinate themes) that recounts the parable of a wren (translated as “sparrow” in the note) whose story resonates with those of Proust’s three muses. The book concludes with a “Coda,” a musical passage that brings a composition to its end, which, here, is appropriately titled “Swan Song.”

For uninitiated readers who have not (yet) treated themselves to the Search, and for those whose recollection of the four-thousand-page novel may have faded, Weber includes a brief yet impressively complete summary of Proust’s opus that helps contextualize her references to characters, episodes, and motifs.

For those familiar with the Search, the “Overture” and first chapter (“Rara Avis”) of Proust’s Duchess may well bring to mind the sections (“Overture” and “Combray”) that begin Swann’s Way. Weber’s opening sets in place the principal themes of her book, just as the initial pages of the Search, during which the Proustian narrator alternately falls asleep and reawakens, introduces the leitmotifs of his novel. (These first pages are not titled separately in the original French text, but William C. Carter, in his edited and annotated version of the C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation, designates them as the “Overture,” based on Proust’s comments in a September 1913 letter to Lucien Daudet.) Like Proust, Weber plunges the reader in medias res, into a decisive moment that gives shape to and sets the tone for her entire book: a twenty-something Proust is shadowing the exquisitely aristocratic Laure de Chevigné, with whom he is hopelessly obsessed, until her cacophonous outburst on the street opens his eyes to an irreparable fissure in her noble veneer that will forever alter his view of her and her aristocratic peers. This brilliantly chosen opening scene foretells, in effect, the arc of the French aristocracy to be traced in Proust’s Duchess: its rise to social, political, and cultural prominence after the Revolution of 1789, its sustained influence during the last half of the nineteenth century, and its eventual fall from grace with the outbreak of the Great War. Weber’s “Overture” ingeniously situates her readers as outsiders to this exclusive world of Parisian high society, as textual voyeurs of this inaccessible beau monde, which effectively re-creates (and thereby serves to elucidate) the highly structured social and cultural dynamics she examines in her book. Helpful notes also provide definitions for key terms and concepts, such as mondain(e) and its synonyms, the Faubourg Saint-Germain and the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and noblesse d’épée and noblesse de robe.

Similar to the way “Combray” lays a foundation for the events, revelations, and insights to follow in Proust’s Search, the first chapter of Proust’s Duchess, “Rara Avis,” maps out the landscape of the beau monde in Belle Époque Paris. It provides the reader with both an overview of the hierarchy of high society at the time as well as a historical recap of how the French aristocracy had arrived at a point in the nineteenth century at which the well-educated, hard-working, and increasingly rich bourgeoisie had replaced the king as its most threatening rival. Weber takes as her point of departure in this chapter the bal des bêtes, a costume party hosted by the Princesse de Sagan in 1885. This grand social event, which seems to prefigure the bal de têtes in Proust’s Time Regained to the extent that it sounds a kind of death knell for the Princesse and her guests, is for Weber a microcosm of what defined the grace, elegance, and glory of the French upper classes, as well as what was base, sordid, cruel, and degenerate in their world. Like “Combray,” this very dense section introduces a myriad of references that will reappear throughout the book. Key words and phrases draw our attention to nicknames given to members of the aristocracy (“Rabble Girl” [Canaillette], “Our Lady of the Arts” [Notre-Dame des Arts]) or explain expressions such as “an ocean of nothingness” or “being ‘not born,’” or highlight memorable quips or turns of phrase, or underscore evocative images (“regilding one’s coat of arms” [redorer son blason], “fertilizing one’s lands” [fumer ses terres]). This first chapter also provides a thorough explanation of the situation of Jews within French high society. For example, Weber outlines the rules governing the inclusion or exclusion of “commoners” such as Geneviève Bizet Straus as opposed to the members of the wealthy Rothschild family. This extensive background information helps readers make better sense of the evolution of French anti-Semitism both before and during the Third Republic, and it serves to contextualize the struggles of socially active Israélites in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War and on the eve of the Dreyfus Affair.

For readers familiar with the Search, Weber’s study has the feel of both a delicious guilty-pleasure read and a penetrating, clear-sighted piece of literary commentary. The thrill of discovering in Proust’s Duchess a phrase, a gesture, an incident, or an image that calls forth an aspect of the Search (but that has not been explicitly identified as such by Weber) can spark in seasoned readers a deep sense of contentment and confidence, a sentiment that may even border (here comes the guilty part) on smugness. What self-respecting Proustian would not feel a sense of self-satisfaction at recognizing the behavior of Madame Verdurin in Geneviève Bizet’s habit of banishing wives from her social gatherings or in references to salon attendees as fidèles (faithful ones)? Similarly, devoted Proustians may feel a twinge of excitement when the Prince de Sagan’s non sequiturs conjure up those of Cottard; or when they hear in Laure de Chevigné’s peasant accent the affected pronunciation of the Duchesse de Guermantes; or when Élisabeth’s husband, Henry Greffulhe, complains that his wife is “not at all his type” (pas du tout son genre), raising the specter of Swann and Odette; or yet again when Aimery de La Rochefoucauld, cousin of Henry Greffulhe, dismisses the news of the impending death of a family member in order to attend a high-society costume ball, anticipating the Duc de Guermantes’s reaction upon hearing of the imminent demise of his cousin germain, Monsieur d’Osmond. If such moments of recognition inspire feelings of self-satisfaction, they may also instill in Proustians a sense of being in the know and belonging to the in crowd–a bit, perhaps, like the experience of a Belle Époque social climber reveling in having finally been welcomed into one of the most exclusive salons in Paris. While reading Proust’s Duchess, they might at times find it hard not to feel as though they have fallen into some of the same vain behavior that is so easy to criticize in the Parisians who are the subject of this book.

For all of the enjoyment it provides, Proust’s Duchess is first and foremost a valuable work of sociohistorical and literary criticism. In a volume of more than seven hundred pages, one example cannot adequately illustrate the impressive level of research and analysis that informs Weber’s book. Of particular interest is her illuminating discussion of the connections between, on one hand, the heavy burden of debt that weighed on the upper classes in fin-de-siècle Paris and the threat of financial ruin and social death that these money problems entailed and, on the other, Proust’s transposition of these financial woes into issues of sexual deviancy, such as homosexuality, the resulting threat of extinguished family lines, and physical death. Weber writes in detail of Proust’s fascination with the livery maker, Sutton, situated on the ground floor below the entresol where Geneviève Straus held her weekly salon in the eighth arrondissement of Paris. Because of the location of the store, Proust would pass by it regularly, and over time he discovered just how many members of the gratin were in financial straits due to money owed for the elaborate uniforms worn by their servants. Weber shows how Proust’s keen sensitivity to this problem finds its way into his novel, where it manifests itself as “perversion rather than penury, as the mondain’s dirtiest secret.” In particular, she examines the case of Charlus in the Search, in whom “the taint of sexual deviancy replaces the shame of financial distress” and heralds the end of his esteemed family line. Weber also points out that these contrasting scenarios (of rich versus poor nobles, fertile versus sterile progenitors) give Proust the opportunity to explore “the juxtaposition of surface elegance and hidden corruption,” a central theme throughout the Search. Clearly and succinctly, Weber articulates this defining element of the Parisian social universe that is portrayed in Proust’s novel: like the aristocratic proper name that “‘brings together the present and the past,’ the nobleman with the secret sin straddles two putatively antithetical worlds: elegance and abjection. His high birth and lordly privilege coexist, however tenuously, with the very debasement they are supposed to exclude.”

Nevertheless, one of the underlying threads in Proust’s Duchess is that the social celebrities who made up the beau monde, and especially the three mondaines whom Weber studies in depth, resist categorization as either good or bad, upstanding or perverse, kind or cruel. Geneviève Bizet Straus, Laure de Chevigné, and Élisabeth Greffulhe were all multifaceted figures: “Like everyone else, [Proust’s] three muses wore at least a hundred masks” and “were fathomless tangles of secrets and longings, sorrows and fears.” The complexity of these women seems to take shape metaphorically in the image of the red shoe featured on the cover of Proust’s Duchess. Dating from 1900–1910, the red pump was fashioned from ciselé velvet, a fabric composed of three elements: two types of velvet pile (one with cut tufts, the other with uncut loops) on the visible, outside part of the shoe, and a third, unseen (and unsuspected) component of the velvet, its silk or satin base. In addition, the escarpin décolleté consists of a nearly invisible lining and insole of white leather, and a barely perceptible natural leather outsole.

In the context of Proust’s novel, the red shoe brings to mind the infamous scene in which the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, impatient to leave for a grand evening party, cannot find time to talk to their dear friend Charles Swann, who has little time to live. Yet when the Duc notices that his style-setting wife has paired black shoes with her red ensemble, he insists that they have all the time in the world for her to correct such a fashion faux pas before setting off for the soirée. This scene, which captures the petty, selfish, and superficial side of those occupying even the highest circles of the aristocratic world, indicts the Guermantes and their kind. (Weber relates a similar real-life instance in which Geneviève Straus was the shallow mondaine who had no time for a dying friend.) The photograph of the red velvet shoe on the book jacket seems, however, to counter this kind of two-dimensional, reductive, black-and-white (or in this case, black-and-red) characterization of the nobility, hinting instead at the many unseen or barely perceptible factors that make up each person’s inherent nature. Literally and figuratively, then, the jacket image suggests the approach that Weber herself adopts in crafting her intricate, multidimensional portraits of Mmes Straus, de Chevigné, and Greffulhe.

Appendixes at the end of Proust’s Duchess provide a range of supplementary material, including Weber’s translation of “Les Grands salons parisiens” (The Great Parisian Salons), an article published in the society newspaper, Le Gaulois, on 1 September 1893 and attributed here for the first time to Proust. She also presents her translation of an unfinished piece by Proust, “The Salon of the Comtesse Greffulhe,” written in 1902–3 under the pen name “Dominique” during the novelists’s days as a social columnist. Weber adds explanatory notes to the article, which was originally discovered by the Proust scholar and Greffulhe biographer Laure Hillerin. To clarify the nuances of social etiquette and hierarchy in nineteenth-century France, Weber provides information about rules governing the use and capitalization of noble titles; and a chronology of political regimes in France from 1792 to 1870 helps to contextualize the fall and subsequent rise of the upper classes.

This is a fine book, at once scholarly and richly entertaining. Upon reaching the end of Proust’s Duchess, we might feel a certain sense of Proustian disillusionment at having to recognize that Proust’s three muses were, like all of us, fallible and flawed, or perhaps a pang of regret in acknowledging that Comte Robert de Montesquiou (the first cousin of Élisabeth Greffulhe’s mother) might have been right when he asked the young Proust, desperate to meet the comtesse, “Do you not see that your presence in her salon would rid it of the very grandeur you hope to find there?” In the end, Weber has provided for her readers an inviting window into a heady world of elegance and pettiness, of love and dejection, of beauty and degeneration, and an in-depth look at three unforgettable Parisian social leaders (as well as superb portraits in passing of any number of intriguing individuals in their milieu) who, thanks to Proust’s Duchess, continue “soaring and singing even as their wings and their voices faltered, even as the darkness gathered, even as extinction loomed.”

Proust’s Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siècle Paris, by Caroline Weber (Knopf, 736 pp., $35)

Hollie Harder is professor of French and Francophone studies at Brandeis University. Her publications on Marcel Proust include ‘‘Proust’s Human Comedy’’ in The Cambridge Companion to Proust.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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