When the novel opens in 1842, Baudelaire is a 21 year old dandy, an extravagant dresser, profligate with his mother and stepfather's money, given to the excesses of the good life, swanning about bohemian Paris as only a young man of privilege can. He and his friends think of themselves as social progressives from their cozy and safe society backgrounds, supporting the masses intellectually but unlikely to actually commit to action. One night Baudelaire stumbles into a working class cabaret he's never frequented before and he sees Jeanne Duval. She's a voluptuous and bewitching woman, the illegitimate daughter of a French plantation manager and a Haitian slave, and something about her that night captivates Baudelaire. They embark on an open, tempestuous, and contentious affair, an affair that will endure for some twenty years and be the basis for the slim volume of poetry, Les fleurs du mal, for which Baudelaire will become justly famous and infamous.
MacManus never shies away from portraying Baudelaire as a spoiled mama's boy whose doting mother, while disapproving of his liaison with his "Black Venus," continues to hold the purse strings tightly and keep him from complete destitution. He comes across as a fractious child, often in a temper, selfish, and jealous. He is an alcoholic, an opium addict, and is unable to practice moderation in any aspect of his life, not in his personal life, not in his writing, and not in his public persona. Although not in love with Duval, he is so obsessed with and consumed by her whole being that he comes to need her presence in order to write. And what a set of poems he wrote with her as his muse. Poetry so dark and raw and scandalous, so contrary to the prevailing romanticism, that he landed at the center of an obscenity trial, even in a city as casually and tacitly licentious as Paris.
And what of Duval? MacManus is kinder to her than most historians. She is still the source of Baudelaire's opium habit and she is clearly self-serving and opportunistic. But she too must feel a magnetic pull to Baudelaire to weather so many lean and trying years with him. Not even close to monogamous, Duval also dismisses his poetry, doubting his talent and yet she defends him magnificently at the obscenity trial. Together she and Baudelaire flout society's rules and expectations for a discreet liaison, never taking the time to conceal their desires and appetites for sex, drugs, alcohol, and the good life. Their obsession, attraction and dependence on each other is unhealthy and it destroys them each in the end.
The squalor and decadence of a bohemian Paris on the cusp of a second revolution is beautifully evoked here. The political turmoil and turbulence of the times inform Baudelaire's vision of the world and spill into his poetry, the very poetry that the state declares too immoral and pornographic to be published. Paris itself is in the midst of an upheaval, with the face of the whole city changing to resemble the place of wide boulevards and elegant stone buildings that we know today, its own emerging beauty hiding the fears of unrest and violence that inspired the physical changes. Just as he captures the city, MacManus also imparts the feel of Parisian society, superficially judgmental while allowing the depths to roil, never more well drawn as during the trial itself when none of Baudelaire's early supporters, fellow members of the arts and literature community, famous and artistic men in their own right, will risk offering him support. The story of Baudelaire and Duval is one of betrayal and jealousy, inspiration and condemnation. And while neither of these two characters are the sort of people you'd ever want to spend much time knowing, watching their unraveling relationship and slow descent into mutual misery and destitution is interesting indeed. Historical fiction readers intrigued by Paris or fascinated by a literary life and its inspiration will find this to be a worthwhile read, slowly building in tone until the ravaged and expected end.
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Thanks to Veronica from Media Muscle, Book Trib, and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.