At the turn of the 19th century, three celebrities of their day reigned supreme in the uppermost crust of Paris. These three women, Madame de Chevigné, Straus, and Greffuhle, are important to us today not because of their status but because they inspired the pen and passion of Marcel Proust.
The famed author conflated their characteristics to create the fictional character we know as the Duchesse de Guermantes in his lifework In Search of Lost Time. But who were the real women behind the self-willed facades? Who were their often-famous husbands, friends, and lovers? Fortunately for us, Caroline Weber, a prominent French scholar based in New York and the author of a previous study on Marie-Antoinette (Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution), decided to investigate. The fin de siècle springs to glorious life in her latest book, Proust’s Duchess. We met with Caroline Weber to talk about the book and her life-long love of French history.
France-Amérique: Of the three women whose lives you researched, which woman, if you could choose, would you have liked to spend time with?
Caroline Weber: If I had to choose one, it would probably be Laure de Chevigné, for two reasons: (1) she is the one I feel I know the least well, because she left behind a much less voluminous correspondence than either of my book’s other protagonists did (she believed in keeping her written output to a minimum on the grounds that all letters are either boring or incriminating); and (2) she would surely have been the most fun. She was famed for her irreverent sense of humor and her after-hours forays into the dive bars of Paris — I would have loved to experience those things in person.
When and how did the idea to write Proust’s Duchess come to you?
Many years ago, I set out to write a biography of the 20th-century Parisian salonnière Marie-Laure de Noailles, who liked to remind people that her grandmother, Laure de Chevigné, was a model for Proust’s duchesse de Guermantes. Rereading Proust as research for that project, I fell in love with his novel, which I had never appreciated before and which I quickly decided I wanted to work on in a more direct way. So I decided to shift my attention to the fin de siècle and write instead about the society hostesses of Marie-Laure’s grandmother’s generation.
Can you describe your experience(s) of interviewing the descendants of these celebrated women and comment on how Marcel Proust is viewed in France today?
The descendants of my three main characters were fantastically generous with their time, their reminiscences, and their family papers; and for the most part they seemed proud of their ancestors’ contributions (however unwitting) to Proust’s masterpiece. While they all recognize the enduring importance of the Recherche, I did notice that relatively few of them claimed to have read it. Yet each and every one of them impressed me with their deep sense of history and connectedness to the past. This of course is a sensibility that Proust ascribed to the Guermantes in his novel — he would have appreciated in his models’ descendants for certain.
Both your previous book, What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, and this book address historical shifts and cultural transitions in France. Can you address this and are you currently researching a new time period for your next book?
Yes, as an historian I tend to gravitate toward moments of profound sociopolitical and cultural change, even crisis. I grew up in the American South, which for better and for worse is still in thrall to a conception of the mid-19th-century Confederacy as a romantic lost cause; and I think that cultural conditioning has something to do with my interest in putatively gracious but deeply conflicted temps perdus. My next book will fall into the same category as it is a sequel to Proust’s Duchess, tracing the history of the “Proustian” elite from the Dreyfus Affair through World War I.
What are you reading for pleasure now that you have finished work on Proust’s Duchess?
For a complete change of pace, I am rereading Céline — another author whose genius was somehow lost on me when I first read him in college. I’m currently about halfway through his Voyage au bout de la nuit, and while obviously the language, the characters, and the events described could not be more different to those in the Recherche, I am blown away by Céline’s verve and brio. What he does have in common with Proust is that he is extremely funny. There is a part where the hero is just flabbergasted by the horrors of the war he has joined up to fight. With deadpan drollery he concludes that the mass slaughter of countless human beings “faisait partie de ces choses qu’on peut faire sans mériter une bonne engueulade. C’était même reconnu, encouragé… par les gens sérieux, comme le tirage au sort, les fiançailles, la chasse à courre ! Rien à dire. Je venais de découvrir d’un coup la guerre tout entière.” That bit made me laugh aloud. I had just discovered Celine at once.
=> Caroline Weber, Proust’s Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-De-Siècle Paris. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. 715 pages. $35.
Helen Mitsios is an Associate Professor of Languages and Literature at Touro College & University System in New York City.