Black Venus is a fictionalized account of the relationship between French poet Charles Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval. Baudelaire is recognized as the greatest poet of the French language whose classic work Les Fleurs du Mal was banned shortly after publication in France in 1857 due to its “obscene” content. Jeanne Duval, an immigrant from Haiti whose mother was a slave and whose father was a French plantation owner, was his lover for 20 years and the inspiration for Baudelaire’s best known work.
As the novel begins, Baudelaire is a 21-year-old “dandy” living off of his mother’s money. Baudelaire wears the latest fashions and haunts the trendy cafes with his friends, accruing debt while expressing disdain for the bourgeoisie and support for revolution. While drinking at a working class dive, he catches cabaret singer Duval’s act and is immediately attracted to her. Duval was tall, shapely, olive-skinned and had long dark hair. She was also quite independent for her time, having escaped Haiti at the age of 14 and making her way to France. A 20-year dysfunctional relationship ensued, involving alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, debt and an obscenity trial. Baudelaire’s mother and friends blamed Duval for Baudelaire’s downward spiral, but MacManus shows Baudelaire as someone who willingly went down that path. His dark side is evident throughout the novel — vain, selfish, drawn to many vices and unrepentant about it. It is the dark side of man that is the focus of his verse and what set him apart from the romantic poets of his age.
Little is actually known about Jeanne Duval. She did not write, and accounts of her from Baudelaire’s contemporaries are unflattering (she was the whore who supplied him with opium). Duval, as depicted by MacManus, was an independent minded woman restricted by her sex, race and class. She used her talents as a singer, her own intelligence and her looks to support herself and her predilection for fine dining, gowns and jewelry. Baudelaire’s mother offered her money to stay away from him, while his publisher Poulet-Malassis offered her money to get back with him so that he would write again.
The Baudelaire/Duval relationship, as depicted by MacManus, was a train wreck and reminded me of some of the celebrity relationship disasters that you might find in today’s tabloids. They go from lust to hatred and back again. They do drugs and drink to excess and spend extravagantly. Baudelaire calls her a whore and his “black Venus,” a term that Duval detested since her skin was light. She also resented the way Baudelaire portrayed her physical body in verse and sketches — all big breasts and buttocks, with the inscription “Quaerens quem devoret” (seeking whom to devour).
Neither one seems to understand what attraction it is that they have for each other, but it is undeniable and similar to their other addictions.
Duval seems to have been able to weather their break-ups better than Baudelaire. She continued to take lovers (as she had even while with Baudelaire), including Manet, who painted her portrait.
MacManus’ Duval does not admire Baudelaire’s poems or understand his fascination with the slums and seamy side of Parisian city life. Given her early life as a slave in Haiti and the violence of the revolution there, plus her personal experience of poverty in Paris, this makes sense. For MacManus, Duval’s dream was to leave Paris and start life anew in the American West, where she imagined her father living. Unfortunately, her dreams were thwarted but MacManus allows her one great act of selflessness and compassion before her death from tuberculosis.
This was a pretty good book. The history is solid and the story behind the banning of Baudelaire’s verses is interesting if you are unfamiliar with it. Overall, the creation of a story for Jeanne Duval and her relationship with Baudelaire was satisfactory.