(This was originally posted on CBY Bookclub site as part of the book tour.)
As long as their have been storytellers, artists and musicians, there have been muses to fire up their imaginations. The ancient Greek muses were goddesses, daughters of Zeus (the most powerful of the Greek pantheon) and Mnemosyne (memory personified). Artists of all kinds would pray for their guidance and blessings.
Long after the old gods became myths, the idea of the muse lived on, usually as a beautiful woman – real or imaginary – who could inspire painters, writers, and composers. Such a woman was Marie Duplessis, the real-life basis for the main character in my novel Blood Diva.
Marie was born Alphonsine Plessis in a village in Normandy, France in 1824. Her father was a drunk and a brute. Her mother fled for her life, leaving Alphonsine and her sister behind. By the time she reached puberty, her father was selling her favors. At fourteen she arrived in Paris – alone and barely literate. She worked for a short time as a laundress, but soon found an easier way of life – first as a streetwalker and then as a courtesan catering to an ever wealthier clientele.
Men saw something in her that went beyond her delicate child-like beauty. She was witty and a quick study. Her early sponsors paid for her to have lessons in music and dance. Her home became a gathering place where writers, artists, aristocrats, and politicians might mingle though no respectable ladies ever crossed the threshold. Franz Liszt, the first international music “superstar” whose popularity inspired the phrase “Lisztomania” was one of the great loves of her life. Their time together was short, but he described her later as “the most absolute incarnation of Woman who has ever existed.” Before that, when she was still a teenager, she and Alexander Dumas fils, the son of the author of The Three Musketeers, had had a passionate affair. The younger Dumas’ had not yet begun his literary career when they met, and while his father supported him, he was neither wealthy nor established. Things ended. He didn’t want to be a kept woman’s kept man.
She died a few weeks after her twenty-third birthday of tuberculosis, then called “consumption.” It was shortly after her death that Dumas fils published his novel, The Lady of the Camellias, which everyone took to be a thinly disguised account of their time together. Of course it was a hit. While the respectable ladies couldn’t be seen talking to her, they could (behind closed doors) read the novel for a peek into the boudoir of the notorious mademoiselle.
Dumas turned the novel into a play. In both the play and the novel he softened Marie up a bit. In both versions, the doomed heroine, now called Marguerite Gautier, is willing to give up her livelihood for the love of Armand Duval (who shares Dumas’ initials). but when even that isn’t enough, she ends things with her her lover so that her scandalous past doesn’t stand in his way. In the play, he makes it back to her on her deathbed and she dies in his arms. The play became an international hit and star-vehicle for the most famous actresses of the time, Sarah Bernhardt and Elenora Duse. It also became the basis for tragic love story. Violetta (as the heroine is now called) is not simply a beautiful young woman who happens to be dying, she is youth and beauty personified. The pure love of Alfredo (as her lover is now named) purifies and redeems her, but still she dies.
One has to wonder, what the real Marie Duplessis would have made of her posthumous fame? One thing both Verdi and Dumas caught was her wit and sense of irony. How would she have reacted to her character’s redemption and sacrifice? Would she have been annoyed at Alexandre’s exploitation of her? Would she have found it funny that a man who did not want to be supported by her prostitution, wound up making a career out of their association?
It was those questions that inspired me to imagine Marie Duplessis alive in the 21st century. Where would she live? How would she earn a living? And how does she even wind up here? Does she get scooped up by a time-traveling opera fan? That seemed unlikely. Vampirism was the more obvious choice.
Poor Marie! As a courtesan there were doors she couldn’t go through. It’s the same for vampires.
The muse visited me often and her influence was strong. I soon realized that the plot of my novel would have a lot in common with my favorite opera. There would still be a worldly young woman a lot like Violetta. She’s still meet a handsome, more innocent young man, a lot like Alfredo. The passion they’d have for each other would transform them. Only the impediment to true love would be different. Instead of mortality and coughing up blood, my heroine is an immortal who drains it from others. As Marie might have put it, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”