Katrin Schultheiss chairs the History Department at George Washington University. She is completing a book on the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot.
If you lament the superficiality of modern celebrity culture, the ostentatious consumerism of today’s super-rich, and the sycophantic fandom of social media and reality TV stars, then Caroline Weber’s portrait of the uppermost crust (the gratin) of Parisian Belle Époque society will strike a familiar chord. The three aristocratic women at the center of this elegantly written and deeply researched “triple biography,” Laure de Sade (Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné), Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus and Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay (Vicomtesse — later Comtesse — Greffulhe), are 19th-century paragons of that quintessential 21st -century phenomenon: the media icon and “tastemaker” who is famous primarily for being famous.
Although these women’s careers as socialites depended on the persistence of the fragile, deeply anachronistic world of the old aristocracy, their not-insubstantial cultural influence was made possible by the modernizing forces that threatened their very existence as a social class. “At a moment in history when, with the rise of mass media, popular opinion was emerging in France as a force of unprecedented and unreckoned power,” Weber observes, “they infused the snob appeal of class-based privilege with a thoroughly modern knack for publicity and self-promotion.” Had they lived a century earlier, their hereditary class status alone would have granted them social prominence; a century later, membership in the aristocracy would be entirely irrelevant to achieving stardom. These three socialites of the fin de siècle were simultaneously relics of the past and “harbingers of a world where celebrity alone suffices to confer social importance and ordain cultural worth.”
By the closing decades of the 19th century, the stabilization of the Third Republic and the attendant evaporation of any lingering hopes for the revival of the French monarchy had rendered the old elites politically all but irrelevant. Socially, however, they still commanded the attention of an eclectic subset of the Parisian population, including not just fellow aristocrats clinging to their noble titles, but also social climbers looking for access and validation, and artists and writers seeking patronage, titillating social engagement and even inspiration.
It is in this context that the young Marcel Proust, a still largely unknown writer with no aristocratic lineage, a Jewish mother and a veritable obsession with the lifestyle of the gratin, would become serially infatuated with the most sought-after socialites of the era. The three women portrayed here were, in composite, the inspiration for his character the Duchesse de Guermantes in his masterpiece, “In Search of Lost Time.” For Weber, a professor of French and comparative literature at Barnard, Proust’s obsession with these women is a starting point rather than a justification for her study. “For the past hundred years,” she writes, “posterity has cared about Mmes. De Chevigné, Straus, and Greffulhe because Proust did. But he cared about them because an entire society did, and how an entire society came to care about them is a tale that has not yet been told.”
Weber sets out to depict “them as they wanted the world to see them and as they were when they thought no one was looking.” Whether you find either vision appealing depends a great deal on your appetite for (nearly 600 pages of) descriptions of aristocratic lineages, amorous intrigue, high fashion, richly decorated houses and endless entertainments.
Proust’s first object of affection was Laure de Sade, Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné, a descendent of the notorious Marquis de Sade, known at the time for her purposefully crude wit, seemingly imperturbable sang-froid and endless string of lovers. Although fully immersed in such old regime rituals as multi-day pheasant hunts and costume balls for literally thousands of guests, she cut a distinctly modern figure. Saddled with a husband of impeccable noble lineage whom she rarely saw — he lived in Austria in service to the Comte de Chambord, the last living heir to the Bourbon monarchy — she scandalized high society by going out in public freely and alone. Defiantly independent, she cultivated her train of admirers, including the Comte de Chambord himself, with an apparent disregard for public opinion that itself became part of her allure.
Then there was Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus, daughter of the famed composer Fromental Halévy and the wealthy salonnière Léonie, who overcame a childhood of emotional abuse and neglect (as well as the social obstacle of her Jewish family background) to run one of the most sought-after salons in fin de siècle Paris. After the death of her first husband, the composer Georges Bizet, she continued to build her social network, eventually marrying the wealthy and well-connected Jewish lawyer Emile Straus. Straus brought with him links to coveted families like the Rothschilds and regarded his wife’s cultural ambitions as assets in his unending campaign for acceptance into the city’s most exclusive social circles. But Geneviève’s unqualified success as a salonnière and muse (the writer Guy de Maupassant was a fervent admirer) hid psychological and physical struggles that she controlled only with the help of increasing doses of opioids.
Having been spurned by the Comtesse de Chevigné and grown disillusioned with Straus, Proust turned his adoring gaze on Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay, Vicomtesse Greffulhe, the most conventionally beautiful of the three women and the one whose life seemed to hew closest to the Belle Époque ideal of elevating style over substance. Élisabeth took pride in her youthful intellectual accomplishments and, as an adult, attempted to write a novel in collaboration with her primary unrequited love interest. Yet she devoted most of her energy as a young woman to cultivating a large and adoring crowd of admirers who would gaze agape at her extravagant fashion choices and her dramatic, carefully choreographed appearances at public events.
Although these three women embraced “a worldview that held the surface to be essential and profound,” Weber insists, “their commitment to surface elegance belied tremendous human complexity.” That is certainly true in the sense that all lives are more complicated than the versions offered up for public consumption, whether those presentations occur at the Paris Opera in 1892 or on YouTube in 2018. The three women whose lives form the core of “Proust’s Duchess” reigned over their world of gossip, love affairs and parties with a fervor that has more than a whiff of desperation about it. Occasionally, the much uglier and more violent real world — the Dreyfus Affair and a string of terrifying anarchist bombings, for example — intruded on the snowglobe idyll they so carefully constructed around themselves. But it was an idyll as artificial as it was fragile. Peering into it from the outside and with the hindsight of history, its inhabitants appear not so much fascinating as deluded and, ultimately, sad.
By Caroline Weber
Knopf. 715 pp. $35