The falling of women

Posted on Maw, 2013-12-03 12:33

Germaine Greer introduces our Fallen Women season

Opera is not a cautionary tale. The melodious death of the operatic heroine is not meant simply to dissuade women in the audience from her way of life; it is rather the culmination of an aesthetic conceit, best expressed by Shelley when he wrote in Ode to a Skylark, ‘The sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought’. The nightingale is said to become able to emit a flood of melody only when it presses its breast against a thorn that pierces its heart. A famous madrigal tells us that the silver swan when ‘living had no note’, until death appeared and unlocked its silent throat. It is the combination of extreme pathos and exquisite sound that moves us to delicious tears. Operas are weepies and weepies in all genres are made for women. When the funeral cortège of 23-year-old courtesan Marie Duplessis made its way through the streets of Paris, hundreds of people followed it weeping. Dickens who witnessed the event wrote in some perplexity, ‘One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness.’ Nobody was gauche enough to suggest that the Norman peasant who was trafficked as a child and rose to become the toast of ‘le tout Paris’ got no more than she deserved when she died so young, and so broke that all her belongings, including her pet parrot, had to be sold off to pay her debts.

Back in Britain Dickens was involved in setting up a home for fallen women, and for 12 years he would devote a considerable proportion of his apparently boundless energy to helping with its day to day management. 13 inmates, all of them recruited from the most disadvantaged class, were to be taught to read and write and behave themselves decently, before being shipped off to the colonies to begin a new life. Potential inmates were provided with a copy of Dickens’s pamphlet An Appeal to Fallen Women which described ‘the life’: ‘You know what the streets are; you know how cruel the companions that you find there are; you know the vices practised there, and to what wretched consequences they bring you, even while you are young. Shunned by decent people, marked out from all other kinds of women as you walk along, avoided by the very children, hunted by the police, imprisoned, and only set free to be imprisoned over and over again – reading this very letter in a common jail you have already dismal experience of the truth.’

In his conviction that there was no recovery possible for any woman guilty of a single sexual lapse, Dickens was in every sense Victorian. The 18th century saw women very differently; even flighty women who ran off with unsuitable men could make useful wives and mothers. Jane Austen’s women are not without desire; when her minor female characters elope with dashing young men they are seen as not so much fallen or degraded as foolish. But when Emily Peggotty is seduced and dumped by Steerforth in Dickens’s David Copperfield, she is ruined.

Prostitution had always been as common in Britain as anywhere else in the world, with the difference that no part of its vast spectrum was associated with glamour. There was in Britain no class of courtesans who could rise through the ranks of the profession to become conspicuously wealthy and successful. British women had always had more freedom than women on the continent; they went about unchaperoned and strangers were welcomed into their houses, as they were not in the houses of respectable women in Europe. In southern Europe, most famously in Venice, travellers, whether diplomats or merchants or young men on the Grand Tour, were entertained in the houses of professional hostesses, who were under the protection of public functionaries. Some were mistresses and concubines of those dignitaries; others had more freedom. Their palazzi and hôtels particuliers were showrooms for luxury goods, works of art and objets de vertu. Everything, including the doyenne, was for sale. One protector would pass his protegée to another richer and more powerful, if it was in his interest to do so, and she herself could relinquish one protector for another on the same ground. Her style, charm, intelligence and discretion were at least as important as her looks; the most successful courtesans, Ninon de l’Enclos, for example, maintained their sway well into old age. It was only during the reign of Charles II, who was the son of a Frenchwoman and spent his formative years on the continent, that courtesans were conspicuous in British life, to the disgust of many. Other British kings would have mistresses, but none would be seen to treat them with such indulgence.

The Abbé Prévost’s short novel Manon Lescaut was published in 1753. Though Manon has the title role the novel is not about her but about the Chevalier Des Grieux, a very young man of refinement and good breeding who falls in love at first sight with a beautiful girl of humble birth, and remains in love with her all his life. It is his fidelity that is the novel’s theme. Manon remains a mysterious creature, governed solely by a love of pleasure. She understands that she needs the protection of a rich and powerful man, but she cannot resist Des Grieux. She tries to save him from himself, by informing his family about his circumstances. He is supported by his family, by his generous friends, and by high-minded strangers who recognise him as a gentleman and spend their own money to procure him assistance. Manon has only her uncouth brother, who is prepared to live off her immoral earnings.

The story is told to Prévost’s narrator by Des Grieux, and it is he who falls as far as it is possible for a gentleman to fall. From being destined for a distinguished career, he becomes a hustler, a cheat and finally a murderer. Hans Werner Henze too is more interested in Des Grieux than in Manon; his Manon is a heartless cocotte who leaves Des Grieux when his money runs out. Her elder brother pimps her first to Lilaque and then to Lilaque’s son. To get Des Grieux out of the way Lescaut turns him on to cocaine. After a series of misadventures Manon shoots Lilaque, and is sent to prison. This time the audience is regaled with, not the melodious complaints of the tragic heroine, but the repinings of Des Grieux.

No version of the story has ever assumed Manon’s point of view. She could be forgiven for tiring of Des Grieux who, in all versions of the tale including Massenet’s, is always underfoot and constantly getting her into trouble because of his lack of street-wiseness. He stalks her all the way from Paris to New Orleans and her eventual death in the Louisiana desert. In the novel Manon undergoes a last-minute conversion to monogamy expressed in a long, prosy and entirely unconvincing speech.

Puccini’s Manon has little to say for herself until her final tragic scene. As she lies exhausted and alone in the desert, she acknowledges no conversion to monogamy and expresses no repentance. The cause of all her woe is the ‘beltà funesta’ (fatal beauty) that has caused men to contend with each other to possess her. Her career as a courtesan she now sees as the ‘passato orribile’ (terrible past) of a victim. The difference between Prévost’s perspective and Puccini’s is to be explained by a fundamental difference in genre. Prévost’s novel is written by a gentleman for gentlemen; Puccini’s opera is family entertainment and is therefore moralised in a very different way. The appeal is less to the men in the audience than to their respectable wives, who regard themselves as models of marital virtue and will insist on seeing deviant female behaviour punished. The bourgeois opera audience insists on seeing family values ultimately upheld, but they are not what the opera is actually about.

Verdi’s La traviata is, of course, based on Alexandre Dumas’s fictionalised version of the career of Marie Duplessis, whose lover he had been for almost a year – until his money ran out. After her death he exploited her celebrity by producing a novel that made him seem to be the one man who could have saved her. Readers of La Dame aux camélias understood it to be about Duplessis and so did the audiences who attended the play of the same name. One of them was Verdi, and the result was La traviata. If La traviata was meant to point a moral, Verdi might have had his Violetta die of the occupational disease of prostitutes, namely syphilis. In fact she dies, as did Duplessis, of tuberculosis. Rather than being killed by her dissolute life, she perishes as a consequence of an ill-advised attempt at monogamy.

The worst mistake a courtesan can make is to fall in love. To be successful she must feel free to play the field and take her chances for fame and fortune as she finds them. Violetta like Manon is destroyed by her amateurish partiality for one lover. Manon tries to keep Des Grieux and at the same time to live in luxury as the concubine of a succession of wealthy and powerful men; Violetta tries to leave the life altogether to live in mutual bliss with Alfredo. Alfredo, who is nearly as big a klutz as Des Grieux, doesn’t realise that he is living off Violetta’s immoral earnings. Violetta, being the original whore with a heart of gold rather than the complex creature that is Manon, or Nana in Zola’s novel, or Lulu in Wedekind’s play, is easily worked on by Alfredo’s father, gives up Alfredo and her one chance of happiness and returns to the life. The most remarkable moment in the opera is when, after beating Violetta’s protector at the gaming table, Alfredo throws his winnings at her as if paying for her services, treating her like a common prostitute. His behaviour is roundly condemned by the chorus and by the audience too.

It is as well when considering opera’s complex appeal to take into account the reputation of the women who sang leading roles. Their lives were obviously unconventional and some of the most popular were notorious for their liaisons with rich and powerful men and/or their unhappy love affairs. The diva is a public person, of no fixed abode, and her career is dependent upon the freshness of her voice, if not her person. Maria Callas, to name but one, had not a little in common with the tragic courtesan figure, and no diva ever had a more reverent following.