Thursday, May 30, 2013

Black Venus by James MacManus

A vivid novel of Charles Baudelaire and his lover Jeanne Duval, the Haitian cabaret singer who inspired his most famous and controversial poems, set in nineteenth-century Paris.

For readers who have been drawn to The Paris Wife, Black Venus captures the artistic scene in the great French city decades earlier, when the likes of Dumas and Balzac argued literature in the cafes of the Left Bank. Among the bohemians, the young Charles Baudelaire stood out—dressed impeccably thanks to an inheritance that was quickly vanishing. Still at work on the poems that he hoped would make his name, he spent his nights enjoying the alcohol, opium, and women who filled the seedy streets of the city.

One woman would catch his eye—a beautiful Haitian cabaret singer named Jeanne Duval. Their lives would remain forever intertwined thereafter, and their romance would inspire his most infamous poems—leading to the banning of his masterwork, Les Fleurs du Mal, and a scandalous public trial for obscenity. 

James MacManus's Black Venus re-creates the classic Parisian literary world in vivid detail, complete with not just an affecting portrait of the famous poet but also his often misunderstood, much-maligned muse.

Black Venus is a novel about Charles Baudelaire and his mistress, Jeanne Duval. Charles Baudelaire was not a man of affluence, however, he yearned to be so. He desired the luxuries of life and strived for it, even at the risk of his own reputation. He spent money lavishly, gambling and womanizing, even indulging in drink and drugs. His mother and stepfather often came to his rescue when his debts got out of control and imposed a strict allowance, severely restricting him.

Sketch of Jeanne Duval

And then in an obscure cabaret, he met the woman who would become his obsession, an alluring Creole woman from Haiti named Jeanne Duval. He dubbed her his Black Venus. She captivated him in every way and he wanted to possess her at all costs. She inspired his poetry - graphically sexual, explicit, and descriptive. She used Charles as a means to raise her own status in life. Jeanne even made clothing purchases at elite shops and charged them to Charles’ mother. Jeanne took everything she could from the relationship that was tumultuous and lasted for decades.

Sketch of Jeanne Duval
The novel truly takes the reader in the 19th century France, the fear of the revolution, the artists, the cafes. The poems Duval inspired were published, but due to their sexuality, were banned by the government, bankrupting his publisher and rendering Charles a very poor man indeed. Edward Manet befriends Charles and soon Manet paints Jeanne. Unlike Charles, however, his work brought Manet fame and wealth, and increased Duval’s fame.

Painting of Jeanne Duval by Edouard Manet

Black Venus is a poignant novel, heart-breaking and forlorn, almost a tragedy. It is a tale of betrayal, jealousy, obsession, and forbidden love. A magnetic story to say the least!

From History and Women

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