The re-occurring image of the good-hearted courtesan redeemed by true love, as shown in operas and films ranging from La Rondine to Camille to Breakfast at Tiffany's, belongs for the most part to the realm of fantasy. There are exceptions to every rule; we have the example of many holy penitents to know that dramatic change is possible. Often in the past, reformed ladies of notoriety, such as Madame du Barry, would spend time in a monastery, some even became nuns. Giving scandal was seen as no small matter; the damage done to both the individual and to others was such that temporary withdrawal from the world was definitely part of the healing process.
However, fallen women belong to a bygone era. Someone can only be "fallen" if there is a certain standard from which to fall. In our time, most standards of what once constituted decent behavior have been drastically altered. Situations that formerly belonged to the "half-world," the demi-monde, are now mainstream.
Yet there are things that remain constant. Promiscuity, then as now, has a hardening effect upon the pysche, as well as destructive, long-term consequences. Such a life leaves many scars. Prostitution in any form is degrading, even the very glamorous whoredom portrayed in Camille, the 1937 cinematic masterpiece starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Based upon the 1848 novel La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, the "Lady of the Camellias" had already been the subject of an opera by Verdi, as well as several films.
Dumas' heroine "Marguerite Gautier" was inspired by the tragic life of one Marie Duplessis, a courtesan with whom Dumas became briefly involved in the 1840's. Marie was forced into prostitution by her own father at the age of twelve; she died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-three, practically destitute. For a few years, her lively wit and discreet charm made her one of the most sought after courtesans in Paris.
As shown in Camille, the glitter of the demi-monde is only the flip side of despair. "Marguerite" does not even believe that lasting love exists, so enveloped is she by the tawdriness of her situation. Her peers, the other "fallen women," are rivals, jealous and competitive, out for what they can get.
"Armand" loves Marguerite, but for him to marry her would be the ruin of his career and of his family. He wants to marry her anyway, but Marguerite leaves him for his own good. She returns to her life in the demi-monde, until illness overtakes her.
In Camille, the normalcy of family life is shown distinctly connected with the Church, as at the First Communion celebration and in the wedding scene. Later, it is after Marguerite receives the last rites that Armand speaks to her of the marriage vows that both have already made in their hearts. With those words in her ears, she dies. One can only hope that the actual "Lady of the Camellias" died in such peace. Share