Proust’s Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siècle Paris

Caroline Weber. Knopf, $35 (736p) ISBN 978-0-307-96178-5
The great strength of this literary history from Weber (Queen of Fashion) lies in its sheer accumulation of detail, which paints a granular picture of the ultra-wealthy milieu that provided the subject matter for Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Weber focuses on three real-life social leaders Proust merged into the character of the Duchesse of Guermantes. Through these three women—Comtesse de Chevigné, Vicomtesse Greffulhe, and Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus—Weber exposes the high society world of France during the 1870s to early 1890s. The grandeur might impress from afar, but Weber reveals the darker side of a culture that contributed little to the larger society while spending lavishly on its own whims. Greffulhe’s husband, for example, used one of his footmen solely to deliver daily bouquets of orchids to his dozens of paramours, while she indulged in custom clothing that included a muff crafted of blue jay feathers, a floor-length fox stole, and a mauve brocade gown woven with palm fronds. The final impression is one of a topical warning against the accumulation of vast wealth for its own sake. Readers will be impressed when they reach the end of this lengthy book, nearly every page of which offers factual riches, served up with precise and witty prose. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/12/2018
Release date: 04/24/2018
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