A look at the glittering world of turn-of-the-century Paris through a study of the three aristocrat women Marcel Proust used to create his supreme fictional character, the Duchesse de Guermantes of In Search of Lost Time.
Weber, a professor of French and comparative literature at Barnard College, is an erudite literary historian as well as a fashion connoisseur, and she spent years of archival research amassing the sumptuous details, apt and amusing illustrations, lengthy endnotes, huge bibliography and three appendixes of this engrossing story. She describes not only the three women, but an enormous cast of the dandies, decadents, artists, writers, musicians and financiers of the fin de siècle. Clearly Weber loves this period; while the book is long and weighty, it is never dull. Still, I wish she had gone even longer through the Dreyfus affair, which marked a tragic turn in what she calls 'a soon-to-be-extinct society' ... Maybe you’ll be tempted to give Proust another go when you read about them all. In any case, Weber has succeeded much as he did in bringing that lost time back to glorious life.
Proust’s Duchess, a hefty 715 pages, is rich with intimate details of the extraordinary lives behind the carefully crafted public images of its three heroines. Celebrated names are dropped like confetti over the pages. Liberally illustrated with photographs, the book includes many new findings in the archives of the families; there are 100-plus pages of back matter, including scholarly end notes and two recently discovered articles by Proust ... With an accumulation of intimate and telling detail that would have impressed Proust himself, Ms. Weber has done a remarkable job bringing to life a trio of remarkable women, and a world of culture, glamour and privilege swept away by World War I.
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 ... 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.