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.
Caroline Weber’s Proust’s Duchess is an exhaustive, engaging, brilliantly researched account of who these three women were and how they each, in different ways, created an allure that so fascinated Proust. It is also a portrait of Paris in a time when it was still unclear to a select group that the French monarchy might not somehow return, when privilege and an elaborate set of manners and systems of social behavior were still fully in place so that a small breach in them could mean either social doom or a reputation for brilliance and originality. It is also a book that throws considerable light on Proust’s method as a novelist by letting us see the sheer amount of information available on these women: where they came from, where they went each season, what their husbands were like, what lovers they had, what their disappointments and hopes were. It allows us to see more starkly how Proust’s method works, how little he was concerned with the actual minutiae of infidelities and love affairs and secret trysts, how he allowed the reader to take these for granted, and how much, on the other hand, he was intrigued by what was visible in a single moment in a room, at a gathering, how many generalizations he could make from a single glimpse or glance or change in the social air ... Proust then made music from this, being more interested in music than gossip, and only tangentially inspired and nourished by actual tittle-tattle about rich women in a confined quarter of a changing city.