“Her name, accompanied as it was by her title, added to her physical person the duchy which cast its aura round about her and brought the shadowy, sun-splashed coolness of the woods of Guermantes into this drawing-room…I came to know many of the Duchess’s distinctive features notably…her eyes, which captured as in a picture the blue sky of a French country afternoon broadly expansive, bathed in light even when no sun shone…”
- Marcel Proust
Remembrance of Things Past: “The Guermantes Way”
I should not envy them so; these beautiful, languorous women, collapsed like corseted kittens on their sofas, conversing with their boudoir skin; their soft, fragrant intellect.
Subtle and notorious, these ladies controlled a groveling society that stared into their dance cards and invitations like so many pools of Narcissus. They held the reins – a silken touch resting on the demimonde’s gilded shoulders.
So I insist that I should not envy them. But their lives were like honey – thick, lazy, sweet. Their wealth was undeniable; their seductiveness incurable. So I do envy them: for their romantic, animal lives; their velvet wit; their exotic rapture.
By all rights they should by now be long forgotten. But their images remain – and this alone will guarantee that they will live forever.
I am thinking of one photograph in particular. It is a famous one and has woven a hypnotic path through my consciousness for many years. It is known for the beauty of its subject and for the twisting, loving embrace of her gown.
Ėlisabeth, Countess Greffulhe, Proust’s Duchess of Guermantes, was the Queen of late 19th century Parisian salons. Personalities from James Whistler to Gustave Moreau to Marie Curie to Edward VII populated her rooms, where the high words of art and science could entwine and grow only to evaporate in the smoke of the King’s ubiquitous cigars.
The Countess was a magnificent creation – statuesque yet sensitive, with an expression full of dignity and incantation. Her eyes were dark, reflecting a mysterious violet light. A besotted writer, Mina Curtiss, described them as “The dark purple-brown tinged petals of a rarely seen pansy.”
But we might never have seen her face had the photographer not taken pity on our curiosity. He has arranged his stately subject so that she stares into a mirror. An expression echoes back at us, as pert as a spoiled school girl’s: with an upturned nose, the eyebrows arched and mocking. She might begin a flirtation or a discourse on modern dance…or just as easily pull a competitor’s pigtails.
Her hair is swept into a chorus of curls, crowned with a galaxy of pearls: the twisting movement continuing through her neck and brought to a stop by the soft plateau of her shoulders. The rest of the photograph is dedicated to her celebrated gown.
It is black velvet, with a latticework of white lilies that travels down her spine, all the way to the hem where it pools into an exhausted garden. It lies flat against the panels of whalebone and grips the strong slow curve of torso and hips. With the pinched, breathless waist, the outline of irresistible femininity is complete.
Yet the Countess did not like the idea of her photographs being circulated; such invasive reality was a private thing – meant only for an elect few. She also disliked Proust and his hysterical worship. Observations such as “in her there is not a feature that can be found in any other woman or anywhere else” – she found sticky, over-wrought and in poor taste.
What would she say if she knew that such envy and admiration would continue unscathed for more than 100 years? And what would she think of those who still choose to write about her – and who dared commit her image to memory, holding it as they would hold it in their hands?