The Eurostar from London to Paris takes just over two hours and in that time the elderly man in the seat opposite consumes a bottle of Côte du Rhône. He’s an academic going to what he calls a ‘mumbo-jumbo’ two-day conference. I get the impression the train trip is going to be the best part of his weekend. My time in Paris is partly to be spent finding out what is left of the nineteenth-century city that created and shaped France’s greatest poet, Charles Baudelaire. More importantly I want to try and throw light on the central mystery of Baudelaire’s life: his long and passionate affair with the woman he called his Black Venus, Jeanne Duval. The most unlikely lovers in literature lived together for twenty years from 1842 in a relation- ship which destroyed Baudelaire as a man but made him a great poet.

The woman who became such a creative and disruptive force in Baude- laire’s life was a voluptuous Creole beauty whose origins are as mysterious as the hypnotic effect she had on the young poet.
Most historians conclude that she came from the Caribbean, possibly Haiti, the progeny of a mixed race marriage, perhaps between a French planter and a slave. What we do know is that she arrived in Paris in 1840 when she was about twenty years old.

Baudelaire first saw his Black Venus on stage in a small cabaret club at the bottom end of the Champs Élysees one night. She only had a one line part but it was enough. He was captivated. The next day she agreed to move into his apartment on the Île Saint-Louis.

It was not long before Duval introduced her lover to opium, then fashion- ably taken in liquid form as laudanum. He rapidly became an addict and the two lovers embarked on a lavish lifestyle that quickly depleted the substantial fortune Baudelaire had inherited from his father. Duval also started a long series of affairs in which she betrayed him both with his friends and complete strangers.

Why then did Baudelaire remain with her? Why did he say, as he was dy- ing, that he had had only two responsibilities in his life – to his art and to his Black Venus?

Above all what was it in Jeanne Duval that inspired the poet to place at the heart of Les Fleurs de Mal, the cycle of sensuous poems which are all about her and describe her in explicit terms?
Was it just lust for a voluptuous woman who attracted the attention of all who saw her? His poems tell us he was enraptured with her sensuality, by her prominent breasts, her tresses of long black hair, and by the dark eyes that he described as ‘black chimneys that vent fire and smoke from the furnace of her soul.’

History has not been kind to Jeanne Duval. She has been dismissed as a wanton, a slut and little more than a thief and prostitute by literary critics and Baudelaire’s biographers.
But to his dying day Charles Baudelaire remained loyal to his Black Venus. Even when on his death bed he was trying to borrow yet more money to pay for her medical bills.


That is the question that has brought me to Paris.

We reach the Gare du Nord station where in 1864 Charles Baudelaire had taken the train to Brussels in a futile attempt to find some respite from cred- itors, illness and artistic failure. Paris was then at the height of its Second Empire fame as Europe’s City of Light. The poet returned from his self-imposed exile two years later, a hollowed out, shrunken figure known only, if at all, for his translation into French of Edgar Allan Poe. As his life drew to a close Baudelaire found only darkness in a city that he had loved from childhood and that had inspired much of his great poetry. In lines dedicated to the great Victor Hugo he described Paris as:

Pulsating city overrun with dreams
Where phantoms tug your sleeve by day
And the city’s deepest secrets stream
Like the lifeblood of a sleeping giant.*

Paris was Baudelaire’s lifeblood, his passion, his paradise of pleasure as a young man and, as he grew up, the source of the artistic genius that gave us Les Fleurs du Mal, a slim volume of poems that is as breathtakingly original and shocking today as it was when published – and banned – in 1857. Yet Paris was also the poet’s downfall. The teeming slums of the left bank in the 1840s when the poet reached his majority were notorious for brothels whose women were riddled with venereal disease. In the bars and cafés opium and hashish were taken openly and sexual favours exchanged for a glass or two of wine. Baudelaire, like most of the writers and artists of the days, loved the sleazy charms of the tangle of streets and alleyways on the Left Bank. Their evenings were spent in cafés such as Le Procope in the Rue de L’Ancienne Comédie in the 7th Arrondissement.

To my surprise Le Procope still exists. It was there I head first to find a fash- ionable tourist restaurant adorned outside with national flags and promi- nent claims that Robespierre, Napoleon and Balzac are among former pa- trons. But when I enquire about Baudelaire, the smart young Frenchman on reception denies that the poet had ever visited the establishment.

Wondering at such nonsense – how could he possibly know? – I walk the short distance to Baudelaire’s birthplace, No 17, Rue Hautefeuille, in the 6th. The street is still there but it was bisected in the 1850s by Boulevard Saint-Germain when Paris was brutally but brilliantly remodelled by Baron Haussmann. The house where Baudelaire was born is long gone. There is not even a plaque to mark where it once stood.

At the end of a dispiriting day in a city that seems to have become a metro disneyland for tourists I finally find part of an answer to my question at No 1, Rue de Dôme close to the Place de L’Étoile, in the 16th. In this very house Baudelaire died, with a smile on his face we are told, in the arms of his mother in August 1867, aged fifty. He was bankrupt, his poetry scorned and his publisher in gaol. Even his translations of Poe were out of print. There is a fine plaque here, the only one in Paris as far as I could discover, to a man that his fellow poet Rimbaud called ‘a True God.’

If Baudelaire did indeed smile at the approach of death it was because he was with the woman he adored above all other, his mother, Caroline Aup- ick. For two of the happiest years of his life, from the age of five to seven, after the death of his father, he lived alone with her. Mother and son did everything together from breakfast to the goodnight embrace before she would depart for dinner, the theatre or the opera.

It was to this enchanted period of his life that Baudelaire would return with longing in later years, torturing himself with the memory of a childhood fairyland as he struggled against poverty and ill health.

Baudelaire’s obsession with his mother and the sheer intensity of his filial devotion, were unusual even in a child of his age. When she remarried a handsome army officer the young Baudelaire was devastated and is said to have locked their bedroom door and thrown the key away. He could hardly bring himself to forgive his betrayal by a woman he loved so deeply.

Caroline Baudelaire was an attractive woman with a good figure who de- lighted in dressing in her finery when going out at night. Her six-year-old son drank in the sight of velvet, silk and satin dresses, the sparkle of her jewellery and scent of her perfume, the flutter of the ribbons in her hair, the soft feel of the furs she wore, and the mammary warmth of the goodnight kiss as he buried his face in her bosom.

These were Baudelaire’s years of paradise, until the spell was broken when his mother remarried. And when he looked back with longing at his child- hood it was Duval who helped him recreate the joy he had experienced there.

Jeanne Duval was no fool despite the vilification she received both from her contemporaries and has suffered from literary historians ever since. She understood that the well spring of Baudelaire’s creative art lay in his recall of the sensual pleasures of childhood, when he and his widowed mother spent every waking hour together.

In a famous poem that was to be banned, ‘Les Bijoux’, the poet describes almost despairingly his pleasure at seeing light refracted through jewellery on his lover’s brown skin, hearing soft music as her jewels moved against her naked body, and the delicate aromas he found when inhaling the milky perfume of her breasts.

But whether she knew it or not, Duval was much more than a reminder of the scented memories of Baudelaire’s childhood. She invoked in him feel- ings of pity, despair, lust, and betrayal – the commanding themes of Les Fleurs du Mal.

Baudelaire’s poetry flows from the dark corners of the human heart and shows us the shame, the squalor and the vice that he found there. He recog- nises human frailty and the power of evil, which is why he is so unpopular with the liberal-minded thinkers of the nineteenth century who believed in the essential goodness of mankind.

As one of his contemporaries said: Dante only visited hell once – Baudelaire came from there.

And onstage in a little cabaret theatre at the wrong end of the Champs Ély- sees he may have seen the twin forces of the divine and the devil personi- fied in the shapely form of an unknown actress. In Duval he certainly found the means to recall his years of paradise as a child. Without her I think we would have been denied the glory of Les Fleurs du Mal. And as T. S. Eliot said without that poetry he would have been bereft of the inspiration for his own masterwork, ‘The Waste Land.’

So the influence of a semi-literate woman, whose life and death are largely mysterious, ripples down through the years.

History has indeed damned Baudelaire’s Black Venus but as I returned on Eurostar with a bottle of claret for company I reflected on the words of the poet’s great biographer, the late Dr. Enid Starkie, who said of his mistress and muse:

No one is justified in judging Jeanne Duval since Baudelaire
was able to understand and forgive her. It is best to think of
her as she had been in the days of her flaming youth, when
she kindled the passion in him which is responsible for the
magnificent cycle of sensual love poems.

*‘The Seven Old Men’ from Charles Baudelaire: Complete Poems, translated by Walter Martin, Carcanet Press 1997

Black Venus, a novel by James MacManus, is available February 27th from Duck- worth Publishers in hardback at £16.99.


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