James MacManus I had never heard of poet Charles Baudelaire. His most famous work Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) was inspired by his Haitian mistress Jeanne Duval. As a white man living in Paris during the mid-1800s, it was quite scandalous for someone like Baudelaire to associate with such a woman. She was the product of a former slave and her owner, who made a life for herself as a nightclub singer. They were never married, but in a decade-plus of companionship they sure acted like it.
Jeanne Duval was nicknamed "Black Venus," hence the title of this book. The book is a fictional take on their life together.
In life, Baudelaire seemed like a spoiled rich kid. His mother held the purse strings to the family money. He was no good at managing his own finances, yet Baudelaire wanted a life independent of his mother. When he met Jeanne Duval, he was captivated by her beauty. But he only wanted her around when it was convenient for him. In his mind, she should have been content to be a "kept" woman. A luxurious apartment, fancy clothes, jewelry, and Baudelaire himself "should" have been enough for her right? No. Anytime she wanted something for herself, Baudelaire was upset. He balked at the thought of Jeanne becoming an independent woman, yet he was a grown man who couldn't stand up to his mother.
There was certainly love between them, but society and Baudelaire and Jeanne's own oddball personalities kept them from truly expressing it. He wants her as a muse, but won't tell his mother how much he loves her. Jeanne wants a life away from him, but every time she tries Baudelaire literally pulls her back in. When he goes on trial for obscenity, it's Jeanne who saves the day. All of the good they do for each other is almost always sabotaged. Both of them are eventually in failing health, but I felt like they were killing each other -- in a figurative sense of course. They both want to be better than what society expects of them. Baudelaire wants to be an accomplished writer and poet, but everyone in Paris knows him for his "dirty" and often "pornographic" writing. Jeanne wants to be respected, but all anyone sees is a slut. Rather than lifting each other up, they seemed to be tearing each other down resulting in poor health. They want to be happy, but they just don't know how. Perhaps it was just a reflection of the times, interracial couples still get looks in 2013 and I'm sure it was worse in the 1800s.
As much as this was about Baudelaire and Jeanne, I also read this as a social commentary of 19th century Paris. Because of what other people thought Baudelaire had to lead a double life. Because of what other people thought Jeanne had work hard to prove she was worthy of being loved and respected. People just weren't ready for their "taboo" relationship, and perhaps Baudelaire and Jeanne weren't ready either. There were times when the book felt a little slow, but overall it was a worthy read.
Note: I received a copy of the book from Meryl L. Moss Media Relations, Inc. in exchange for an honest review