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he wasn’t recognised by his parents until the age of seven. His titles often reveal this sensitivity: A Prodigal Father, A Natural Son. You get the impression that the whole of the poor chap’s autobiography was enacted on the stage. La Dame aux Camélias was an intensely personal story for Dumas. He had met Marie, the original of Marguerite Gautier and hence of Violetta, at his father’s house: one rumour has it that she had been Dumas père’s mistress too. She was the daughter of a Norman farmer, and her real name was Alphonsine Plessis. Dumas was twenty and Marie only six months older. She was disturbingly beautiful and charming and amusing; she loved gambling and horseracing. She was already unwell and Dumas begged her to take things easier. The aria Sempre Libera could be based on her response: ‘If I do, I shall die. Only a life of excitement can keep me alive.’ Their passionate affair lasted only a few weeks. They broke up in less than a year. ‘I am not rich enough to love you as you would like, and not poor enough to be loved as you would want’ he wrote, unforgivably.
Dumas went to Spain and North Africa, then changed his mind, and wrote to Marie begging her to take him back. When he returned to Paris he learnt she had died the previous week. He wrote the novel on which he was to base his play in three weeks, in a fit of grief and remorse. The play, which was to be the greatest success in the Paris theatre in the nineteenth century, took him eight days. Verdi was in Paris at the time of the first performance in February 1852. The disastrous opening night of Traviata at the Fenice was in March 1853. Verdi and Piave were no slouches either. Dumas gave his hero Armand Duval – Alfredo in the opera – his own initials. Marie Duplessis he changed to Marguerite Gautier. The camellias were her favourite flower – she says so in the first act: she will never accept any other. Dumas ends his novel admitting that the story is mostly true. ‘Not being old enough to invent things, I make do with recounting . . .’ ‘I assure the reader that this story is true and all the people, except the heroine, are still alive.’ Little is so revealing or interesting about the