Black Venus

Written by James MacManus
Review by Terri Baker

This novel explores the life of one of France’s most innovative poets, whose contribution to French literature was underappreciated during his lifetime. The publication and the ensuing scandal surrounding his most important work, Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), is at the heart of this fictional examination of Charles Baudelaire’s inextricable relationship with Jeanne Duval: mistress, lover, friend, muse.

Duval, who escaped from post-revolutionary Haiti, met Baudelaire after one of her cabaret performances during one of Baudelaire’s drink- and drug-infused nights, which he often shared with his bohemian friends. The novel explores the obscenity trial that not only made Baudelaire notorious in Paris, but also the shocking scandal surrounding Duval’s testimony at that trial, one that permanently stains her historical record. MacManus also looks at the complex and intimate relationship Baudelaire had with his mother, Caroline Baudelaire Aupick.

Very engaging and evocative of the Decadent Movement of Paris in the late 19th century, MacManus engages with a strategy feminists often employ in reclaiming female histories lost or discarded by the overtly male institutions of literature and history. Baudelaire’s descent into poverty, dragging Duval with him, can often make for uncomfortable reading. Yet this, MacManus’s fourth novel, manages to engender empathy for the man who saw the menace of evil more than the hopefulness of good in his world. More importantly, it complicates the often-maligned history of a woman who was the center of this poet’s life by crediting to her one last philanthropic deed.

I would recommend this book to any who are interested in Baudelaire, his poetry, reclaimed women’s history, or late 19th-century Paris.