Proust’s Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siècle Paris

Written by Caroline Weber
Review by Audra Friend

This delightful, richly detailed, and wonderfully sympathetic biography looks at the lives of three French mondaines – women of taste, influence, and intellect – who inspired Marcel Proust, most famously as a composite for the Duchesse de Guermantes from In Search of Lost Time. What makes this book more than an intriguing dive into a particular literary reference is Weber’s gifted manner of placing historical tidbits and trivia in context while realizing three figures who have otherwise been rendered in caricature and vague shorthand.

The three women Weber focuses on are Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus; Laure de Sade, Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné; and Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay, Comtesse Greffulhe. In her Acknowledgments, Weber writes that “exposing [their] secrets reflects not my lack of respect for my subjects but my commitment to portraying them as truthfully as possible.” In that, Weber is wildly successful, as this book fleshes out each woman’s respective familial legacies – and its impact on them, for both good and bad – as well as the societal pressures that both rewarded and punished them for any daring, originality, and sin.

Authors who are researching life in the Belle Époque era will find this volume wonderful for offering detailed impressions of everyday life for artists, hostesses, and society patrons. Francophiles and readers interested in women’s history will, too, find much in this book that is illuminating (and frustrating!)