Two books on the life of Baudelaire’s muse

(Paris) We knew nothing, or almost nothing, about Jeanne Duval, muse of the poet Charles Baudelaire. Coincidence or plagiarism? A century and a half after her death, two concomitant publications reveal the details of the life of the Black Venus.

For Ali Kilic, it all begins at the end of 2021. This French teacher in a high school in Strasbourg, keen on genealogical research, decides to unravel the mystery surrounding the life of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s mistress, who gave him dedicated several poems of Flowers of Evil.

Because we know nothing or almost nothing about the woman who sometimes calls herself Jeanne Duval, sometimes Jeanne Prosper or Jeanne Lemer. His dates and places of birth and death, his origins, and even his real name are unknown.

After initial, unsuccessful research on civil status registers available online, Mr. Kilic broadened his investigations to all Jeanne, Duval or Prosper who died after Baudelaire within 20 km around Paris.

It was then that the death certificate appeared for a certain Florinne, Jeanne, Gabrielle, Adeline, Prosper, who died on December 20, 1868, in Saint-Denis, in Seine–Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris. Seamstress, born in Port-au-Prince, she lives at the begging depot.

“Myth of the muse”

By pulling this thread, Mr. Kilic will go back to what appears to be the Haitian birth certificate of Jeanne Duval, dated November 18, 1818 and preserved and digitized by the Mormon church on the site

Then, in the passenger registers, he found traces of his arrival in Le Havre, on July 21, 1821, three months after Baudelaire’s birth, aboard the sailing ship Grand Amédée, alongside his mother and sister.

Thanks to the digitized archives of public assistance, Jeanne Duval can then be followed during her admissions to Paris hospitals.

She met Baudelaire at the age of 23, in 1842.

In November 2022, when Mr. Kilic submits these discoveries to André Guyaux, who co-directs the journal The Baudelaire yearhe immediately shows interest.

“It’s very important, like everything that links the biographical and the poetic in Baudelaire’s work,” the professor emeritus at Sorbonne University tells AFP.

The journal’s co-director, Antoine Compagnon, of the Académie française, also read the article. “He was impressed,” assures Mr. Guyaux.

Because these discoveries, which remain at the state of “a bundle of very probable hypotheses”, make it possible in particular to identify the dedication “JGF” (Jeanne Gabrielle Florine) on the poem The heautontimorouménos and on Artificial paradiseshe emphasizes.

Three of the four grandparents of the woman who has been called the Black Venus are white, Mr. Guyaux further points out. “The myth of the muse who comes from Africa is falling a bit,” he says.

Delay in publication

All these revelations were to be published in the 2023 edition of The Baudelaire year. But the preparation of a new edition of Baudelaire’s works by the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, to be published on May 16, 2024, has postponed its publication to… September 2024.

An unfortunate delay for Mr. Kilic. In the meantime, the writer Catherine Choupin, specializing in artists’ muses, provided more or less the same information in Sensational revelations about Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s muse. This self-published work was published on April 27, 2024.

“Strongly helped by a close friend”, Mme Choupin recounts having carried out similar research for three months. Research that she continued in the archives of the Paris police headquarters, where she discovered that Jeanne Duval had never been incarcerated in the Saint-Lazare women’s prison, reserved for prostitutes, contrary to reports. of certain authors.

“I don’t know if it’s plagiarism or theft, but (Catherine Choupin) took over certain information from my research,” assures Mr. Kilic, still under the influence of “disappointment.” “Or it’s really a pretty incredible coincidence of date…” he says.

Mme Choupin claims to have never heard of the Strasbourg professor’s findings. “How could I have found out about it? », she asks. “I would have made, without knowing it, the same discoveries (…) It’s surprising, but possible,” she adds.

She is due to publish a biography of Jeanne Duval on June 21.


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