Book review: Black Venus by James MacManus

‘Men and women know from birth that in evil is found all sensual delight,’ wrote the ground-breaking 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 18th February 2014, 9:00 am
Black Venus by James MacManus
Black Venus by James MacManus

And he was a man of his word… his most famous and sexually explicit volume of poems, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), landed him in court charged with offences against public decency.

Scandalised society pointed the finger of blame at cabaret singer Jeanne Duval, the exotic and beautiful daughter of a white French plantation owner and a black Haitian slave who had become the love of his life, his muse, his ‘mistress of mistresses,’ his ‘Black Venus.’

Their volatile and obsessive relationship spanned over 20 years. Baudelaire’s friends claimed Duval was no more than a ‘gold-digger’ but she was the principal source of inspiration for his poetry, noted for its striking originality and modernity.

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It was an intense but destructive affair which still fascinates today… so who were these two extraordinary characters and to what extent were they products of their backgrounds and the bohemian world they inhabited?

Author and managing director of The Times Literary Supplement James MacManus’ enchanting and engrossing novel re-creates classic Parisian literary society in all its glorious and inglorious vibrancy as well as painting a memorable portrait of the troubled poet and his often misunderstood, much-maligned muse.

Black Venus shines new light on the background to a tempestuous romance whilst capturing the artistic scene in Paris in the 1840s and 50s when literary giants like Alexandre Dumas and Honoré de Balzac wined, dined and debated in the Left Bank cafés.

In early 1842, the stylishly dressed Charles Baudelaire is planning his poetic masterpiece and eagerly anticipating his 21st birthday and an inheritance which will bring him much-needed cash and freedom from his mother.

Paris is his city, it opens itself to him like a book. He knows its acrid stench, its unforgiving slums, its illuminating vivacity and its shadowy corners. He spends his days chatting with his artistic friends and his nights enjoying alcohol, opium and women.

Thirty-two-year-old Jeanne Duval also loves Paris. After years of pain, punishment and degradation in Haiti, the city has given her freedom, the right to make her own life and the opportunity to live on her wits, guile and charm.

She is currently working as a singer at a seedy cabaret club frequented by low-paid pen pushers and a raucous riff-raff who shout, fight, drink and molest the waitresses, but it’s a job and she knows how to make these men forget the miseries of their working day.

When two well-dressed strangers walk into the club one night, lives are changed forever. In a sea of shabby suits and greasy bow ties, Duval’s revealing red dress and sultry beauty catch the eye of the aspiring poet.

For the next two decades they will love and inspire, cheat and betray, break up and make up. They will share fame and infamy, desire and despair, poverty and illness. Their love will be tested to the end…

Immaculately researched and testament to the author’s own undoubted love affair with the City of Light, Black Venus is a gripping tale of jealousy, obsession, excess, cruelty and overwhelming passion.

At its heart burns the red-hot flame of Baudelaire’s perilous infatuation for a woman programmed by hardship and prejudice to be tough, single-minded, ruthless, mercenary, incapable of selfless devotion and yet still achingly vulnerable.

Mixing fact and fiction, McManus takes us on an exhilarating journey through the political, artistic and social changes of 19th century Paris whilst delivering a compelling and sympathetic re-telling of one of history’s most notorious love affairs.

(Duckworth, hardback, £16.99)