The Black Venus: Baudelaire’s Haitian mistress still fascinates

Edouard Manet's portrait of Jeanne Duval

Edouard Manet’s portrait of Jeanne Duval

In some ways, Jeanne Duval, from Jacmel, just a few hours away from Port au Prince, exemplifies the terrible fascination Haiti has exerted on the world’s imagination from the 19th century on.

Ms Duval was the mistress of poet Charles Baudelaire and lived the ‘it’-girl life in 1840s Paris, singing risqué songs and toting a handbag full of laudanum (the cocaine of its time?).

Voluptuous and uninhibited, cabaret singer, actress and dancer, she enchanted Baudelaire, who called her his “black Venus’, exulting in her ‘dark eyes like the chimneys of her soul’. He lived with her for nearly 20 years even he was denied access to his father’s bequest on account of his unsuitable companion.

Ms Duval continues to fascinate, down the arches of the years, at the junction of history and popular culture. Black Venus, a novel by James MacManus, is loosely based on Charles Baudelaire love for his Haitian mistress. Published in February, it recreates the Parisian literary world of Victor Hugo, Dumas and Balzac. (Click here to read my blog on the Haiti strand in Alexandre Dumas literary DNA).

But this is hardly the first time Ms Duval has attracted attention. She was prominent in a work of historical fiction by Caribbean author Nalo Hopkinson. She is the title story of Angela Carter’s collection Black Venus. A film is in the works and she was the inspiration for a 1987 song by a heavy metal band.

Further back in time, she was painted by Manet (see right), while Baudelaire himself wrote copiously about her, not least some of the poems that led to a ban for obscenity on his famous collection ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’.

According to some accounts, Mr MacManus’s treatment of the love story – and its tragic end – might be destined for the big screen. Jeanne Duval’s real starring role may be yet to come.

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac