‘Proust’s Duchess’: A Parisian world of style over substance

By Katrin Schultheiss | Washington Post

If you lament the superficiality of modern celebrity culture, the ostentatious consumerism of today’s super-rich, and the sycophantic fandom of social media and reality TV stars, then Caroline Weber’s portrait of the uppermost crust (the gratin) of Parisian Belle Époque society will strike a familiar chord. The three aristocratic women at the center of this elegantly written and deeply researched “triple biography,” Laure de Sade (Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné), Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus and Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay (Vicomtesse – later Comtesse – Greffulhe), are 19th-century paragons of that quintessential 21st-century phenomenon: the media icon and “tastemaker” who is famous primarily for being famous.

Although these women’s careers as socialites depended on the persistence of the fragile, deeply anachronistic world of the old aristocracy, their not-insubstantial cultural influence was made possible by the modernizing forces that threatened their very existence as a social class. “At a moment in history when, with the rise of mass media, popular opinion was emerging in France as a force of unprecedented and unreckoned power,” Weber observes, “they infused the snob appeal of class-based privilege with a thoroughly modern knack for publicity and self-promotion.” Had they lived a century earlier, their hereditary class status alone would have granted them social prominence; a century later, membership in the aristocracy would be entirely irrelevant to achieving stardom. These three socialites of the fin de siècle were simultaneously relics of the past and “harbingers of a world where celebrity alone suffices to confer social importance and ordain cultural worth.”

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By the closing decades of the 19th century, the stabilization of the Third Republic and the attendant evaporation of any …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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