“A very popular flower among the Victorians, the camellia flower was considered lush and impressive. It symbolized the idea of “my destiny is in your hands.” Each color of the camellia represents something different. For example, the pink camellia is given to someone you miss. The white camellia is given to someone you like. A red camellia is given to a serious significant other that you care for deeply.”
Lyn Gardner wrote* in The Guardian of 5.3.03:
“On February 5 1847, the prostitute known as Marie Duplessis, once queen of the Parisian demi-monde and arguably one of the modern world’s first celebrities, died of tuberculosis. She was only 23. Within weeks, all her belongings, including her pet parrot, were auctioned to pay her massive debts. Fashionable Paris turned out in force, most not to bid but merely to stare. Charles Dickens was among the throng, later commenting: “One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness.” A myth was beginning to take shape.
Within the year it emerged, fully formed, in the novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas the younger, the illegitimate son of the author of The Three Musketeers…
Cinema, meanwhile, has brought us Pretty Woman, interesting because in this instance prostitution is the disease, and because it offers a happy-ever-after ending. (Notably, Julia Roberts’s unhappy hooker proves her genuine worthiness for true love to Richard Gere’s uncharming Prince Charming, a multi-millionaire businessman, by weeping all the way through a performance of La Traviata.) More recently, Baz Luhrmann transposed the story to fin-de-siècle Paris with the all-singing all-dancing Moulin Rouge, in which Nicole Kidman’s nightclub singer Satine comes prettily kitted out with consumption.
The appeal of the story to a 19th-century audience is understandable. After all, the rules were clear for 19th-century romantic heroines: whether you were Marguerite, Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, death was where your story inevitably led. There would be no happy-ever-afters for these Cinderellas, but death could bring redemption. In the case of Marguerite, her illness signifies that she is full of moral decay, but it is also part of her attractiveness and wins sympathy from the audience. (Consumption, with its pallor and glittering-eyed fever, was so identified with an ideal of female beauty that young women would attempt to mimic its symptoms, even going so far as to starve themselves or eat sand.) But you can’t go on coughing charmingly for ever – some would argue that Marguerite’s dying is drawn out far too long as it is – and in the end death is her only option. It is only in death that Marguerite can become a virgin again.
What is less clear is why this story retains its hold over us today. After all, we no longer believe in virgins. Nor do we believe that tuberculosis is caused by living too fast or is a sign of moral decay; we know that it is caused by a bacillus that thrives in conditions of overcrowding and poverty. We know it is not a pretty illness but a dangerous one that is on the rise…”