Joanna Richardson


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Baudelaire Summary

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Baudelaire is a 1994 biography of the great French fin-de-siècle poet by Joanna Richardson, an academic specialist in French literature and the first non-French author ever to receive the prestigious Prix Goncourt (for an earlier biography of French poet and novelist Judith Gautier). Richardson narrates Baudelaire’s life in meticulously researched detail, bringing her Freudian perspective to bear on the poet’s lifelong relationship with his mother, which she describes as Oedipal in the classic Freudian sense. Baudelaire is best known as the author of Les fleurs du mal, a collection of poems that influenced a whole generation of poets and artists in France and England. The life on which his poetry was based is remarkable in its own right. Baudelaire spent his short existence rebelling violently and humorously against the bourgeois values of his day; he was syphilitic, an opium addict, and in 1857, he was convicted of offending public morality with his writing. To tell his story, Richardson draws on six years’ worth of research, including new material unearthed in the Bibliotheque Nationale and the archives of Eugene Crepet, Victor Hugo, Theophile and Feli Gautier, Nadar, and Saint-Beuve.

Baudelaire was born in 1821. His father, Joseph-François, was a former Catholic priest who had abandoned his vocation in favor of an aesthete’s life. After his death, Baudelaire’s mother remarried, to career diplomat Jacques Aupick. Baudelaire would spend the rest of his life in rebellion against the militaristic values and discipline Aupick tried to instill in him.

He inherited a considerable fortune from his late father in 1842, and managed to squander more than half of it within two years, spending the bulk on elegant clothes (which he would continue to wear long after they had worn ragged and thin). Before Baudelaire could squander his entire fortune, his stepfather intervened and sought a judicial judgment, which forced Baudelaire to turn his money over to a solicitor, who then supplied him with a monthly allowance.

This allowance was meager, and during his lifetime, Baudelaire earned very little from his poetry, art criticism, and translations of Poe. To support his extravagant lifestyle, Baudelaire borrowed; during the course of his adult life, he moved more than thirty times in order to throw his creditors off the scent.

Baudelaire contracted syphilis and soon became addicted to the ether and laudanum he used to manage his pain. He organized his life around what he called “the aristocratic pleasure of displeasing.” Instead of marrying a respectable woman, he formed a lifelong relationship with the opium-addicted prostitute Jeanne Duval (referred to as the “Black Venus” in Fleurs du mal). To supply her demands for money, Baudelaire borrowed from his outraged mother.

It was from this landscape of cockroach-infested apartments, cheap brothels, and opium dens that Baudelaire created Les fleurs du mal (“The Flowers of Evil”). The renowned contemporary critic Saint-Beuve described it as “a bizarre kiosk, very ornate, very over-done, but elegant and mysterious: a kiosk in which one grows drunk on abominable drugs in cups of exquisite porcelain.” Contemporary poets recognized that Baudelaire had created works of beautiful art not only from themes and settings considered shocking and wicked in his time, but also from the guilt, shame, and horror his experiences invoked in the poet. Nevertheless, the collection’s many references to demonic forces, and its sequence of lesbian poems, caused it to be banned almost immediately. The poet himself was convicted of offending public morals in 1857. Les fleurs du mal would not be published in France in its entirety until 1949.

Richardson offers extensive readings of Baudelaire’s poetry. Her perspective as both critic and biographer is Freudian, so it is not surprising that she devotes a great deal of study to Baudelaire’s relationship with his mother, and its role in his writing. She quotes extensively from the poet’s letters to his mother—most of them begging for money—and traces the outlines of a classical Oedipal relationship. For Richardson, Baudelaire’s Oedipal complex looms large in his poetry, too.

As well as Baudelaire’s correspondence with his mother, Richardson quotes extensively from his letters to famous figures of his day. He was friends with Gerard de Nerval, Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, and he knew Hugo (although the two were certainly not friends). Richardson demonstrates that Baudelaire’s influence in literary Paris extended far beyond his groundbreaking poetry.

Baudelaire was increasingly debilitated by syphilis. In his final year, he was afflicted with aphasia and hemiplegia, suffering the ironic and terrible fate of losing the power of speech. He died in 1867, aged just forty-six.

Critics praised Baudelaire for its thoroughness, but some noted that the biography is weighed down by research. Kirkus Reviews found it “massively thorough, massively documented, but only minimally engaging.” Nevertheless, the biography has become a standard text for students of Baudelaire’s life and work.