Who was the Malabar Girl from Baudelaire's poem in his masterpiece The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal)?

Charles Baudelaire (1821 - 1867) was a French Romantic poet who is considered as a pioneer among the French Symbolists of the 19th Century. His most famous work,  Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) was written when he was a young restless soul, not at peace with himself. One of the poems of this work (which was proscribed by the French authorities on grounds of immorality) is a beautiful poem called A une Malabaraise (To a Girl from Malabar). Who was that girl and where did he meet her? Let's start from the beginning...

Your feet are as slender as your hands and your hips are broad,
they'd make the fairest white woman jealous,
To the pensive artist your body's sweet and dear,
Your wide, velvety eyes are darker than your skin.

Francky Knapp in his article The Mystery of Baudelaire’s Maddening Mistress, writes: "If you’re new to Baudelaire, he was to French poetry what the Rolling Stones were to Rock ‘N Roll". At the forefront of the emerging cultural movement known as Dandyism, he believed his role was to shock society without being shocked himself. He also had no qualms airing his "private dirt", as the poet Jules Laforgue put it, for the sake of his art, paving the way for T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Serge Gainsbourg, and so many others; many believe he literally invented the French concept of “modernité” for literature largely thanks to his 1857 masterpiece, The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal).

Charles Baudelaire defined the Dandy, in the later "metaphysical" phase of Dandyism, as one who elevates æsthetics to a living religion, that the dandy's mere existence reproaches the responsible citizen of the middle class: "Dandyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism" and "These beings have no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, of satisfying their passions, of feeling and thinking - Dandyism is a form of Romanticism. Contrary to what many thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of mind."

He declared “darkness is itself a canvas” in the collection of poems, whose verses sing of vampires, and “undulating silk”, of “perfume of blood” and “ghostly sensuality.” The illustrations for the various editions capture the vibe quite accurately.

Finally! Here was a man casting his net over all aspects of human feeling, allowing himself to get tangled in the “sinful” - to reconcile the sensual and the spiritual, if only in vain. The poet Jules Laforgue called The Flowers of Evil, “sensual hypochondria shading into martyrdom.” When Gustave Flaubert (author of Madame Bovary) read it, he called Baudelaire “as resistant as marble and as penetrating as an English fog". Victor Hugo declared it a “nouveau frisson” - a new, titillating thrill.

Of course, the more buttoned-up public was shocked to see Baudelaire eschew Christian values, speaking instead of God’s carnal “dream voyagers” scaling the Tower of Babel, or of other sensual, “ripe, damned beings” floating through its pages. It was so blasphemous, that six of the poems went on trial in French court and received a ban that wasn’t lifted until after World War II.

Charles Baudelaire was to French poetry what the Rolling Stones were to Rock ‘N Roll.

There’s love. There’s lust. And before Malabar girl, there’s Jeanne DuVal, who embodied something between the two in her tumultuous relationship with Charles Baudelaire, France’s original “bad boy” poet. As a muse to the rebellious Parisian Dandy, she inspired some of the most haunting, revolutionary verses in history, odes to the woman he loved to love, and loved to hate. This 19th century Creole woman who, as a lady of mixed Haitian-French ancestry, never got to tell her side of the story about the poems deemed so raunchy, they went to court in France’s most infamous obscenity trial. “Jeanne DuVal unlocked, in Baudelaire, a secret,” explains historian James Macmanus, “She got to the essence of his art, his poetry. And she did so with great intuition.” Yet, during her own life, DuVal was given an often unattainable, negatively charged presence in the city of Paris, a woman as swallowed up in mystery as she was by the immense, billowing gown in which Edouard Manet immortalised her. 

Charles Baudelaire was known to grind his hash into green jelly for his toast. As Paris’ original Dandy, he first defined such a figure in society as having “no profession other than elegance - no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons - he must live and sleep before a mirror.” Rebellious and free spending, Baudelaire could be seen as a semi bourgeois shopaholic with lavish taste (and debts to prove it), yet, in 1848, Baudelaire aligned himself with the French Revolution and the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy. He was the kind of guy to relish the drama of drawing lines in the sand, only to place his footing on both sides.

Who was this Malabar Girl and where did Baudelaire meet her? Born in Paris, Baudelaire grew up as a spoilt and rebellious child resentful of the loss of his father when he was very small and the mother's second marriage to a young and dapper colonel. The stepfather wanted to discipline the young boy and sent him off to Calcutta in 1841. A shipwreck saw the young Baudelaire landing on the shores of Mauritius, instead of Bengal. There he meets the Girl from Malabar in an account from which it is difficult to sift facts from fiction. 

The Belgian band EXSANGUE produced a narrative music video incorporating a story of Charles Baudelaire's A Une Malabaraise poem.
The Belgian band EXSANGUE produced a narrative music video incorporating a story of Charles Baudelaire's A Une Malabaraise poem.

The young fugitive who landed on the shores of Mauritius was in bad shape. He was an alcoholic and into drugs too. He had not written anything for a while and inspiration seemed to have dried up. He had even contemplated suicide, while on the ship tp Calcutta. 

It was then that he met young Dorothee in a sugarcane plantation near Trois Mammelles in Curepipe area of Mauritius. (Under the shadow of the Mammelles) Dorothee whose family came from Calicut or Cochin was a slave girl working as a household servant. Her mother was brought by the Portuguese from Malabar and sold to the French as a slave. Baudelaire fell for the charm of the chocolate skinned Dorothee and settled down with her in the mountains.

 It was Dorothee who inspired Baudelaire to write again, and poems started flowing from the 20-something young rebel and the world took notice. Thus Les Fleurs du Mal owes its inspiration to the Girl from Malabar and Baudelaire acknowledges it in his poem. But, as for taking her back to France, he demurs, raising various objections from harshness of the climate and hostility of the people! So much for his dalliance with the maid servant!

What is intriguing is how the Portuguese were exporting slaves from the Malabar coast, even though slavery was legally abolished in Malabar in 1792. There is ample evidence of the Portuguese and the Dutch indulging in slave trade from Bengal, the Coromandel coast and Malabar even as late as the 19th century. Dorothee does not appear to have been an indentured labourer, as her mother was a slave in Mauritius and the Great Experiment of importing large numbers of indentured plantation workers from India started only around 1849, while Baudelaire met her in 1841. Malabar springs up in the most improbable places!








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