On an autumn afternoon, a tall, young black woman named Jeanne entertains her lover, Daddy. They are in a Parisian apartment furnished with Persian carpets and rare books. She is sad. Daddy tries to cheer her up with his fantasy about life on the tropical island where he will take her one day; however, she does not want to think about the West Indies and the old slave trade. She lights a small cigar with a discarded page of Daddy’s writing and drinks rum. When he asks her to dance a slow dance that he has created for her, she strikes poses calculated to show her otherness. After they make love, they go out into the city, transformed.
Halfway through this story, the narrator identifies Daddy as Charles Baudelaire, the author of The Flowers of Evil (1857), and the woman as Jeanne Duval, whom Baudelaire met in 1842 and “kept” as a mistress. After warning the reader that biographers know almost nothing of this woman, the narrator constructs an imaginary life for her. According to this story, Jeanne was born on Martinique. Her grandmother was a slave who was born on a ship from Africa and orphaned at birth. After legal slavery ended on the island, Jeanne’s mother went off with white sailors, leaving Jeanne with her grandmother. When Jeanne reached womanhood, her grandmother sold her to a sailor, thereby perpetuating the slave trade. She was brought to France, where she contracted syphilis and entertained in a cheap cabaret. After attracting the attention of Baudelaire’s friends with her raw sexuality, she became his mistress. After Baudelaire died of syphilis, his papers and books brought enough money to let Jeanne return to Martinique, buy a fine house, and live to a ripe old age. She also eventually died of syphilis.
In a note to this story, Angela Carter explains that several of Baudelaire’s poems that are thought to be about Jeanne Duval are known as the “Black Venus” poems. Carter has absorbed these poems into the story, especially “The Jewels,” which tells about the dance. Carter’s “Black Venus” is thus a...
(The entire section is 841 words.)