Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas photo by Nadar

Alexandre Dumas, père, born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie is the French writer best known for his historical novels of high adventure which have made him one of the most widely read French authors in the world. His many novels including The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and The Man in the Iron Mask were serialised, he also wrote plays and magazine articles and a cook book.

Origins and Early Life

Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24, 1802, in a village near Paris in France. He was the son of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, a French General, and of Marie-Louise Elisabeth Labouret, the daughter of an innkeeper. His father was himself the son of the Marquis (Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, who served the government of France as Général Commissaire in the Artillery in the colony of Saint-Dominguez, and his mother a black slave Marie-Césette Dumas). This made Alexandre Dumas a quadroon (1/4 black by descent).

General Dumas died in 1806 when Alexandre was not yet four years old, leaving a nearly impoverished mother to raise him under difficult conditions. Although Marie-Louise was unable to provide her son with much in the way of education, it did not hinder young Alexandre’s love of books, and he read everything he could get his hands on.

Growing up, his mother’s stories of his father’s brave military deeds during the glory years of Napoleon I of France spawned Alexandre’s vivid imagination for adventure and heroes. Although poor, the family still had the father’s distinguished reputation and aristocratic connections and after the restoration of the monarchy, twenty-year-old Alexandre Dumas moved to Paris where he obtained employment.

Literary Career

While working in Paris, Dumas began to write articles for magazines as well as plays for the theatre. In 1829 his first solo play, Henry III and his Court, was staged, and was met with great acclaim. The following year his second play, Christine, proved equally popular and as a result, he was financially able to work full time at writing. In 1830, he participated in the revolution that ousted King Charles X  (10th) and replaced him on the throne with Dumas’ former employer, the Duc d’Orléans, who would rule as Louis-Philippe, the Citizen King.

Until the mid 1830s, life in France remained unsettled with sporadic riots by disgruntled Republicans and impoverished urban workers seeking change. As life slowly returned to normal, the nation began to industrialise and, with an improving economy combined with the end of press censorship, the times turned out to be very rewarding for the skills of Alexandre Dumas.

After writing more successful plays, he turned his efforts to novels. Although attracted to an extravagant lifestyle, and always spending more than he earned, Dumas proved to be a very astute business marketer. With high demand from newspapers for serial novels, in 1838, he simply rewrote one of his plays to create his first serial novel. Titled “Le Capitaine Paul,” it led to his forming a production studio that turned out hundreds of stories, all subject to his personal input and direction.

From 1839 to 1841 Dumas, with the assistance of several friends, compiled Celebrated Crimes, an eight-volume collection of essays on famous criminals and crimes from European history. He also collaborated with his fencing master Augustin Grisier in his 1840 novel The Fencing Master. The story is written to be Grisier’s narrated account of how he came to be witness to events in the Decembrist revolt in Russia. This novel was eventually banned in Russia by Czar Nicholas IST of Russia, causing Dumas to be forbidden to visit Russia until the Czar’s death. Grisier is also mentioned with great respect in both – The Count of Monte Cristo and The Corsican Brothers as well as Dumas’ memoirs.

In 1840, he married an actress, Ida Ferrier, but continued with his numerous liaisons with other women, fathering at least three illegitimate children. One of those children, a son named after him, would follow in his footsteps, also becoming a successful novelist and playwright. Because of their same name and occupation, to distinguish them, one is referred to as Alexandre Dumas, Père, the other as Alexandre Dumas, fils.

Dumas made extensive use of the aid of numerous ghostwriters of which Auguste Maquet was the best known. It was Maquet who outlined the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo and made substantial contributions to The Three Musketeers and its sequels, as well as several of Dumas’ other novels. When working together, Maquet proposed plots and wrote drafts, while Dumas added the details, dialogues, and the final chapters.

His writing earned him a great deal of money however, as a result of spending lavishly on women and high living, Dumas was frequently broke or in debt. The large and costly home – Château de Monte-Cristo that he built was often filled with strangers and acquaintances who took advantage of his generosity.

When King Louis-Philippe was ousted in a revolt, Dumas was not looked upon favorably by the newly elected President, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1851 Dumas fled to Brussels, Belgium to escape his creditors, and from there he travelled to Russia where French was the second language and his writings were enormously popular. Dumas spent two years in Russia before moving on to seek adventure and other sources of inspiration for more stories. In March of 1861, the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, with Victor Emmanuel II as its king. For the next three years, Alexandre Dumas would be involved in the fight for a united Italy, founding and leading a newspaper named “Indipendente” before returning to Paris in 1864.

Despite Alexandre Dumas’ success and high connections, the fact that he was mixed-race, meant he was always looked down on. In 1843, he wrote a short novel, Georges, which addressed some of the issues of race and the effects of colonialism. Nevertheless, racist attitudes impacted his rightful position in France’s history long after his death on December 5, 1870 at the age of 68.

In June 2005, Dumas’ recently-discovered last novel The Knight of Sainte-Hermine went on sale in France. Within the story, Dumas describes the Battle of Trafalgar in which the death of Lord Nelson is explained. The novel was being published serially and was almost complete by the time of his death. The final two-and-a-half closing chapters were written by modern-day Dumas scholar Claude Schopp.

Drama

Though best known as a novelist, Dumas earned his first fame as a play wright, HisHenry III and his Court (1829) was the first of the great Romantic historical dramas produced on the Paris stage, preceding Victor Hugo’s more famous Hernani (1830). Dumas’ play was an enormous success, launching him on his career. Over the next year, there were over 50 performances, extraordinary at the time.

Other hits followed. For example, *Anthony (1831), considered the first non-historical romantic drama. There were also La Tour de Nesle (1832), another historical melodrama; and Kean (1836), based on the life of the great, English actor. Dumas wrote many more plays and dramatised several of his other novels.

Non-fiction

Dumas was also a prolific writer of non-fiction. He wrote journal articles on politics and culture, and books on French history.

His massive (Great Dictionary of Cuisine) was published posthumously in 1873. It is a combination of encyclopedia and cookbook. Dumas was both a gourmet and an expert cook. An abridged version, (Small Dictionary of Cuisine) was published in 1882.

Posthumous recognition – Buried in the place where he had been born, Alexandre Dumas remained in the cemetery at Villers-Cotterêts until November 30, 2002. Under orders of the French President, Jacques Chirac, his body was exhumed and in a televised ceremony, his new coffin, draped in a blue-velvet cloth and flanked by four Republican Guards costumed as the Musketeers – Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan – was transported in a solemn procession to the Panthéon of Paris, the great mausoleum where French (dignitaries) are interred.

In his speech, President Chirac said: “With you, we were D’Artagnan, Monte Cristo or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles—with you, we dream.” In an interview following the ceremony, President Chirac acknowledged the racism that had existed, saying that a wrong had now been righted with Alexandre Dumas enshrined alongside fellow authors Victor Hugo and Voltaire.

The honor recognized that although France has produced many great writers, none have been as widely read as Alexandre Dumas. His stories have been translated into almost one hundred languages, and have inspired more than 200 motion pictures.

Alexandre Dumas’ home outside of Paris, the Château Monte Cristo, has been restored and is open to the public.

Dumas did not generally define himself as a black man, and there is not much evidence that he encountered overt racism during his life. However, his works were popular among the 19th-century African-Americans, partly because in The Count of Monte-Cristo, the falsely imprisoned Edmond Dantès may be read as a parable of emancipation. In a shorter work, Georges (1843, George), Dumas examined the question of race and colonialism. The main character, a half-French mulatto, leaves Mauritius to be educated in France, and returns to avenge himself for the affronts he had suffered as a boy.

Summarised from the Wikipedia page on Alexandre Dumas and photo of Alexandre Dumas by Nadar