The tangled question of Dumas's family origins has been unraveled by a late-twentieth-century biographer, F. W. J. Hemmings. It appears that the author's grandfather, Antoine-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, was a scion of the Norman squirearchy, lords of the manor since the sixteenth century, though otherwise undistinguished. Antoine-Alexandre, born 1714, bought and lived with a beautiful black slave girl in the French West Indies. Somewhere, sometime, perhaps from a previous master, she appropriated the surname "Dumas." Thomas-Alexandre, born 1762, the youngest of the four children of the union of Antoine-Alexandre and the slave girl, chose to use his mother's last name rather than his father's name and title, Marquis.
His hold on the title could have been an uncertain one. Though of aristocratic blood on his father's side, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was a mulatto of illegitimate birth and bronze-colored skin. In the France of the ancien regime, his prospects in life would have been doubtful. His good fortune lay in his timing: the French Revolution of 1789 changed everything. It had swept away all rifles. It also opened up the officer corps of the army to new blood--to talent rather than birth--and Thomas-Alexandre, who had chosen a military career, rose rapidly through the ranks. By 1793 he had become a general. His promotions helped win the hand in marriage of the innkeeper's daughter in the town in France in which he was stationed, Villers-Cotterets, some fifty miles outside of Paris.
Alexandre Dumas, the future novelist, was born in Villers-Cotterets on July 24, 1802. His mother had worried--for they were prejudiced in those days--that he might be black. She rejoiced that he was born rose-white and with light-blue eyes. Only later in life did he darken into a mulatto hue. He was tall, and during the first half of his life he was considered handsome. In the last half his love of food turned him into the stout figure with whose picture we are familiar.
Dumas grew up with essentially no schooling. In those days schools were not provided by the government. With the aid of the parish priest, Dumas's impoverished and widowed mother did her best for him. When he left for Paris at the age of twenty to seek his fortune, he took away with him only two skills: a good knowledge of Latin, and superb penmanship. As it transpired, they sufficed. In those pre-typewriter days, his ability to write swiftly, legibly, accurately, and beautifully proved to be a valuable asset. He eventually found employment in the secretariat of the Duke of Orleans, one of the greatest nobles in France.
The young clerk rented a small apartment a short walk from the Palais Royal, where his offices were located. He then made overtures to the woman in the flat across the landing from him, and took her as his mistress. To their surprise, they had a child almost immediately. Then Dumas's mother arrived in Paris to be supported by him. His salary was insufficient. He threw himself into playwriting.
He made several false starts before trying something new: a break with the frigid formalism of the French classics. Victor Hugo was among his young friends who were moving in the same direction. Their inspiration was William Shakespeare, as presented in Paris by Harriet Smithson, Edmund Kean, and the rest of an all-star company from Great Britain. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and the others, including the historical plays, proved to be a revelation--the naturalistic style of acting, as much as the subject matter and its treatment. Shakespeare had been unknown in France for the first century after his death and unappreciated for the century after that. Now his plays were all the rage. Dumas, though he spoke no English, found that the performances shook him to the core and revolutionized his approach to the theater.
In eight weeks Dumas dashed off his play Henri III et sa cour, a historical drama set in the sixteenth century. It was an overnight sensation. Other spectacular successes followed in rapid succession. Antony, a contemporary drama of adultery and perhaps rape, drew an enthusiastic response from the spectators, resembling teenagers at rock concerts in our own time: audiences tore at Dumas's clothes in frenzies of idolatry. Another enormous success was La Tour de Nesle, a tale of mistaken identities and sudden changes of fortune, a story of sex, incest, and murder, in which a queen and her princess-companions, femmes who literally are fatales, invite handsome strangers to share their beds for a night and then, when sated, kill them. Some were shocked. A British visitor in France called it "a national disgrace" and described it as "a specimen of the outrageous school of dramatic extravagance which has taken possession of all the theatres of Paris...." In fact, its popularity persisted. It was revived repeatedly on the stage throughout the nineteenth century. It endured into the twentieth. It was made into a film in 1955 by the French director Abel Gance, who had made the classic Napoleon. The leads were played by Pierre Brasseur and Silvana Pampanini. It had not lost its power to entertain--or to shock, although some of that may have been due to the semi-nude shots of the leading ladies.
The Romantic movement had triumphed on the Paris stage. It is pointless asking which of the friends had done it; they had done it together. As I write this I have just put down a coming-apart and discolored advertising circular, dated 1830, wrapped around the text of a play by Dumas. The sheet announces that the reader will find at the same bookstore-publisher Henri III by Dumas and Hernani by Victor Hugo. They rode together.
The theater made Dumas an enormous popular success; when, in his late thirties, he turned to the novel, he already was rich and famous. Even in his dramatist days--which is to say, in his late twenties and in his thirties--Dumas lived an extravagant and lavish life that resembled a non-stop open house. Day and night he served feasts. He had adventures; he traveled; he fought duels; he entertained royally; he had many love affairs. After his son came of age, they at times exchanged mistresses.
Dumas was reckless. He won fortunes, but quickly spent them, and made new fortunes with his prolific pen. It was not unknown for a publisher to lock him in a room to dash off a novel that would cover outstanding debts. The result was a literary output that is staggering. The complete set of his works in French runs to 277 volumes, and, in English, to 301. He told his friend the Emperor Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) that he was the author of 1,200 volumes--and that at a time when he still was writing actively! Understandably, there were those who doubted that anybody could be so productive. Rumors circulated that he employed ghostwriters--an entire factory of them--to do his writing for him. He did in fact use secretaries and copyists, and teams of researchers, of whom a certain Auguste Maquet was the best known. But it was Dumas himself who did the writing. No member of his staff ever succeeded in producing a book of his own.
Dumas awakened at the crack of dawn and worked at demon speed all day long. When pressed, he could turn out a volume in three days. What made his accomplishment so especially remarkable was that--as novels then were published in serial form in periodicals--he sometimes was obliged to write more than one at the same time, keeping the different characters and historical periods straight.
Dumas's chosen field was historical fiction. Sir Walter Scott was the best-selling pioneer in this field but often ignored what actually had happened in history, while Dumas tended to be quite accurate. The main lines of his narrative were historically sound. Like Shakespeare, Dumas painted on broad canvases. Shakespeare had written multi-part plays (today sometimes given as one whole, as with the Henry VI plays united into "The War of the Roses"). But Dumas had an even larger ambition than Shakespeare's: he would write the whole history of France, bringing it up to his own time. In great part he succeeded, although, inevitably, there were gaps. In my nineteenth-century set of the Dumas novels, the story begins in the Renaissance world of Francois I and Catherine de Medici, and stops in the wars of the French Revolution. Many of
us--I am one, as was my late friend James Chace--learned our French history from Dumas. So, it is said, did George Bernard Shaw.
From Dumas one could have learned, too, a certain way of looking at history: seeing in it the consequences of accidents, coincidences, mistakes, failed schemes, and individual traits of character. (Chace argued that it was the other way around; it was not that we learned this from Dumas, but that we were drawn to his works because we already looked at events in this way.)
An unremarked but important, I think, element in the French novelist's success was the broadness of his sympathies. In one novel, his hero will be a Catholic, in another a Protestant. He will stir up your enthusiasm for the Royalists in one novel and for the Republicans in another. He understands all the causes that all of his characters espouse.
To bring yourself up on the histories of Dumas is to incline yourself to history on a broad scale. He did write a few stand-alone fictions--The Corsican Brothers springs to mind, and The Black Tulip--but for the most part his works came in series, telling a story over the course of generations. One of my favorites is the Last of the Valois series, which includes La Reine Margot, a novel of which at least two fascinating French films have been made. I am especially fond of the version that stars Jeanne Moreau. Another favorite is the Marie Antoinette series, beginning in mid-eighteenth century, when the French monarchy still was popular, and apparently ending, many volumes later, in the wars of the French Revolution. We have learned that it did not end even there: a newly discovered Dumas novel, 1,000 pages long, appeared in France in 2005, taking the story up to the wars of Napoleon.
The most successful of Dumas's many well-loved novels--the two that remain highlights of world literature--are The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. They were written, respectively, in 1844 and 1844-1845, during the decades in which the "mania" of the serial novel is said to have been at its height. The Three Muskeeters is the story of a poor but brave and noble young Frenchman from provincial Gascony who, in the year 1626, journeys to Paris to seek his fortune by the sword--the sword with which his father has entrusted him. He is based on a character named Charles de Baatz D'Artagnan (1611-1673), a real person who was the central character in a work of fiction by one Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras that appeared in 1700. Dumas apparently believed it to be nonfiction. D'Artagnan (Dumas used only his last name) makes powerful enemies along the road even before he reaches Paris: the agents of Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of the French king, Louis XIII. Once arrived in Paris he makes helpful friends, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, three of the King's Musketeers, the elite corps that D'Artagnan hopes to join.
Much of the book's appeal is in the sharply drawn and contrasting characters of the young Gascon and his three companions. Yet, different though they are, they are loyal to one another--to the death. "All for one, one for all!" is their motto. So when D'Artagnan is entrusted with a mission from Paris to London and back while Richelieu's agents try to stop him, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis unquestioningly ride with him. What Dumas here pioneered was the perpetually powerful male-bonding adventure story. A key element in the story is that only one member of the team has a cause, a cause for which he must risk his life. His friends join him, and in turn risk their lives, not because they share a belief in this cause, but because they are loyal to him.
The immediate and immense success of The Three Musketeers led Dumas to compose sequels as quickly as he could: Twenty Years After and the lengthy Thirty Years Later (better known as Le Vicomte de Bragelonne). Both were informed by a tension between friendship, on the one hand, and the pull of great political causes on the other. Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, epic in scope, often is subdivided into several of its parts, such as the one now often called The Man in the Iron Mask. It leaves no room for further sequels; in the end, after the deaths of the three musketeers, D'Artagnan, who had become the fourth, is killed in action.
In The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas again develops a new genre: the novel of revenge. Edmond Dantes, a young seaman, is ruined by conspirators who deprive him of everything, including his fiancee, and have him imprisoned for life. But he escapes, comes into a fortune, and with it acquires power, and transforms himself into a romantic, almost magical figure. Now that modern translations have shown it in its richness, it is hard for me to imagine what I thought I was reading when I loved it as a boy. As Robin Buss, one of its modern translators, has written: "there are not many children's books ... that involve a female serial poisoner, two cases of infanticide, a stabbing and three suicides, an extended scene of torture and execution, drug-induced sexual fantasies, illegitimacy, transvestitism and lesbians ... the effects of hashish, and so on."
It is a rich and rounded novel, owing some of its appeal to the travel sections of colorful Italy, a sort of travel writing that, as will be seen, Dumas introduced to the Europe of the time. The main character, Monte Cristo, has something of Lord Byron in him, and, in the novel, amazes by his magnificence the French society that he enters. He has come from the East, from the lands of the Ottoman Sultan. When the young leaders of Paris fashion gawk at an emerald that Monte Cristo has made into a pillbox for himself, an emerald larger than they have ever seen, he tells them that he had three of them, but had given one to the Sultan and one to the Pope--giving the impression that he was wealthier than either of them and moved as an equal in their society.
The reader retains affection for Monte Cristo throughout the long and twisted plot because, while he takes some measure of revenge, he to some extent relents: he has a warm heart. In this he is like Dumas himself: thoroughly generous.
When Dumas was a young man, just starting his career as a successful author, he was suspected of revolutionary activities, was worried that he might be prosecuted, and hastily fled the country. He embarked on travels--and discovered that he loved them. Travel provided him with material for a new kind of writing: travel literature that was not fiction, but offered many of the pleasures of fiction, among them tales of adventure, anecdotes, and colorful descriptions. For the masses of Europeans who themselves were unable to travel, such books were able to satisfy an intense curiosity about what foreign lands and their peoples were like.
Dumas's immense and continuous popularity has perhaps obscured his more serious claim to literary accomplishment: the extent to which he was an innovator, ahead of the great mass of his contemporaries. In France, at any rate, he, along with Victor Hugo, pioneered the Romantic movement and originated its dramas. They led the movement to serial-novels. Dumas gave us the male-bonding adventure story, with its glorification of friendship, in The Three Musketeers, and then the tale of revenge, in Monte Cristo. He gave us the travel book, more or less as we know it today. And, finally--in every sense--he gave posterity something else. He saved it for last. "My last work," he said, "will be a Dictionary of Cuisine"
It was to be a cookbook to be read. Raymond Oliver, a great chef and gastronome of the twentieth century, formerly proprietor of the Parisian restaurant the Grand Vefour, tells us that it was to be a sort of literary testament. Dumas had almost finished it in 1870, the last year of his life, at Roscoff on the Breton coast. Fatigued, and feeling the need for sunshine, he moved south, ending up in Marseilles. There he suffered an attack that left him partially paralyzed. It was just as the Franco-Prussian War broke out. He sought and found refuge in Dieppe, by the Atlantic, in a house belonging to his son: Alexandre Dumas fils, the celebrated author of Camille. There he died on December 5. Alphonse Lemerre, the Parisian bookseller who had bought the rights to the Dictionnaire, hired the authors Leconte de Lisle and Anatole France to correct the manuscript. The book appeared in 1873 or in 1875; accounts differ. It would seem that Anatole France's role was limited to some minor copyediting, while Leconte de Lisle's name does not appear at all, at least on the edition before me, a large, handsome coffee-table book published in Paris in 1958 by Pierre Grobel--which, by its size, makes clear that this is more an encyclopedia than a dictionary.
Dumas was the ideal person to write such a book. On his mother's side, he came from a family of innkeepers. He loved to cook and to share feasts with his friends. He loved to eat--so much so that he gave up all pretense of dieting in the last half of his life, and was transformed from slender to plump. He was adventurous in trying strange things to eat. He traveled widely, and experimented.
The book, organized alphabetically, is built around 3,000 of his collected recipes, many of them brought back from his travels. Thus he was taught by Bedouins in Tunisia how to roast a rabbit in its skin. Comparison taught him that the best apricots of all come from Damascus. The richest butter, he tells us, comes from sheep. Uncompromising, he made his own butter in Africa, Sicily, Spain, and the Caucasus. In this, as in other respects, it is not always easy--at least for me--to follow in his steps: thus an omelette of flamingo eggs requires a bird not easily found in midtown Manhattan.
Interspersed are anecdotes and tales. A story that appears under the heading of "Seasoning" concerns a certain Chevalier d'Albignac, an impoverished aristocrat who, presumably in the 1790s, having fled the French Revolution, lived in London on a small pension from the British government. One evening, dining in a pub, he was approached by a party of young Englishmen who--saying that only the French knew how to make salad dressing--asked politely if he might mix one for them. He did so. They enjoyed it so much that on subsequent days they came back for more--and offered to pay. Soon he was the rage of London. Society took up his confections. The phrase on the lips of the fashionable was (and here Dumas breaks into English) "I die for it." His ingredients expanded: vinegars, oils of all sorts, soya, caviar, truffles, anchovies, ketchup, egg yolks, beef extract ... and more. At the height of his success, he sold out, returned to France, used his winnings to play the market and multiplied his money many times over--and retired happily and wealthily to an estate that he bought in the countryside. And all that from knowing how to season a dressing for lettuce!
Returning, however, to the cookbook: on the one hand, it often is strictly practical. From it, I learned years ago not to salt a steak before broiling it: it would keep it from being tender. Equally useful is a detailed table for rotisseries showing how long each kind and size of each cut of meat should be roasted. On the other hand, recipes for cooking hocco, a turkey-like bird, would be of use only if you found yourself in a South American forest. And outside of Australians, few of us will be faced with the challenge of sauteing filets of kangaroo. Nor will most of us find useful the author's warning--excellent advice though it may be--not to eat a panther, as it might be poisonous.
Most of the book is given over to learned articles on all manner of food and drink. The erudition Dumas displays is wonderful. I was aware that there are several kinds of duck, for example, but Dumas discerns forty-two. I had never given thought to the question of how oysters engage in sexual intercourse, but now know that they are hermaphrodites and do it with themselves. While Dumas challenges us to know everything about the wonderful world of gastronomy, not even he calls on us to eat everything in which indigenous people take delight. Thus he does not suggest that you eat the whole elephant; merely the feet and the trunk, favorites of Indochmese monarchs, who regard them as delicacies.
As Dumas lay dying, it was typical of him to be working on a book that celebrates the joys of living: the tastes and smells and colors of the earth, and its infinite variety. A story that I read when I was eleven or twelve was that Dumas came to Paris as a youth with three sous in his pocket and then made his many fortunes. In 1870, when he was at his son's home dying, the servants went through his clothing and found only three sous in his pockets. "Isn't that wonderful!" exclaimed Dumas. "A whole lifetime of high living--and it hasn't cost me as much as one sou!" The story may be apocryphal. But perhaps it is not. Dumas had a genius for telling tales so marvelous that they were barely credible--but that then turned out to be based on fact. The history in Dumas's novels was basically good history, while the fictions in them made them magical to read. In that fashion, people--young ones in particular--all around the world avidly have read hundreds of volumes of his historical romances in order to be entertained--and, without knowing it or necessarily intending it, have been instructed as well. So it was, it seems, with the young Bernard Shaw. So it was with my friend James Chace. And so it was with me.
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|Title Annotation:||Alexandre Dumas|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2006|
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