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220 years since the birth of Alexandre Dumas père

 Theodor Tetov

Nearly 20 years ago, an unusual ceremony took place in France. The body of a man who had been buried there back in 1870, was exhumed at the cemetery in the town of Villers-Cotterets. The new coffin was draped in blue velvet and accompanied by four men dressed as musketeers: they were officers of the Republican Guard dressed in seventeenth-century musketeer costumes. They portrayed famous literary characters: Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan. And the coffin, which they escorted to the mausoleum of the Paris Panthéon, enclosed the remains of the great creator of the Musketeers saga, the writer Alexandre Dumas.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas

The reburial was carried out by order of the former French President, Jacques Chirac. The entire ceremony was televised, and President Chirac delivered a speech at the ceremony, in which he recognised not only the pride of place occupied by Alexandre Dumas in national history and its literary treasury, but also the fact that racism in France sometimes played a significant role in the past. Although the writer was buried in Villers-Cotterets according to his own will, of course, he deserved to be buried in the Panthéon as one of the greatest sons of France. And this was not done before due to racism.

D’Artagnan and the three musketeers before and after the skirmish with the Cardinal’s guards

It was all about the origin of the great writer. His grandfather, marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de La Pailleterie, served France as Commissar General of Artillery in the colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). There he fell in love with a black slave named Marie-Cessette Dumas and even married her. In 1762 she bore him a son, Thomas-Alexandre. She died in 1772, and the marquis and his mulatto son returned to Normandy. Then slavery had not yet been abolished, and the boy suffered a lot because of his skin colour. However, at that time the French Empire still provided legal protection to multiracial people, and at the age of 24, Thomas-Alexandre joined the army. He applied under his mother’s maiden family name to protect the reputation of the aristocratic family.

After the revolution, his father, the marquis, lost his estates, but Thomas-Alexandre Dumas showed himself as a capable and courageous soldier in the Revolutionary Army and built an extremely successful military career – at 31 he was already a general.

The Revolutionary Army was notorious for its cruelty, but Thomas-Alexandre himself remained a noble and highly moral man. He even came under the suspicion of the revolutionary Committee of Public Safety, because when the army was engaged in the suppression of the peasant uprising in the Vendée, he forbade his people to rape and loot. But for the army authorities, it was still more important that he won one battle after another and terrified his enemies: for example, the Austrians called him the “Black Devil”.

When Napoleon Bonaparte began to prepare the ground to become emperor, the general remained loyal to him. However, Napoleon was suspicious of him: the mulatto was famous for his courage and, moreover, was sincerely devoted to the idea of the Republic. They ended up falling out during the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, and since that moment Napoleon seemed to be looking for an opportunity to get rid of General Dumas. In 1799, he was captured during the fighting in Naples. Napoleon could have tried to help him out or exchange him, but he preferred to leave the general in a damp dungeon. Thomas-Alexandre was released in 1801 only through requests for clemency received from his future wife, Marie-Louise Élisabeth Labouret. The former general married her on July 24, 1802 in Villers-Cotterets near Paris, and there she gave birth to their son, Alexandre Dumas, who later became one of the most famous writers in France.

His father had never recovered from his stay behind bars: by the time of his release, he was partially paralysed, blind in one eye and temporarily deaf. His household and he himself suspected that he had been poisoned. He died in 1806 of stomach cancer, when his son was not yet four years old. His salary arrears and military pension had never been paid to his family, and they lived in poverty. A century and a half later, when the Nazis occupied France, they destroyed the only surviving statue of the general in Paris, because it depicted a person belonging to an “inferior race”…

The beginning of literary activity

Of course, Marie-Louise could not provide her son with a good education, but young Alexandre loved to listen to his mother’s stories about his father’s military exploits. Most importantly, he loved to read, and he read everything that came to hand. The stories he heard and read triggered his great interest in adventures and the heroes of different periods in the history of France.

Despite their poverty, the family still enjoyed their father’s high reputation and had some connections in aristocratic circles. Not surprisingly, after the restoration of the monarchy, twenty-year-old Alexandre Dumas moved to Paris, where he got a job at the Palais-Royal with the powerful Duke of Orleans.

His literary biography began in the same way like other European writers: in Paris, Dumas started writing articles for magazines, as well as plays for the theatre. In 1829, his play Christine ou Stockholm, Fontainebleau et Rome became quite popular, and as a result, he could now afford to engage exclusively in literary work. In 1830, he participated in the Revolution that overthrew King Charles X and replaced him with Dumas’ former employer, the Duke of Orleans, who took over as King Louis Philippe I.

Historical characters in The Three Musketeers: King Louis XIII, Queen Anne of Austria, Duke of Buckingham and
Cardinal Richelieu

Until the mid-1830s, the situation in France remained tense due to sporadic disorders: the republicans were dissatisfied with the monarchist regime, and impoverished labours sought change. As life gradually returned to normal, national industry began to grow, and the improving economy and the abolition of censorship in the press and literature made it possible for Alexandre Dumas to fully use his natural talent. After writing several successful plays, he switched to novels.

It must be admitted that the money he earned in the early years of his literary career, played a significant role in shaping his extravagant lifestyle: he spent more than he earned. But he was also remarkably sensitive when it came to the literature market. In the late 1830s, the demand for the publication of serial novels in newspapers increased sharply, and Dumas successfully reworked one of his plays into his first serial novel, which was called Captain Paul. His success was enormous, and Dumas decided to establish something between a publishing house and a literary workshop. His brainchild has released hundreds of stories, and they were created based on his ideas, his creative research and leadership.

From 1839 to 1841, Dumas, with the help of his friends, compiled a collection of essays on notorious criminals in European history: the parricide Beatrice Cenci, the poisoners Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, as well as on criminals of a later period – primarily about those who were publicly executed.

Dumas’ friendship and collaboration with the famous fencing master Augustin Grisier played a special role in the creative development of Alexandre Dumas. Masters of the sword became heroes in a number of historical and adventure novels by Dumas.

Dumas maintained friendship with the vast majority of famous writers and artists of his time. At the same time, they were united not only by creativity, but also by vice: Dumas was a member of the Parisian Hashish Club, which also included Victor Hugo, Eugène Delacroix and Honoré de Balzac.

The writer had many female admirers and lovers from a young age. In 1840 he married the actress Ida Ferrier, and they remained married until her death in 1849. But historians suspect that he had four dozen mistresses, of which four became the mothers of his illegitimate children. He recognised his son, named after him as Alexandre, at the age of seven and took over his education and upbringing, separating the boy from his mother. Dumas fils followed in his father’s footsteps and also became a successful writer and playwright. To distinguish between them, one of them is called Dumas père (‘father’), and the other Dumas fils (‘son’).

At the same time, creative legacy of Dumas père was incomparably more diverse, monumental and rich than the work of his talented son, the author of the famous drama The Lady of the Camellias.

Appearance of immortal novels

The adventures described in the historical chronicles of Alexandre Dumas père, captured the imagination of the French public, who eagerly awaited the opportunity to purchase every next sequel novel. His work was highly appreciated in Russia, Italy, England, and later in the USA. Among his numerous works, The Three Musketeers (1844) and two other novels of the Musketeers trilogy, Twenty Years After (1845) and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later (1847-1850), as well as The Man in the Iron Mask (1845), The Count of Monte Cristo (1845-1846), Queen Margot (1845), The Countess De Monsoreau (1846), The Forty-Five Guardsmen (1847), The Queen’s Necklace (1849 -1850), The Black Tulip (1850) and many others had the greatest success.

Some literary historians argue that Alexandre Dumas père made extensive use of the help of a large number of literary donors, who today are called “shadow authors” or “ghost writers”. The most famous of them was Auguste Maquet, who allegedly suggested to Dumas the plot of The Three Musketeers and other novels, wrote them in draft, where Dumas added, they say, details, dialogues and final chapters. Of course, this is not true. Maquet and another assistant to Dumas named Farnault did help him in the search for historical facts, that allowed the writer to develop the plot, but everything else that related to the work on the book was done by himself. No wonder Alexandre Dumas, the son, answered the detractors of his father, who tried to belittle the significance of his work, in such a way: “My father is the ocean, you can’t pollute him with your sewage…”

The writer’s novels brought him financial well-being, but for most of his life, Alexandre Dumas père was on the verge of bankruptcy or in debt. The reason was that he lived unacceptably luxuriously, spent a lot of money on women. The Château de Monte-Cristo built by him in 1847 with funds received from the publication of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, often received people unfamiliar to him, who enjoyed writer’s generosity and hospitality. But even such behaviour could not ruin him until the overthrow of King Louis Philippe I.

The first president of the Second French Empire, Charles-Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, or Napoleon III, was not favourable to Dumas. In 1851, the writer, fleeing his creditors, was forced to move to Brussels and then even further to Russia. In those days, French was actually a second mother tongue in Russia, and Dumas’ works were very popular there. Dumas spent two years in Russia before setting off in search of new adventures and new plots.

In March 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, headed by Victor Emmanuel II. Over the next three years, Alexandre Dumas took part in the struggle for united Italy and did not give up this struggle after his return to Paris in 1864.

Perhaps because of the attitude of Louis-Napoleon towards him, France was never able to appreciate the writer at its true worth at the end of the 19th century. Only in the 20th century he was paid tribute, and, apparently, it happened first in Russia and Italy and only then in France.

Meanwhile, an objective assessment of his work today is as follows: France has produced many great writers, but none of them enjoyed such popularity as Alexandre Dumas. His novels and short stories have been translated into almost a hundred languages and have formed the basis of more than 200 films in various countries of the world.

Let’s mention, for example, his immortal novel The Three Musketeers, which action takes place between 1625 and 1628, during the reign of King Louis XIII of France. There have been more than 50 films and television series based on the novel, with the first film made in the early days of silent film and one of the latest television series produced by the BBC in 2014. In different years d’Artagnan was played by such famous actors as Douglas Fairbanks, John Wayne, Gene Kelly, Michael York.

The two-volume novel The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1844–1846. Its action takes place in 1815–1829 and 1838. The novel tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a promising young captain, who is slandered by envious people in order to imprison him. After 14 years of imprisonment in the Château d’If, Dantès escapes, becomes incredibly rich and, having bought the title of count, begins to ruthlessly take revenge on everyone who made him suffer all those years.

Note that the sad fate of Dantès is in many ways similar to the fate of Dumas père – but he did not manage to take revenge. The general who participated in the French Revolution and did so much for the rise of Napoleon, was betrayed by him and died so early leaving his wife and son in poverty.

The Count of Monte Cristo, which action takes place in several countries, was a huge success and is no less popular today than The Three Musketeers. It has become the basis for plays, films, series and radio shows. Since 1912, more than 25 films and TV series based on this Dumas’s novel have been released. The role of Edmond Dantès starred such outstanding actors as Jean Marais, Gérard Depardieu and Richard Chamberlain. Several adaptations of the novel have been made into films in India, Russia and other countries. Interesting, one of the television series was created in Hong Kong in 1977, and its action takes place in South China during the era of the Republic. There is also a Venezuelan version, in which Edmond Dantès is replaced by a female character. The most famous adaptation of the novel is a 2002 feature film.

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