• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Behind the Iron Mask

Alexandre Dumas, 1857; photograph by Nadar

As a boy I wanted above all other professions to be a musketeer. After Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, read to me by my father, I carried on myself with the sequels, Twenty Years After, The Man in the Iron Mask. They were, though I didn’t want to admit it, a bit disappointing: somehow the verve of d’Artagnan and his companions had grown old and gone darker. Then someone gave me the same writer’s The Count of Monte Cristo. It was the longest book I had ever held in my hands. It filled the whole of a summer, in one of those reading experiences best described by Proust, where the fictional became a screen between self and reality, a bright mist that made the ordinary both trivial and tolerable. Some of its 1,500 pages eluded me—various slow-acting poisons and exotic narcotics were hard to follow over the many chapters it took them to work their mischief. But the nightmare imprisonment of Edmond Dantès in the Château d’If in Marseilles harbor, his escape self-sewn into the shroud prepared for his companion the Abbé Faria, then his return in multiple disguises to wreak vengeance on his persecutors were, and remain, unforgettable.

Alexandre Dumas, who lived from 1802 to 1870, stands alongside Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac as one of the most extravagantly fertile narrative producers of all time. The three of them make of the first half of the French nineteenth century an extraordinary moment for fabulation. It is of course easier to grant the classic status of Balzac, who has endured and prevailed despite the distaste of classically minded critics for his often inflated prose. And if Victor Hugo has fallen out of fashion, Les Misérables finds continuing reincarnations (his other novels are very much worth reading too, especially his last, Ninety-Three, on the French Revolution).

Dumas is a somewhat different case. Even more than Balzac, he stands as an example of what the midcentury arbiter of literary taste Sainte-Beuve called “industrial literature”: cliff-hanger novels produced for serialization in the daily newspapers, work paid by the line and thus favoring great length (Dumas’s complete works run to over 100,000 pages). Dumas notoriously created a writing “factory,” parceling out parts of the production process to collaborators. In the case of The Count of Monte Cristo, it was especially Auguste Maquet, his long-suffering assistant, who did the plot outlines and researched locales and details of dress and manner. Dumas, though, seems to have done the writing himself. Maquet yearned for recognition by posterity, but it is Dumas alone who was solemnly entombed in the Panthéon, in 2002.

“Prodigious” is the word that best seems to describe Dumas’s output, whether in his novels or in the dramas that had an important part in the evolution of French theater. And the term applies as well to the man, who conceived himself in colossal proportions befitting work—and an epoch—in which melodrama was the mode of the day. His first great successes came in the theater, where from 1829 onward his plays offered a kind of upscale melodrama on historical subjects: Henri III et sa cour, La Tour de Nesle, Kean, ou désordre et génie, but also the somber “problem play” Antony, about a Byronic hero who kills his mistress, claiming that he is saving her honor—a work that foreshadowed the novels of his son.

He then turned to more lucrative historical fiction. Intent upon making writing a respected, well-paid career, he became, along with Balzac, Hugo, and George Sand, one of the founders of the Société des Gens de Lettres, which advocated copyright protection. He made a fortune from literature, yet his life came to resemble fiction: he built himself a castle, a Gothic and Renaissance confection he called Monte Cristo, and founded the Théâtre Historique, which was to stage mainly his own plays; he spent prodigiously, went bankrupt, and fled to Belgium to elude his creditors. The castle was sold to an American dentist for a fraction of its cost. He later joined Garibaldi in the cause of Italian independence. He lived to see the French humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War before dying in December 1870. From one of his early liaisons was born Alexandre Dumas fils, author of Le Demi-monde and La Dame aux camélias, the source of Verdi’s La Traviata.

In view of the fame of his illegitimate son, it is curious that the first pages of Dumas’s Memoirs (which run to some thousand pages) take great pains to establish not only that he was the legitimate son of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas-Davy de la Pailleterie and his wife, Louise-Elisabeth Labouret, daughter of an innkeeper in Villers-Cotterêts in Picardy, but also that his father was himself the legitimate child of Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie and Marie-Cessette Dumas. She was a black slave in Saint-Domingue—now Haiti—where the writer’s grandfather Alexandre-Antoine, of provincial nobility, had gone to seek his fortune on the sugar plantations; it is very unlikely that she and Antoine were ever married.

Their son Thomas-Alexandre—the subject of Tom Reiss’s Black Count, which has just won the Pulitzer Prize for biography—would take her surname as his own, and call himself Alex Dumas. And his father, though he seems to have sold other of his half-black children into slavery, would bring this son, aged fourteen, back to France in 1776. Then, at a moment when France was caught up in revolution, Alex Dumas would make his way as a soldier, rising from the lowest ranks in the Queen’s Dragoons to general in a matter of some twenty months. Although he died when Alexandre was only four, Alex Dumas still dominates the first 150 pages of his son’s memoirs, a loved and admired phantom.

Tom Reiss in The Black Count has given a clear account of the origins of the Dumas dynasty, including detailed work on the French sugar empire in Saint-Domingue—the most lucrative of European colonies in the Caribbean. Reiss traces complex patterns of racial mixture on the island—the separate castes formed by slaves, free blacks, mulattos, and whites—that would be made even more volatile with the coming of the French Revolution and the abolition of slavery by act of the Convention in 1794. It was short-lived abolition, since Napoleon (perhaps under the influence of his wife Josephine, who came from Martinique and had commercial interests there) reinstituted slavery in 1802. Only after the Revolution of 1848 did France finally declare that no one on French soil could be a slave (a law that harked back to a royal edict from 1315 that said the same thing but could not survive the era of colonization).

Before emancipation, the condition of blacks in France was uncertain and shifting, a tangled story that illustrates Tocqueville’s judgment that the Old Regime was too complex for its authoritarianism, and too authoritarian for its complexities. Alex Dumas, as the recognized son of a marquis, however feckless (following the death of Marie-Cessette, he married his housekeeper), could slip through the nets of racial classification. Yet he could not buy an officer’s commission. In 1786 he enlisted as a common solider in the Dragoons as “Dumas, Alexandre”—the first official record of that famous name. He thus spared his father the embarrassment of having an aristocrat son in the lowest military rank; and by this act of self-naming after his black mother he founded the famous dynasty. In 1792, by then a colonel, he married the daughter of the innkeeper with whom he was billeted in Villers-Cotterêts.

Reiss, whose research seems to have involved cracking a safe with the cooperation of the deputy mayor of Villers- Cotterêts to get at Dumas family documents, is so taken with the background he painstakingly assembles that the reader tends to get a bit lost in the welter of detail. French efforts to end the slave trade (which had become enormously profitable) and to use court proceedings and, later, legislation to emancipate slaves are historical topics deserving detailed study. Reiss has some trouble splicing them into his biography of Alex Dumas.

When he gets to the events of his central story, things become plain enough. We are in the swashbuckling world that Alex’s son would draw on for his fiction. Revolutionary France would soon be at war with most of Europe, and there was no quicker form of advancement than the military. Alex Dumas was tall—over six feet—and strong, with a physique everyone described as beautiful. With his dragoon’s saber, he could cut down the enemy with remarkable efficiency. What mattered most of all in those years when the Republic was in constant danger, and the Committee of Public Safety was taking on ever greater power, was success against the enemy. The unsuccessful commanding officer risked being declared a traitor and losing his head on the guillotine.

By 1793, Dumas had become a brigadier general in the Army of the North. He was then promoted to general of division—in charge of 10,000 men—and posted to the western Pyrenees. Later he was commander-in-chief of the Army of the Alps, and made a heroic nighttime dash up the mountains to capture the enemy fortress on Mont Cenis. In Italy, where he encountered the twenty-six-year-old general Napoleon Bonaparte, Dumas was to be lauded as “Horatius at the Bridge” for his single-handed heroics at Clausen, in the Tyrol. The Austrians named him der schwarze Teufel, the black devil.

Dumas was proud and outspoken, claiming to owe allegiance to the Republic but to no other commander. He was soon in conflict with Bonaparte, and chafed under his command when he was ordered to join the Egyptian campaign as chief of cavalry. After Admiral Nelson surprised and burned the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, Napoleon made his way back to France on his own, and Dumas, in poor health, decided to do the same, embarking with eleven Arabian horses and four thousand pounds of coffee on a ship called the Belle Maltaise, which turned out to be seriously unseaworthy. Storms and widening leaks in the hull forced them to short-circuit the voyage—and to throw all the coffee and most of the horses overboard—and to make port in Taranto, on the heel of Italy.

There Dumas fell foul of the wildly unstable politics of the Kingdom of Naples, which had fallen from French hands shortly before his arrival. He spent twenty months in a dungeon on no apparent charge and with no apparent end to his imprisonment. His demands to meet with the governor of the prison were refused; he believed the doctor sent by the governor to look after his intestinal pains was attempting to poison him. His life was saved, perhaps, by a group of local Friends of the French, who smuggled in chocolate, medicinal herbs, and a copy of Dr. Tissot’s medical self-help treatise.

The prison agony is recounted in his son’s memoirs, but more immediately in a report prepared by Alex himself for the French government, a document of gloom and conspiracy that Reiss found in that cracked safe in Villers-Cotterêts. We are close to the narrative of Dantès in the Château d’If in The Count of Monte Cristo. General Dumas would eventually be freed, to return to his wife and children in Villers-Cotterêts, but in a changed world—Napoleon was now in power, and racial discriminations were newly popular. A third child, his first son, was born in 1802, and baptized Alexandre. But Dumas’s health and spirits never entirely recovered from the months in prison. He died impoverished—Napoleon denied him a military pension—in 1806.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print