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Behind the Iron Mask

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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.

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Everett Collection
Léon Bary and Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers, 1921

His twenty months in prison become Edmond Dantès’s fourteen years in his son’s novel. The original plot of The Count of Monte Cristo came from a story Alexandre Dumas found in a great source text, the Mémoires historiques tirés des archives de la police de Paris compiled by one Jacques Peuchet and published in six volumes in 1838. That, along with an Italian travelogue he’d been working on, provided almost all the elements he needed, though it was Maquet who rearranged the order of events, insisting that the betrayal and incarceration of Dantès had to stand at the outset of the novel, not as a flashback. Dumas saw the wisdom of this. And doubtless, as Reiss contends, his account of life in prison owed much to his father’s experience.

The nightmare of imprisonment without trial, without explanation, without apparent reason was an obsession of the age. In the Romantic imagination, the prison is everywhere. It represents one of the ultimate, extreme, hyperbolic human agonies that so appealed to an age that created melodrama. To be unable to know why you are incarcerated, to be kept in solitary confinement and on the verge of madness, to fear that your meals are poisoned, finally to lose your very name and identity—Dantès after a time is merely “prisoner number 34”—perfectly represents the monsters bred in the sleep of reason.

In the stage melodramas that appealed to the popular imagination following the Revolution, prisons and fortresses are everywhere. One of the repeated plot structures is the attempted escape—foiled, of course, by betrayal and villainy, though in the ultimately optimistic universe of melodrama the denouement will bring freedom or, even better, the destruction of the prison itself. The play often recognized as the first melodrama, Les Victimes cloîtrées (1791, by Boutet de Monvel), ends with the liberation of the hero and heroine from the underground dungeons of a monastery and a nunnery, represented side-by-side in an innovative stage set. The supreme master melodramatist, Guilbert de Pixérécourt, used fortresses and prisons over and over, and his late masterpiece, Latude, or Thirty-Five Years of Captivity, spectacularly stages the escape from the Bastille of Masers Latude, who indeed was imprisoned for thirty-five years because he had the audacity to write Marie Antoinette a mad love letter.

In fact, Bastilles of all sorts were part of the landscape of Old Regime Europe, places where you could be imprisoned by lettre de cachet or other arbitrary means, and with the struggle against revolutionary France the use of prisons for political purposes only increased, and then the Revolution itself made its own use of prisons. The Holy Alliance of nations against Napoleon, which was dedicated to stamping out the revolutionary spirit everywhere, famously locked up its prisoners in the Moravian fortress of Spielberg. The firsthand account by the carbonaro Silvio Pellico, Le mie prigioni (My Prisons), published in 1833, recounting his arrests and imprisonments from 1820 onward, became a source text for, among others, Stendhal.

The citadel of Parma in which Fabrizio del Dongo is twice imprisoned in The Charterhouse of Parma may be the most memorable of all the prisons evoked by the novelistic imagination since it has all the potentialities of confinement. When Stendhal sends Fabrizio to prison in chapter 16 he warns us that when we come back to him we may find him trans- formed. Stendhal’s hero discovers a “sublime spectacle” in the view northward to the Alps from the window of his prison—before the governor has that window covered by a shutter. He discovers, too, that he loves the governor’s daughter, Clelia Conti, and when the shutter makes communication with her ever more difficult, they move through a kind of reinvention of language from the ground up, Fabrizio tracing letters on his hand with charcoal dipped in wine, then Clelia creating a “magnificent” alphabet on paper cards.

These primitive means of communication permit the reinvention of a love free from the corruption of the court of Parma. It’s the imminent threat of poison upon his second incarceration, supposed to be a mere formality while the case against him is dismissed on appeal—but he has insulted the governor by his prior escape, so vengeance is in the works—that provokes Clelia finally to cast off all restraint and charge up the stairs to Fabrizio’s prison, to dash the poisoned plate from his hands, and to fall into his embrace.

Stendhal’s prison is richly ambiguous: the place of confinement can bring inner liberation as well as menace. Dumas’s Château d’If is more directly in the melodramatic mode—the experience of incarceration as pure nightmare, the erasure of self in radical unfreedom. Early in his time in the dungeon, Dantès has this dialogue with the jailer (Dumas famously filled pages with dialogue):

“I want to speak to the Governor.”
“Pah!” the jailer said impatiently. “I’ve already told you that’s impossible.”
“Why is it impossible?”
“Because, under the prison regulations, a prisoner is not allowed to make that request.”
“And what is allowed here?” Dantès asked.
“Better food, if you pay; walks; and sometimes books.”
“I have no need of books, I have no desire to walk and my food suits me well; so there is only one thing I want, which is to see the Governor.”
“If you get on my nerves by repeating the same thing over and over,” said the jailer, “I shall stop bringing you any food at all.”
“Well, then,” said Dantès, “if you do not bring me anything to eat, I shall starve.” The tone of Dantès’ voice as he said this showed the jailer that his prisoner would be happy to die; and, as every prisoner, when all is said and done, represents roughly ten sous a day for his jailer, the man considered the loss that he would suffer from Dantès’ death and continued in milder vein:
“Listen, what you want is impossible, so don’t ask for it again: it is unheard of for the governor to come into a cell at a prisoner’s request. But behave well and you will be allowed to exercise; and one day, while you are in the exercise yard, the governor may go by. Then you can talk to him. It is his business whether he wishes to reply.”
“But how long,” Dantès asked, “am I likely to wait before this occurs?”
“Who knows? A month, three months, six…perhaps a year.”*

This might seem to anticipate Kafka in the utter frustration of bureaucratic circularity, in the impossibility of appeal to a higher authority. What distinguishes it from The Trial or In the Penal Colony is the absence of Kafka’s impassive restraint, his management of a language of bureaucratic routine indifference, to chilling ends. That is not at all the tone of Dumas. In the melodramatic mode, everything must be stated, overstated, given a clear articulation. The naming of names is always a high moment in melodrama—and later in this novel, as Dantès under various disguises takes systematic revenge on those who put him in the Château d’If, the moment that reveals his true identity is fatal to the victim and triumphant for the hero.

Dantès in prison is not saved by “the Friends of the French” in the manner of the author’s father at Taranto, but rather by prisoner number 27, the abbé Faria, who was incarcerated three years before Dantès’s arrival, and has spent his time improving his knowledge—and digging a tunnel, which was supposed to penetrate the outside wall but through a miscalculation ends in Dantès’s cell instead. Faria not only saves Dantès from despair and suicide, he instructs him, and promises him buried treasure—on the isle of Monte Cristo—if and when he is liberated.

The jailers call him the mad abbé; his offers of riches if allowed to escape are put down as the delusions that prison typically creates. For there is here, as in Stendhal and Hugo for instance, a dialectic of jailer and prisoner that touches on the depths of human humiliation—the kind of exchange still with us, in our reinvention of the Chateau d’If in our “super maximum security” prisons. As Dumas writes, “despotic governments have always been loath to exhibit the effects of prison and torture in broad daylight.”

Dantès’s escape from the island fortress comes only through Faria’s death: he can switch the abbé’s corpse to his own bed and sew himself into the body bag. He sequesters a knife inside the bag, ready to rip his way out and dig himself from the grave. But it’s not the earth that awaits him but, in the most dramatic moment of the novel, burial by sea: tossed from the parapet into the waves with a thirty-pound cannonball tied to his feet. Chapter 20 ends: “The sea is the graveyard of the Château d’If.” Yet Dantès survives, to be picked up by a boat of smugglers, to find the uninhabited isle of Monte Cristo (which had struck Dumas’s imagination on a tour of Italy years before), and to become the very spirit of vengeance. After rewarding his early benefactor, Morrel:

“And now,” said the stranger, “farewell, goodness, humanity, gratitude…Farewell all those feelings that nourish and illuminate the heart! I have taken the place of Providence to reward the good; now let the avenging God make way for me to punish the wrongdoer!”

If only the real world followed the dreamwork logic of melodrama. Eventually, Dantès (now the Count of Monte Cristo, ennobled—as so many were coming to be—by wealth) decides that vengeance belongs to the divinity, not to man, and retires from the retribution business.

  1. *

    I quote from the most recent translation, by Robin Buss ( The Count of Monte Cristo, Penguin Classics, 1996), p. 81. Most editions, including Oxford World Classics (with an excellent introduction by David Coward), reprint the anonymous 1846 translation, which is fast-paced and remains very readable. Buss’s translation is more faithful and restores a number of omissions. 

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