On November 30, 2002, Alexandre Dumas père (1802–1870) was enshrined in the Panthéon in Paris, alongside the “great men” (and one “great woman,” Marie Curie) of “the grateful fatherland.” Despite Dumas’s wish to be buried with his parents, his native town of Villers-Cotterêts had been forced to cede his treasured remains to the capital. A hundred actors dressed as characters from Dumas’s novels accompanied him to his new resting place. The coffin was draped in a blue velvet cloth inscribed with the motto of the Three Musketeers, “All for one, one for all.”
In a stirring oration, President Jacques Chirac asserted that France was “making amends for an injustice”: Dumas, who gave so much pleasure to millions of readers, had been the victim of racism and pedantry. His father, a general under Napoleon, was the son of a French marquis and a black slave from Haiti (then Saint-Domingue). Chirac reminded his audience at the Panthéon that the nation’s most popular novelist was caricatured as a half-breed, and that his vast, novelistic panorama of French history, which “helped to construct our national identity,” was criticized for inaccuracy. “Some of his contemporaries,” said Chirac, “went so far as to suggest that he was not the author of his dazzling work.”1
Despite the racists and the pedants, Alexandre Dumas is as popular as ever. His rediscovered novel Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, which was published in France in 2005, sold 250,000 copies, according to the publisher of the English translation, titled The Last Cavalier. UNESCO’s Index Translationum testifies to Dumas’s continuing, worldwide prominence: it records 1,891 translations in fifty-four languages of works by Alexandre Dumas père between 1979 and 2002. In the list of most frequently translated authors, Dumas appears in eighteenth place, between Pope John Paul II and Arthur Conan Doyle. Le Comte de Monte-Cristo and Les Trois Mousquetaires account for over one third of these translations, but practically all his other works are available in several languages. As Victor Hugo told Dumas’s son in 1872, “The name of Alexandre Dumas is more than French, it is European; it is more than European, it is universal.”2
The latest two novels to appear in English—Georges (1843) and Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine (1869)—belong to the dawn and the dusk of Dumas’s novel-writing career. Neither adds much lustre to his shrine, but they do cast a curious light on his work. Both novels are important episodes in a life that had as many surprises as a serial novel. Subjected to the kind of critical scrutiny that President Chirac deplores, they reveal what Baudelaire called “the rags and the face-paint, the pulleys and the chains …in a word, all the horrors that make up the sanctuary of art.”3
Georges is set in the early nineteenth century on the Île de France (Mauritius)—“the pearl of the Indian Ocean,” “the blessed island…hidden away in this far-flung corner of the world like some virginal maiden whose mother jealously guards her beauty from covetous suitors’ eyes.” It tells the story of Georges Munier, the son of a fabulously rich mulatto planter. Young Georges refuses to endure the humiliations that are visited on “men of color” and is sent away by his prudent father to be educated in Paris. On his return to the island, he marries the beautiful niece of a white supremacist and leads a slave revolt.
In his introduction to the new English translation by Tina Kover, Werner Sollors presents Georges as “the only novel in which Dumas—the celebrated, though at times also reviled, man of color—focuses on the color complex.” Before anything can be said about Dumas’s treatment of racial prejudice, however, the novel must be seen in the muddled context of his professional life. It appeared at the start of an amazingly productive period. Between 1843 and 1846, Dumas published almost 43,000 pages, including the eight volumes of Les Trois Mousquetaires and the eighteen volumes of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. This would represent an average daily output of about 5,500 words, which is not impossible, though one has to allow for time spent attending literary dinners, courting actresses, traveling in Europe and North Africa, writing and producing thirteen plays, and overseeing the building of his own theater in Paris and his country mansion at Port-Marly, the Château de Monte-Cristo.
The question is not “How did he do it?” but “Did he do it?” Two years after the publication of Georges, a hack writer called Eugène de Mirecourt (a pseudonym of Charles-Jean-Baptiste Jacquot) published a pamphlet on Dumas’s “novel factory”: Fabrique de romans: Maison Alexandre Dumas et Compagnie.4 He accused Dumas of stealing from other writers: part of Dumas’s famous play Henri III, for instance, which is still considered a landmark in the history of French Romantic drama, was copied from a translation of Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos. He claimed that Dumas not only filched other writers’ work but also had novels written for him by “collaborators.” According to Mirecourt, Dumas was like a craftsman who accepted more orders than he could meet on his own. Newspaper editors turned a blind eye because they knew that a serial novel signed by Alexandre Dumas would sell papers.
Mirecourt was writing from experience: he himself had used a ghostwriter and had offered his own services to Dumas, which Dumas had refused. Although Mirecourt was sued for libel by Dumas and sent to prison, many of his accusations were true. He repeated them, with impunity, in a biography of Dumas published in 1856.5 Dumas himself admitted that some of his novels had been written in collaboration with a former history teacher called Auguste Maquet.
Such arrangements were not uncommon. As a journalist explains to an innocent provincial poet in the second part of Balzac’s Illusions perdues (1839), “The secret of fame and fortune in the literary world is not hard work but the exploitation of other people’s hard work.”6 In a letter, Balzac described Mirecourt’s vicious pamphlet as “ignoble and foolish, but sadly true! And since no one listens to fools in France, and people are more ready to believe a witty calumny than a stupidly expressed truth, it will do little harm to Dumas.”7
Balzac was right. The attack may even have enhanced Dumas’s reputation. The amiable operator who always muddled through in the end was the hero of countless comical anecdotes, and his historical yarns were so enjoyable that few readers cared how the assembly line was managed. A typical anecdote appeared in a potpourri of literary and theatrical gossip a few months after the publication of Georges:
Lately, the novel Amaury  was being discussed in front of M.A. Dumas.
“That’s a very poor novel,” cried the Christopher Columbus of the Mediterranean [an allusion to Dumas’s travel writings]. “Who’s the author?”
“Why, I think it must be you since your name appears at the end.”
“Ah! In that case, I shall have to have a few words with Maquet.”8
Since plagiarism and the unavowed use of ghostwriters are no longer considered laughing matters, Dumas’s scholarly admirers are often understandably reticent about his assembly-line techniques. The introduction to the new translation of Georges gives only the faintest hint that Dumas may not have been the sole author of the novel. According to Werner Sollors, Dumas never visited Mauritius, “yet he rendered his setting so vividly in the novel that one is surprised to realize that he did so only with the help of secondary sources, among them accounts by his friend Félicien Mallefille, a Mauritian.” The novelist and playwright Félicien Mallefille, who is now remembered only as one of George Sand’s lovers, was born on the Île de France in 1813. Mirecourt states explicitly that Mallefille was the author of Georges, and even the Grand Dictionnaire universel of Pierre Larousse, which was well disposed toward Dumas, found it “necessary to admit that Georges, despite Alexandre Dumas’s signature, is by Félicien Mallefille.” When Dumas sued Mirecourt, he asked his alleged collaborators to provide signed denials that they had written some of his novels. No such denial was produced by Félicien Mallefille.9
A comparison of Georges (1843) with Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844) and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1845– 1846) suggests that Dumas had little to do with this particular product. The plot of Georges is predictable, the narrator unironic, and the characters tiresomely earnest. Dumas’s characters, by contrast, crack jokes, utter colorful oaths, and seem to make themselves at home in any period of history like musketeers swaggering into a roadside inn. Unlike the author of Georges, Dumas rarely lingers over descriptions. He prefers to depict his characters through dialogue, which had the added advantage of taking up more space in the newspaper. (Serial novelists were paid by the line.) In a technical sense, Georges is “well written,” while Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, with all its verve and sparkle, is full of redundancies, repetitions, and non sequiturs. As Umberto Eco discovered when he was asked to translate Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, the “charm” of Dumas’s novel and its “narrative wisdom” are inseparable from his “linguistically sludgy and gasping” prose: “I realised that this novel was, if not well written, at least written as it should have been, and that it couldn’t be written differently.”10
It is a happy accident all the same that Georges has been carried to posterity on the coattails of Alexandre Dumas. As one of the relatively few novels of the time to describe color prejudice, it gives some idea of what Dumas himself, the grandson of a black woman, had to suffer from his contemporaries.
Georges is hardly a manifesto for racial tolerance. The Malays of the island are “small, cunning, copper-skinned, and vindictive.” “Primitive and uninhibited by nature, [the black slaves] worked and played with equal fervor, and often danced until they dropped from exhaustion.” A more direct translation would show the original to be even more callous and condescending: “In these primitive natures, there are no nuances: they pass from work to pleasure, and recover from tiredness by dancing.” The mulatto father and his two sons are considered decent people because they treat their slaves well, and although Georges’s brother Jacques becomes a slave trader, he is deemed to be an honorable example of the profession because he tries to keep family members together when he sells them, and uses chains only when necessary.
Tina Kover’s rather loose translation makes the novel as readable as can be expected, but at the expense of some telling details. The “young negress” (translated as “young black girl”) who brings armfuls of exotic fruit to the European visitor speaks in a “guttural and melancholy voice” (translated as a “low and wistful voice”). In the original, the mulatto planter’s hair is not “frizzy” but “slightly frizzy,” which betrays the author’s desire to attenuate the negritude of his main characters. For the same reason, the planter’s elder son is said to have “skin bronzed more by outdoor sport than by his African blood.”
Georges may not represent the views of Dumas himself, but the fact that he allowed it to bear his name may reflect his own experience of prejudice. Most French writers who mentioned his black ancestry saw it as a humorous facet of his public personality. His fondness for expensive trinkets and his lavish lifestyle were associated with the “primitive” fascination of slaves for their masters’ luxuries. Similarly ludicrous notions were jokingly applied to other writers, because they were provincial, or because they were women, or because they suffered from an ailment or a disability. Yet even in a period that seems to have been marked far more by political and social than by racial divisions, there was evidently something more sinister below the surface. Mirecourt’s “ignoble” pamphlet is interesting not just because it describes Dumas’s “novel factory,” but also because it shows how venomous those supposedly humorous remarks could be:
M. Dumas’s physique is well known…prominent lips, African nose, frizzy head, tanned face. His origin is written all over his person, but it shows up even more clearly in his character.
Scratch the surface and you will find the savage….
The fair sex, admiring the glamour of his resplendent name, won over by his mad prodigality, attracted by his broad shoulders, will before long resort to the ether bottle in order to neutralize a certain suspect smell that indiscreetly interrupts the charming tête-à-tête:—Negro!11
Some of the nineteenth-century African-American intellectuals mentioned by Werner Sollors were pleased to see that in Paris a “colored man” could be the object of public veneration. A character in Frances Harper’s novel Iola Leroy (1892), quoted by Sollors, notes that “Alexandre Dumas was not forced to conceal his origin to succeed as a novelist.” But Mirecourt’s ugly ranting and the hypocritical, halfhearted message of Georges show that France was not exactly a land of racial equality. Dumas himself evaded the subject in his memoirs. He referred to it only obliquely, and appeared to encourage racists to direct their hatred elsewhere:
Physically, I was a rather pretty child: I had long, curly hair which became frizzy only when I turned fourteen. I had big, blue eyes…, a straight nose that was small and well formed…and a dazzlingly white complexion.12
In the twenty-six years that separate Georges from Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, Dumas published approximately ninety novels, seventy plays, and forty works of history, as well as numerous short stories, memoirs, poems, pieces of journalism, and a capacious Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine. He founded two newspapers and wrote most of them himself. He accomplished all this despite losing his chief collaborator, Auguste Maquet, who sued him in 1858 for unpaid royalties. Spending money and giving it away as freely as he wrote, he found himself, at the age of sixty-seven, “worn out by slave labor”:
For the past fifteen years I have produced no fewer than three volumes a month. My imagination is edgy, my head is throbbing, and I am completely ruined. But I have no debts.
Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, which was rediscovered in the late 1980s by the leading Dumas scholar Claude Schopp, is Dumas’s last, unfinished novel. The publisher of the English translation by Lauren Yoder says that it was “lost for 125 years in the archives of the National Library in Paris.” It was also “lost” in every library that had a microfilm copy of the prominent newspaper Le Moniteur universel, in which the novel was serialized from January to September 1869. Many researchers must have seen the installments and assumed that this was just another of those interminable serials that occupied the “ground floor” of daily newspapers. It says something about the size of Dumas’s oeuvre that even Schopp, Dumas’s most diligent admirer, had to consult various bibliographies before he could be certain that the novel was unknown.
The interminable tale, in which the adventures of the fictional Hector de Sainte-Hermine are interpolated in a thinly documented life of Napoleon Bonaparte from 1800 to 1805, is redolent of its original context. Like all newspaper serials, it was designed to be read at the breakfast table, on the bus, at the café, or in the office when the boss wasn’t looking. The story line had to be able to withstand all the distractions of modern life. Earlier episodes are often summarized, ostensibly for the benefit of characters who missed the action. Napoleon, for instance, provides the hero with a kind of questionnaire:
“You had some terrifying hunts in that part of the Indies, I am told.”
” I met and killed several tigers.”
“Was killing a tiger for the first time an exciting experience?”
“The first time, yes, Sire. But not after that.”
And so on.
The plot is of little importance. Something dramatic is always happening or about to happen: “They could hear footsteps in the corridor; the dining room door was flung open, and a masked man, armed to the teeth, appeared in the doorway.” Incidents such as this occur every few pages. Sometimes, one seems to be rereading a passage by mistake. On two separate occasions, six pages apart, a jailer’s daughter is seduced by a handsome prisoner. Long passages are repeated word for word from the earlier novel Les Compagnons de Jéhu (1857), to which this was a sequel.
The title character, Sainte-Hermine, is a simple but durable clockwork toy who can be placed in any situation. His character can be summed up in a few words: brave, impulsive, suicidally honorable, extraordinarily adaptable, and extremely lucky. Most of his character development takes place offstage. After three well-spent years in a tiny prison cell, he emerges, like Edmond Dantès in Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, with all the attributes required to see him through the rest of the novel: strength, elegance, matchless skill with sword and pistol, boundless erudition, an ability to navigate at sea without ever having sailed and to speak perfect English without ever having lived in England. He sings like an angel, accompanying himself beautifully on the piano, and is equally at home in salon and jungle. He kills a shark and rescues two elephants from a giant python. He drinks only water, but “even when I am forced to drink such quantities of wine that would make another man lose his head…it has no effect on me.” His modesty is unparalleled. He has no redeeming flaws, and somehow, all his admirable characteristics merge to form a general impression of a slightly priggish but exceedingly useful personality.
It would be unfair to expect a novel that was intended to be read in daily doses over nine months to be palatable when consumed in three or four sittings. There are some splendid scenes, worthy of Dumas’s finest novels, but also some distressing signs of haste and failing health. Even a brief search for sources turned up quite a few examples of cutting and pasting. Schopp observes that “the chapters about Saint-Malo at the beginning of the second part seem to indicate that Dumas was familiar with the area”: perhaps, despite his heart complaint, he made “a trip…to Saint-Malo, unknown by biographers.” It is likely, however, that the trip was purely literary: much of what Dumas relates about the Norman port was taken, almost word for word, from Charles Cunat’s Saint-Malo illustré par ses marins (1857). Similarly, for his depiction of the Île de France, he was heavily indebted, not, this time, to Félicien Mallefille, but to Ferdinand Magon de Saint-Élier’s Tableaux historiques, politiques et pittoresques de L’Île de France (1839).
The long description of the Battle of Trafalgar and of the ensuing storm is a key episode of the novel. This is one of those thrilling, protocinematic scenes that presumably account, in part, for the novel’s extraordinary success in France. Sadly, though, the description of the battle was lifted, with very few changes, from the sixth volume of what was then one of the best-known works of modern French history: Adolphe Thiers’s stirring Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire (1845–1862). It is nice to know that Romantic historiography still enjoys a wide audience, but it would also be nice to see Adolphe Thiers receive some of the credit.
Shortly before the Trafalgar episode, Dumas gives some indication that he himself was unhappy with his magpie approach to novel-writing. After describing the death of Nelson, he imagines that “the reader might be surprised at all the details,” but explains that a great warrior “should be accompanied all the way to death’s door, if not by an historian, at least by a novelist. These are not details I found in some book. They come from the official account of his death.” Yet the famous account by the ship’s surgeon, William Beatty, was, despite what Dumas implies, found in a book, and, although he might have wanted to recount the death as “a novelist,” he followed his source quite slavishly.
Was this an ingrained habit, or a sign of growing desperation? In his memoirs, Dumas described the deadening effect of “collaboration.” He was referring to some of his early plays, which he judged mediocre, but he might also have been thinking of later times, when he was no longer able to absorb and imaginatively refashion his source material:
A first collaboration unfortunately leads to a second. A man who collaborates is like a man who has caught the tip of his finger in a rolling mill: first the finger, then the hand, then the arm, and eventually the whole body! Everything is pulled into the machine. Having started out a man, he ends up a length of wire.13
Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine is a lost treasure, not just because it fills a gap in Dumas’s novelistic retelling of recent French history, but also because it has the disturbing, almost embarrassing strangeness of a late work. This is the closest the century’s most efficient storyteller ever came to an interesting fiasco. Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand, both of whom are praised and quoted in the novel, produced spectacularly original late works that were widely seen at the time as senile failures. In Hugo’s L’Homme qui rit and Chateaubriand’s Vie de Rancé, the writer’s imagination goes running off into vast, digressive landscapes of memory and erudition like a lively dog taking advantage of its owner’s decrepitude. Dumas’s imagination ranged less widely, and his novel-writing style barely changed in thirty years, but it is fascinating to see his technique beginning to falter, as the unstoppable narrative grinds on like an unsupervised machine, with a darker side of his talent coming to the fore.
Claude Schopp, in his introduction to The Last Cavalier, is loyal to his hero and only hints at the distressing decline of Dumas’s talent. He notes that after an exchange of letters in the press concerning Dumas’s skimpily researched depiction of a feather-brained, shopaholic Joséphine in the first episode, “the rest of the novel seems to have been greeted with indifference.” Schopp quotes an account of a visit to Dumas’s bedside during the publication of the novel. A priest complimented him on his enjoyable tale, and Dumas sadly replied, “You are the only one, Monsieur l’Abbé, who has told me this. Nobody speaks to me about it. And I see that I am reaching my end.”
In Schopp’s view, Dumas “was still master of his art,” yet as the novel nears its premature conclusion, the plot loses its structure and wanders off on increasingly long, directionless digressions. There is, as Schopp suggests, something terribly poignant in these attempts to prolong the tale. Dumas rummages through the old storehouse of Romantic clichés like an aging Scheherazade whose charms are cosmetically preserved. There are tales of bandits, another escape from prison, another storm at sea. Then, all at once, in chapters 99, 100, and 101, he seems to recover his old flair, and the spirit of Monte-Cristo rides again. His hero is trotting along the ancient stones of the magnificent Appian Way. As the irrepressible Sainte-Hermine explains to his companion the inscriptions on the roadside tombs, whole novels seem to pass by in miraculous concision. One might almost ask, with the hero’s companion, “How can written history be so boring, yet the stories you tell be so engaging?”
But then the endless tale begins again, and the Appian Way episode looks like just another attempt to fill space. In fact, it, too, was plagiarized, but from one of Dumas’s own novels, Isaac Laquedem, which he had written seventeen years before. Isaac Laquedem is set in Rome in 1469; Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine takes place in the early nineteenth century; but these slabs of prose could easily be slotted into any text.
In this, his last novel, Dumas’s repetitions begin to look more like signs of personal obsession than convenient clichés. Again and again, characters who have been condemned to death are temporarily released, having given their word of honor that they will not escape and will return to face their execution. As he laid down his quill after each installment and looked forward to more pleasant pursuits, Dumas must often have made the same promise to his inexorable novel.
March 20, 2008
Victor Hugo, Oeuvres complètes de Victor Hugo: Actes et paroles III (Paris: Hetzel, Quantin, 1884), p. 256. ↩
Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes, edited by Claude Pichois (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1975– 1976), Vol. 1, p. 185. ↩
Paris: Tous les marchands de nouveautés, 1845. ↩
Alexandre Dumas (Paris: Gustave Havard). ↩
La Comédie humaine, edited by Pierre-Georges Castex (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1976–1981), Vol. 5, p. 346. ↩
Lettres à Madame Hanska, 1845– 1850, edited by Roger Pierrot (Paris: Laffont, 1990), Vol. 2, p. 23. ↩
“Les Mystères galants des théâtres de Paris,” in Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes, edited by Claude Pichois (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1975–1976), Vol. 2, pp. 1004–1005. ↩
Joseph-Marie Quérard, Les Supercheries littéraires dévoilées (Paris: L’Éditeur, 1847), Vol. 1, pp. 553–554. ↩
Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003), pp. 53–55. ↩
Mirecourt, Fabrique de romans, p. 7. ↩
Mes Mémoires (Paris: Cadot, 1852– 1854), Vol. 3, p. 159. ↩
Mes Mémoires, new edition (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1889), Vol. 9, pp. 52–53. ↩