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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.