1902 Encyclopedia > Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas
French novelist

ALEXANDRE DUMAS, (1802-1870), one of the most remarkable characters that the 19th century has produced, was the son of General Dumas and of Marie Labouret, an innkeeper's daughter. His father was an officer of remarkable gallantry, who for his dashing exploits had obtained the odd title of the " Horatius Codes of the Tyrol." He was a Creole, the illegitimate son of the Marquis Davy de la Pailleterie, and of Louise Dumas, a black woman of St Domingo. Long after, his grandson was to excite the laughter of Paris by claiming this title, and assuming the family arms. The general had an insubor-dinate temper, and excited the dislike and suspicion of Napoleon, who sent him back from Egypt to languish in obscurity, and die of disappointment at Villers-Cotterets in the year 1806.

Alexandre Dumas was born on July 4, 1802, at Villers-Cotterets, where he was brought up under the care of an affectionate and pious mother. Some of the most graceful passages of autobiography are to be found in those pages of his memoirs which are devoted to an account of his boyhood, and which present an excellent picture of French country town life. He seems to have been an idle and a troublesome youth, and, though places were found for him with notaries and other functionaries, he could not settle to business. The family means were slender. They were soon almost reduced to poverty ; and in the year 1823 Alexandre set off for Paris to seek his fortune, where he was to make such good use of his slender opportunities, that within five years his name became famous. Within a few days of his arrival, an old friend of his father's, General Foy, obtained a clerk's place for him in the duke of Orleans's establishment, worth only £50 a year, but it seemed a fortune. A friend, De Leuven, and he now joined their talents in a light farce called Le Ghasse et VAmour (produced September 22, 1825). This was succeeded by a dramatic piece, written with the assistance of one of his friends, and called La Noce et V Enterrement (November 21, 1826), known in England as the amusing Illustrious Stranger. Meanwhile the visit of Macready and other English players to Paris had introduced him to Shakespeare, and had set him to work on a grand romantic and historical drama which he called Christine. The young clerk had the boldness to look forward to having it presented on the boards of the first theatre in France, and, with an energy and spirit that should encourage every friendless aspirant, set every resource he could command at work. Charles Nodier introduced him to Baron Taylor, the literary director of the theatre, who, if we are to credit Dumas, was so enchanted with the work that he accepted it and submitted it to the company at once. It is more probable that, from the rather corrupt fashion which then regulated such matters, the privilege was secured by the influence of the duke of Orleans. But it happened that another Christine was supported by even greater influence, and Dunias's had to be withdrawn. In a short time he had written Henri III. which was produced (February 11, 1829) with the most extraordinary results. This piece was important as being the first success of the well known "Romantic school." Henri III., it is said, brought its author about £2000. But the revolution of July now broke out and interrupted every literary scheme.

It was, however, welcomed by the Creole's son, who flung himself with ardour into the struggle. And here begins that double interest in his life, which was as a venturous as that of some of his own heroes, and suggests the career of Benvenuto Cellini. He has, of course, mad his own share in the exciting scenes of the Three Days a conspicuous as possible; and his expedition to Soissons, and almost single-handed capture of a powder magazine, a general, and officers were heartily laughed at and wholly dis-believed. Allowing, however, for embellishment, it is due to him to say that his narrative seems to be true in the main. He was, however, unlucky enough to have cast his lot with the more violent party, which found itself opposed to the Orleans family, and never recovered their favour; and King Louis Philippe always treated him with a good humoured contempt.

He now returned to his dramatic labours, and produced Antony (1831), one of the earliest of those gross out-rages on public morality which have helped to make conjugal infidelity the favourite theme of the French drama. But by this time he had found that the slow production of dramas scarcely offered a profitable field for his talents. The successful founding of the Revue des Deux Mondes tempted him into trying his skill on historical romances, professedly in imitation of Sir Walter Scott. And this would seem to be the first opening of that seam which was to be worked later with such extraordinary profit. Here he introduced that daring system of working up the ideas of others, which he had already carried out in his dramatic labours, his successful pieces of Henri III. and Christine proving to consist of whole scenes stolen from Schiller and other writers almost without changing a word, though the arrangement of the plot and situations are masterly and original. A piece of his, called the Tour de Nesle (produced in 1832), which caused a perfect furore in Paris, led, however, to a more serious charge of plagiarism. In consequence of a duel he was directed to leave France for a time, and set off—in July 1832—on a tour through Switzerland, which suggested to him a series of those odd books of travels made up of long extracts from old memoirs, guide-books, imaginary dialogues, and adventures.

In 1842 he married an actress named Ida Ferrier, who had performed in his plays ; but the union was not a happy one, and, after a rather extravagant career, the lady retired to Florence, where she died in the year 1859. Hitherto his success, though remarkable, could not be called European, and he was not to be distinguished from the crowd of French professional litterateurs. But in 1844 the famous Monte Christo appeared, which may be said to have excited more universal interest than any romance since Robinson Crusoe or Wavtrley. The extraordinary colour, the never-flagging spirit, the endless surprises, and the air of nature which was cast over even the most extravagant situations, make this work worthy of the popularity it enjoyed in almost every country of the world. It was followed by the no less famous Three Musketeers. These productions were the more remarkable as they were written from day to day for the readers of a newspaper, and thus firmly established the feuilleton as a necessary element of French literature. In this, as in other departments where he was successful, Dumas was not original, and only took up the idea of a successful predecessor, Eugene Sue, whose Juif Errant had enjoyed much popularity in this shape.

This triumph made him, as it were, irresponsible in the literary world, and suggested to him a series of wholesale operations for supplying the public with books, the history of which makes an extraordinary chapter in literature. He contracted for innumerable stories, each of great length, and to be published at the same time, almost any one of which would be beyond the powers of a single writer. In a single year, 1844. he issued some forty volumes, and later on he engaged himself even more deeply to meet these heavy demands. He began by employing one or two assistants, with whose aid he furnished his two great stories; and it may be said that, with his constant supervision and inspiration, his daily direction, suggestion of incidents, manipulation of the ideas of others, consulta-tions, &c, he might almost fairly claim the credit of having written Monte Christo and the Three Musketeers. His most valuable assistant was Maquet. Indeed, the chief credit of Dumas's most important stories has been claimed for him; but as he afterwards often tried his powers alone, and with but poor success, it seems probable that his share in Dumas's works was no more than what has been described. But presently the popular writer found that even this form of partnership was too great a tax upon his time, and he began to proceed upon the simpler process of ordering works from clever young writers, to whom he suggested a subject and perhaps a simple outline of treatment—and then issuing their work with his name. Some care in the selection was at first exercised, but later he accepted any stuff that was brought to him—travels, essays, stories—and endorsed them with his name. Indeed a volume could be filled with the odd details and complicated ramifications of this system, which was exposed in the most unsparing fashion by Granier de Cassagnac, Jacquet alias " De Mirecourt," and Querard. Dumas justified his system of appropriating from dead and living authors by a theory of what he called " conquests." " All human phenomena," he says, " are public property. The man of genius does not steal, he only conquers. Every one arrives in his turn and at his hour, seizes what his ancestors have left, and puts it into new shapes and com-binations."

In the meantime he was earning vast sums. Leaving the work of composition to his journeymen, he now entered on a new and reckless course, with a view of dazzling his countrymen and gratifying his own Eastern taste. In this view he built a vast theatre for the production of his own works, and a gorgeous castle at St Germain, on the model of a palace in a fairy tale, on which he lavished every adornment. While these follies were in progress, he suc-ceeded in getting himself attached to the suite of the young duke of Montpensier, then (1846) setting out for Madrid to be married, and received besides a sort of commission from the Government to visit Algeria, with a view to making it popular by a lively account from his pen. He was granted a passage to Oran on board one of the Government mail boats, but, through an awkward misconception, was allowed to divert this vessel from her regular service, and used her for visiting Carthage, Tunis, and other places. On his return there was much scandal, and the ministry was very severely interrogated as to the irregularity of allowing " a contractor for stories " to make so free with public property. It was explained that this was entirely owing to a misrepresentation of the popular writer's. Another rebuff, too, was waiting him ; for, having completely neglected his engagements to the various newspapers while making this agreeable tour, he found himself engaged in heavy law-suits with no less than seven journals, including the Constitu-tional and the Presse. After defending himself in person, a performance that was the entertainment of all Paris, he was cast in damages. This was the beginning of his dis-asters. His theatre, after opening with one of his pieces which took two nights to perform, fell on evil days, and the revolution of 1848 plunged it into difficulties. In these new scenes he was by no means popular, being suspected from his assiduous attendance on the Orleans family. By this time all his best works had been written ; and he was now only to attract attention by some extravagant literary somersault or impudent attempt at " humbugging " the public. He attempted newspapers like the Mousque taire, of which he would grow tired after a few numbers, but to every article in which he was ready to attach his name. His next escapade was joining Garibaldi (1860), whose messenger and lieutenant he constitutedhimself; and, in reward for some trifling service, he claimed the appoint-ment of " director of the museum and explorations" at Naples, an office he was presently forced to resign. After this he was reduced to all manner of devices to maintain himself, always borrowing and obtaining money by shifts and pretences which in another could not be called honest. It becomes, indeed, painful to follow the stages in this rapid decay,—to find him reduced to writing " puffs " for tradesmen, to exhibiting himself in shop windows, and to introducing grand schemes to the public which it is impossible to read without hearty laughter. A scandalous infatuation, too, was to be associated with his old age, which last excited the contempt pity of all who knew him. To the last he was full of schemes, devised with the fertility and roseate imagination of a Micawber ; and to the last, unfor-tunately, he was devoted to pleasure. The result was a break-ing up of his health, and even a decay of his faculties. When the war of 1870 broke out he was removed from Paris to Puys, near Dieppe, and there affectionately attended by his son and daughter. He died on the 5th of December in the same year. He was even poorer than when he began the world; and the brilliant novelist, who had earned more than £10,000 a year, had hardly a sou left. On the 16th April 1872, when the war was over, his remains were removed to Villers-Cotterets, and interred in presence of the leading litterateurs of Paris.

The works that bear Dumas's name are said to amount to some 1200 volumes. His dialogue is entirely his own, full of spirit and dramatic propriety—and this, too, in spite of the temptation, to a man paid by the line, to " spin out" his matter to the utmost extent. He left about sixty dramas, of which not more than three or four will be rememberedj but two, the Mariage sous Louis XV. and Mdlle. de Belle Isle, belong to the repertoire of the Comédie Française. These will always be listened to with delight. His most popular stories have been mentioned, but even now their undue expansion and interminable development, owing to the necessities of the feuilleton system, are found to be serious obstacles to their popularity.

He left a daughter, Madame Petel, who has written a few romances, and a son, the well-known " Alexandre Fils," who, unlike his father, has been distinguished by slow and careful work. He is best known by his romance La Dame aux Camélias, which has been translated in every language in which romances are written, and by a number of dramas which deal satirically with the characters, follies, and manners of society under the second empire. (p. F.)

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