About the Author
One of the most famous French writers of the 19th century. Dumas is best known for the historical novels The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, both written within the space of two years, 1844-45, and which belong to the foundation works of popular culture. He was among the first, along with Honoré de Balzac and Eugène Sue, who fully used the possibilities of roman feuilleton, the serial novel. Dumas is credited with revitalizing the historical novel in France, although his abilities as a writer were under dispute from the beginning. Dumas' works are fast-paced adventure tales. They are not faithful to the historical facts, but blend skillfully history and fiction.
Alexandre Dumas was born in Villes-Cotterêts, France. His grandfather was a French nobleman, who had settled in Santo Domingo; his paternal grandmother, Marie-Cessette, was an Afro-Caribbean, who had been a black slave in the French colony. Dumas's father was a general in Napoleon's army, who had fallen out of favor. After his death in 1806 the family lived in poverty. Dumas worked as a notary's clerk in Villers-Cotterêtes and went in 1823 to Paris to find work. Due to his elegant handwriting he secured a position with the Duc d'Orléans - later King Louis Philippe. He also found his place in theater and as a publisher of some obscure magazines. An illegitimate son called Alexandre Dumas fils, whose mother, Marie-Catherine Labay, was a dressmaker, was born in 1824.
Dumas was an omnivorous reader. Especially he was interested in plays. His first produced drama was La Chasse et L'Amour, written with with Adolphe de Leuven and P.J. Rosseau. It opened on September 22, 1835 at Théâtre de l'Ambigu-Comique. As a playwright Dumas made his breakthrough with Henri III et sa Cour (1829), produced by the Comédie-Française. The romantic drama about power and love was set in the Renessaince court of Henry III and drew on Louis-Pierre Anquetil's Histoire de France and Pierre de L'Estoile's Memoires-journaux. It gained a huge success and Dumas went on to compose additional plays, of which La Tour de Nesle (1832, The Tower of Nesle) is considered the greatest masterpiece of French melodrama. It was written in collaboration with Frédéric Gaullardet. The action centered around the doomed Queen Marguerite de Bourgogne, who had ordered her illegitimate sons to be killed, but who appear into her life twenty years later. He wrote constantly, producing a steady stream of plays, novels, and short stories.
Before 1843 Dumas wrote fifteen plays. Historical novels brought Dumas enormous fortune, but he could spent money faster than he made it. He produced some 250 books with his 73 assistants, especially with the history teacher Auguste Maquet, whom he wisely allowed to work quite independently. Dumas earned roughly 200,000 francs yearly and received an annual sum of 63,000 francs for 220,000 lines from the newspapers La Presse and the Constitutionel. Maquet often proposed subjects and wrote first drafts for some of Dumas' most famous serial novels, including Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844, The Three Musketeers) and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-45, The Count of Monte-Cristo). Dumas himself claimed that he only began writing his books when they were already completed in his head.
As a master dialogist, Dumas developed character traits, and kept the action moving, and composed the all-important chapter endings - teaser scenes that maintained suspense and readers interest to read more. The adventures of the three musketeers has inspired many film versions, although the story itself was problematic for American film directors for some decades due to Hollywood's Production Code: d'Artagnan is in love with a married woman, Constance, and has a relationship with Milady de Winter, who actually is Athos' wife, and he feels attraction to Milady's maid, Kitty, whose passionate glances he doesn't first notice. "Then only D'Artagnan remembered the languishing glances of Kitty, her constantly meeting him in the antechamber, the corridor, or on the stairs, those touches of the hand every time she met him, and her deep sighs; but absorbed by his desire to please the great lady, he had disdained the soubrette. He whose game is the eagle takes no heed of the sparrow."
The story of the King's Musketeers was continued in Twenty Years After, The Vicomte Bragelonne, Louise de la Valliérre, and The Man in the Iron Mask. The last story has also inspired several film adaptations of the unwanted twin brother of the king, Philippe, imprisoned in Bastille. His face is covered with an iron mask to hide his true identity. Philippe was "clothed in black and masked by a visor of polished and steel soldered to a helmet of the same nature, which altogether enveloped his whole head. The fire of the heavens cast red reflections upon the polished surface, and these reflections, flying off capriciously, seemed to be angry looks launched by this unfortunate..." Dumas' heroes die romantically in different battles - Porthos is killed by king's men, d'Artagnan is killed in Holland by a stray bullet. At the end of the story, only Aramis is still alive.
Dumas' role in the development of the historical novel owes much to a coincidence. The lifting of press censorship in the 1830s gave rise to a rapid spread of newspapers. Editors began to lure readers by entertaining serial novels. Everybody read them, the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie, young and old, men and women. Dumas' first true serial novel was Le Capitaine Paul (1838, Captain Paul), a quick rewrite of a play. It was addressed to a female readership and added 5,000 subscribers to the list of Le Siècle when it was serialized. Along with Balzac and other writers, he also contributed to Emile de Girardin's weekly, La Mode, which became the voice of an aristocratic and wordly tout-Paris.
Dumas lived as adventurously as the heroes of his books, and his way of life created a number of anecdotes. When he was asked to contribute 25 francs to bury a bailiff he gave 50 francs and said: "There you are - bury two of them." He took part in the revolution of July 1830 and became a captain in the National Guard, caught cholera during the epidemic of 1832, and traveled in Italy to recuperate. He married his mistress Ida Ferrier, an actress, in 1840, but he soon separated after having spent her entire dowry. With the money earned from his writings, he built a fantastic château de Monte-Cristo on the outskirts of Paris. In 1850 appeared The Black Tulip, a romantic adventure set in the 17th century Holland. In the middle of the political struggle for freedom is Cornelius van Baerle, a young man who has devoted himself to tulip-growing. Cornelius is falsely imprisoned for high treason. With the help of Rosa, the daughter of a jailer, he manages to grow a black tulip. Cornelius wins his freedom and hundred thousand guilders in glittering gold pieces as reward for the tulip. "This tulip," continued the Prince, "will therefore bear the name of its producer, and figure in the catalogue under the title, Tulipa nigra Rosa Barlaensis, because of the name Van Baerle, which will henceforth be the name of this damsel."
In 1851 Dumas escaped his creditors to Brussels. He spent two years there in exile and then returned to Paris and founded a daily paper called Le Mousquetaire. In 1858 he traveled to Russia and in1860 he went to Italy, where he supported Garibaldi and Italy's struggle for independence (1860-64). He then remained in Naples as a keeper of the museums for four years. After his return to France his debts continued to mount. Called as "the king of Paris", Dumas earned fortunes and spent them right away on friends, art, and mistresses. He was professed to have had dozens of illegitimate children, but he acknowledged only three. According to a story, when Dumas once found his wife in bed with his good friend Roger de Beauvoir, he said: "It's cold night. Move over and make room for me." Dumas died of a stroke on December 5, 1870, at Puys, near Dieppe. It is claimed that his last words were: "I shall never know how it all comes out now," in which he referred to his unfinished book. Dumas' son Alexandre Dumas fils, became a writer, dramatist, and moralist, who never accepted his father's lifestyle.
Dumas did not generally define himself as a black man, and there is not much evidence that he encountered overt racism during his life. However, his works were popular among the 19th-century African-Americans, partly because in The Count of Monte-Cristo, the falsely imprisoned Edmond Dantès, may be read as a parable of emancipation. In a shorter work, Georges (1843, George), Dumas examined the question of race and colonialism. The main character, a half-French mulatto, leaves Mauritius to be educated in France, and returns to avenge himself for the affronts he had suffered as a boy.
Dumas' central works created a romantic fictional history of France, but they also had supernatural elements and characters, that preceded the superheroes of the 20th-century. These stories include
Le Château d'Eppstein(1844), a ghost story, Les Frères Corse (1844), where Siamese twins, separated at birth, maintain a psychic knowledge of each other's dire fates, Isaac Laquedem (1853), a Wandering-Jew tale, and Le Meneur de Loups (1857), where a young man agrees a pact with the Devil. His play, Le Vampire (1851), was a Byronic vampire tale. Dumas' story The Man in the Iron Mask was based on the legend of Louis XIV's twin brother. The legend also had inspired Voltaire and Victor Hugo's play Les Jumeaux (1839).
Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.