Alexandre Dumas was a force of nature. The 650 or so books he published might not seem an extraordinary tally for such as Barbara Cartland, who could dictate six thousand words between lunch and tea, or Georges Simenon, who rarely spent more than a fortnight on a novel. But Dumas was not merely a novelist: he also wrote plays, travel books, memoirs, histories, accounts of great crimes plus a mass of ‘occasional’ writings which include his vast Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine.
Even as a novelist the scale of his achievement seems scarcely human. The Three Musketeers (1844), the first episode of a saga totalling a million and a quarter words, is as long as five Simenons, yet fills just two of the 310 volumes of the Calmann-Lévy edition of his complete works. These run to some 37 million words, or an average of 16,000 words written weekly over four decades and 15 titles a year. Among them are novels both long and short which contain, it has been estimated, four thousand main characters, nine thousand secondary roles, and 25,000 walk-on parts. Nor is there any way of calculating his sales during his lifetime. In 1893, however, his son reported that in the two decades since his death, six hundred of his books had been re-serialised in newspapers, nearly three million volumes had been sold, and eighty million instalments had been issued as weekly parts.
Dumas said he was born without even bootstraps to pull himself up with, but he chose his parents well. His mother was an innkeeper’s daughter who gave him unstinting love and his father was a stupendous role model. Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie was born in Santo Domingo in 1760, the illegitimate son of a French-born Marquis and Marie-Cessette Dumas, a plantation slave. Disowned by his father, he returned to France in 1786 and, taking his mother’s name, became a soldier. During the Revolution, he rose through the ranks and was a general at 33. He was a man of commanding presence, great courage and colossal physical strength: it was said that ‘the Black Devil’ could hold four rifles at the end of his outstretched arm, one finger in each barrel. In Egypt in 1799 he quarrelled with Napoleon, accusing him of putting personal ambition before Revolutionary principles; he was sent home. On the way, his ship was detained in Southern Italy by Ferdinand, King of the Two Sicilies, then at war with France. For two years he was left to rot in Brindisi castle. In a neighbouring cell, the geologist Dolomieu, another prisoner of war, applied himself, using soot, a stick and the margins of Bibles, to the composition of The Philosophy of Mineralogy. It was a bit like Edmond Dantès and the abbé Faria in the Chateau d’If, except that the General, his health and career broken, returned to France in 1801 and died of stomach cancer in 1806. Alexandre was four.
From his father, he inherited healthy appetites and the dark skin and tight curls which would later prove a boon to caricaturists. He grew up at Villers-Cotterêts, fifty miles north-east of Paris, where he was happy and largely impervious to education. At 15 he was set to work in a lawyer’s office but dreamed of literary glory. In 1823 he moved to Paris, where he read insatiably, and wrote unperformable plays, overheated poems and a collection of stories which, when it was published in 1826 at his own expense, sold four copies. His father’s old colleagues, not wishing to resurrect their Napoleonic youth, were reluctant to help. Instead, Dumas acquired a well-connected mistress who eased his entry into fashionable social and literary circles. Soon, he was one of the Jeunes France intent on breathing passion and life into the bloodless literary tradition and it was he who, in 1829, with a violent, sensational play set in the 1570s, scored the first success of the new Romantic drama.
The literary revolution for which he had struck the first blow was confirmed by Hugo’s Hernani in 1830, the year of France’s second revolution. During the July Days, Dumas manned barricades and dodged bullets. Single-handedly, he overpowered the bemused and unresisting garrison of a gunpowder store at Soissons and then, in a splendid uniform of his own design, he toured the royalist Vendée to drum up support for Lafayette’s National Guard. Undaunted, he returned to the fleshpots, to new mistresses and his writing table.
He was the darling of the Boulevard theatres. Antony, a triumph in 1831, gives an idea of his manner. Antony loves Adèle. In the last act, she explains that she can never be his for she is married and virtuous. There comes a thunderous knock at the door. Ciel! Her husband! Knowing there is no other way of saving the reputation of the woman he adores, Antony stabs her and, as the door bursts open, declaims: ‘She was resisting me! I killed her!’ – a curtain line judged by all to be sublime. At one performance, an inexperienced stage hand lowered the curtain before the famous words could be uttered and Bocage, the celebrated actor playing the lead, went home in disgust. But the audience, cheated of what they had come to hear, refused to leave and threatened to riot. Order was not restored until Marie Dorval, still lying on the stage, got up, faced the audience and said: ‘I was resisting him. He killed me. Voilà .’
Dumas supplied tremendous dramas to order, but he also rewrote plays by other hands – Gaillardet’s La Tour de Nesle (1832), for example, the century’s most performed melodrama. The same year he escaped the cholera outbreak, so he claimed, by drinking a glass of ether, and in 1833 avoided the consequences of his political objections to the new regime by travelling to Switzerland. When the going got tough, Dumas always left town. The result was the first of many travel books (Italy, the Rhine and North Africa would follow). He returned to the theatre with Kean (1836), but Romantic drama had peaked and the public was finding new gods to worship.
In 1836, two Paris dailies halved their cover price by accepting advertisements. Newspaper proprietors then discovered that running novels in instalments boosted circulation and that the words ‘To be continued’ were an infallible recipe for brand loyalty. The roman feuilleton offered huge rewards to novelists who could supply high-octane fiction to order. Sainte-Beuve dismissed it as ‘industrial literature’ and Balzac, who took too long to warm up in his stories, greatly envied the success of the more expeditious Frédéric Soulié, Eugène Sue and Dumas, the King of Romance, who all acquired star status.
It was thus Dumas’s good fortune to coincide with the rise of the popular press and the printing revolution which lowered the price of books. But he also had the knack and the relish for it, not to mention the stamina which kept him at his desk for 14 hours at a stretch. He was careless with money, keeping cash in a tobacco-jar from which friends helped themselves, and when out of funds he didn’t scruple to borrow his cab fare from whomever was on hand. He squandered the advances he received and sentenced himself cheerfully to a game of catch-up, writing to honour contracts and signing new ones in order to stay solvent.
He spent far too much to be rich. In 1847, he realised his dream of owning his own theatre, the Théâtre Historique, where he staged Shakespeare, Goethe and Schiller but also adaptations of his own novels: La Jeunesse des mousquetaires, for example, or La Reine Margot, which lasted nine hours. The same year, he spent vast sums on a grandiose residence at Marly, near Versailles, which he called the Château de Monte-Cristo. Within three years, his theatre had failed and he was forced to sell his house at a loss to an American dentist. Dumas rolled up his sleeves, sharpened a new quill (he hated steel nibs), and signed yet more new contracts.
He had loathed the bourgeois reign of Louis-Philippe and, after the Revolution of 1848 had brought it to an end, stood as a liberal candidate in three elections held that year. Each time he polled only a few hundred votes, partly because his republicanism, though sincere, was naive, and perhaps because of his way with hecklers, who might find themselves tipped into the nearest river. He was offended by the naked ambition of Louis-Napoleon, much as the first Napoleon had offended his father in 1799; and in 1851, after the coup d’état which made Louis-Napoleon emperor, he fled to Belgium. But while Hugo retreated to lofty political and poetic exile in the Channel Islands, Dumas, friend of kings and loved by all, went on courting publicity.
His pen was an extension of his exuberant personality. He wrote his immensely entertaining Mémoires (1852), founded newspapers (when Le Mousquetaire, for which he wrote most of the copy, folded, he started Le Monte-Cristo) and, returning to Paris, thrilled a new generation of readers with novels like Les Mohicans de Paris (1854-57). He also wrote engaging, informative books about countries he had never visited. Just as Georges (1843) had evoked Mauritius, so Un Gil Blas en Californie (1851) was a vivid description of life in gold-mad San Francisco culled from newspaper articles and conversations with a man who had been there.
He travelled, in his customary style, to Russia, where ‘the great Dumas’, now the most famous living Frenchman, was given a hero’s welcome. He added to his collection of medals and honours, and designed a ‘Russian’ costume which featured bear fur and a belt of bullets. On his return in 1859, he decided to sail round the Near East and bring back a Mediterranean saga which would describe the world of Napoleon, Augustus, Constantine, Christ, Sesostris, Hannibal and El Cid. But in Turin he met Garibaldi, who had not forgotten the support Dumas had given in 1848 to the liberators of Montevideo. He invited Dumas to translate and rewrite his memoirs as a way of publicising a new cause: the unification of Italy. When he heard in May 1860 that Garibaldi had sailed for Sicily, Dumas changed his plans and followed in his schooner, the Emma.
But not with all convenient speed. He missed the taking of Palermo, having dallied at Marseille to throw a party and stopped for a day in Sardinia to hunt wild boar. When he arrived, the battle was won, though the struggle to unite Italy continued. Dumas sailed back to Marseille, bought guns for the cause and returned, anchoring the Emma in the bay of Naples while the battle raged in the city. He wore a white costume, bombarded the city with revolutionary proclamations from his own printing press, distributed guns, and set his on-board tailors to sew red shirts for Garibaldi’s Thousand. When Naples fell, he made no effort to conceal his delight at the collapse of the regime which had wrecked his father’s life. He broke out the champagne and organised a victory display of fireworks which he had brought for the purpose. He was declared a hero and given a palace in which to live for a year. He promptly founded an Italian-language newspaper, L’Indipendente, most of the contents of which he wrote himself.
Une Odyssée en 1860, meticulously edited by Claude Schopp, is a fuller version of On Board the ‘Emma’, a text translated by Richard Garnett in 1929. It is vintage Dumas, overflowing with the glorious immodesty of a man who spent his energies with the same relish as he parted with money. Like his fiction, it is populated by roundheads who plot and oppress, and cavaliers who serve honour and justice. Mean spirits wage eternal war on freedom and tolerance, not in ideological terms but through events and emotions which either unite or divide his characters: jealousy, hate, ambition on the one hand; loyalty, comradeship and love on the other.
But while the ultimate victory of the cavaliers is not in doubt, it comes at a price. There are casualties: just as Antony lost Adèle, so D’Artagnan is separated from Constance, Monte-Cristo from Mercedes, and Margot from La Mole. Dumas is less than optimistic about the notion that love conquers all, and he makes us aware that the true enemy of human happiness is not Milady or Cromwell but the persistence of evil. Not even the Musketeers can prevent the execution of Charles I. But Charles on the scaffold has murmured ‘Remember’ and the Musketeers do not forget. They return ten years later, bring down Cromwell and restore Charles II to his throne. Like them, Dumas did not believe in fate. He accepted that villainy is ineradicable, that some battles won’t be won. But villains are mortal and their sordid designs can be spiked. Dantès, that modern hero, visits retribution on his false friends without using their methods. He doesn’t betray or murder them: he merely pushes them down the slope of their own ambition. When Dumas visited the past, he applied the same principle. Vigny had said that history is ‘a novel written by the people’. Dumas’s historical novels were written for the people. He taught the French to mistrust the privileged fleur-de-lis, the self-serving Phrygian cap of the French Revolution and the Second Empire’s imperial bee, and to prefer instead the awkward, unkillable cockerel. What he described in fact was not Frenchness at all, but a simple generosity of spirit. His heroes have travelled the world carrying the message that cavaliers have more fun than roundheads, and no novelist has ever done so much for friendship.
Yet there have been plenty of carping roundheads who wince at his blunders (he thought he might send Milady to Botany Bay a century and a half before Cook landed there) or who simply don’t believe he could have written, or even dictated, all the books he published. To take one example: between March 1844 and August 1845, he wrote and published The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte-Cristo, Twenty Years After and La Reine Margot. In February 1845 he successfully sued a journalist who accused him of running a ‘fiction factory’ staffed by hacks who churned out books which he merely signed. He admitted using secretaries and collaborators, who nowadays would be researchers, story consultants or script editors. But he always acknowledged them and counted his most efficient lieutenant, Auguste Maquet, as a friend. Certainly, to help a struggling author, he sometimes added his own name to the title page (his name sold anything). It is also likely that on rare occasions, when up against a deadline, he sent a Maquet chapter to the printer unread, but unrevised Maquet is unmistakable – flat and limp and proof that Dumas did indeed write all those books. The ‘Dumas touch’ – pace, humour, atmosphere – is unmistakeable.
Dumas was a master of what Schopp calls the ‘aesthetics of speed’. A Dumas novel may look intimidatingly long, but it isn’t, for he is read as he wrote: fast. He begins with a date and a place (La Reine Margot starts: ‘On Monday 18 August 1572, there was a splendid fête at the Louvre’) and then guides us through the crowd, like a genial host at a party. On that side, black hearts; in the middle, waverers; and on ours (with Dumas we know which side we’re on) Monte Cristo or D’Artagnan – the young, four-square, innocent victims of plotters who grind personal or political axes. When attacked, they defend themselves with wit and blade as they dash from adventure to setback, from treachery to fightback, until they reach a crisis which is resolved by a deus ex machina and a textbook Aristotelian peripeteia. The colours are primary – black, white and gore – and the writing manly and plain, a tool for showing, not an instrument for describing.
Dumas’s style is best defined not in terms of language at all but as sheer narrative nerve. It is not the ability to catch the eye with a fine phrase but to make the heart miss a beat through the visual quality of the storytelling. If Dantès’s meeting with the abbé Faria stays in the mind’s eye, how can we resist the Dumas who took a paragraph of the Memoirs of La Rochefoucauld and whipped it up into the 14 breathless chapters which tell how D’Artagnan foils Milady and rescues the Queen’s diamond studs? Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert were greater artists and are admired, even revered. But Dumas’s art and his personality are inseparable, and he is loved.
After returning from Italy, he continued to spend words, money and energy freely. In February 1866, the Goncourt brothers, not the most charitable of observers, recorded a visit from Dumas, dressed in
a white tie and a waistcoat, also white, hugely fat, perspiring, puffing and blowing, and in roistering good spirits. He is just back from Austria, Hungary, Bohemia . . . He talks of Budapest where he had a play put on in Hungarian, of Vienna where the Emperor loaned him a room in his palace to give a lecture. He talks of his novels, his contribution to the drama, of plays which the Comédie Française refuses to stage, of a novel which has been banned, a performing licence for a play which he cannot obtain, and then of a restaurant he is thinking of opening on the Champs-Elysées. A personality as large as the man, but overflowing with unselfconscious good humour and twinkling with wit.
In reality, he was now beginning to lose the knack, and La Terreur prussienne (1867), which warned France of the imminent Prussian threat, was his last bow. He continued to write but had outlived his imagination. After a stroke, he lingered for a time before dying in 1870 at Puys, near Dieppe, in the home of his son, author of La Dame aux camélias. He was buried in the local cemetery but, after resistance from the mayor of Villers-Cotterêts, the coffin was transferred to his birthplace in 1872. In his bicentenary year, he was moved again, to the Panthéon, resting-place of Voltaire, Rousseau, Zola and Hugo.
Villers-Cotterêts protested, saying Dumas had expressed a wish to be buried with his ancestors. The move was interpreted as a snub to civic pride and a blow to its tourist trade; threats were made to kidnap his remains. But the Government declared Dumas a national treasure, deserving of the Republic’s gratitude, and promised compensation in the form of cash for new cultural facilities in Villers-Cotterêts. The literary cavaliers spoke up for him but the roundheads found him unworthy of the honour, complaining of his slack style, overproduction and populist tendencies. Jack Lang, the former minister of culture, hesitated, but thought, given Dumas’s ancestry, that the proposal would improve race relations and give a suitable signal to the whole Francophone commonwealth. Dumas, having in his lifetime been refused honours and a seat in the French Academy, would have been amused to think that his bones had become holy relics. His true monument, however, is his literary longevity.