Macédoine de Dumas

Douglas Johnson

  • The King of Romance: A Portrait of Alexandre Dumas by F.W.J. Hemmings
    Hamish Hamilton, 231 pp, £8.95

Angela Thirkell once said that she had read as much of Dumas as anyone alive, but this was only about half of what he had written. It is said that Dumas himself lost count of the work he had written, which probably consisted of some one hundred and thirty novels (ranging from two to 11 volumes each), some sixty plays, twenty or thirty books of travel, memoirs and numberless newspaper articles – probably running to more than 300 titles. As Charles Hugo put it, ‘everyone has read Dumas, but nobody has read everything of Dumas’s, not even Dumas himself.’ It is well-authenticated that some works which appear under the name of Dumas were not written by him at all, and certain of his rivals even attempted to have him prosecuted for deceiving the public. But the fact remains that Dumas was a phenomenon, and one that requires an explanation.

We have grown accustomed to the idea that important literature is not necessarily great literature. Popular literature is that which has a mass sale, and in 19th-century France it is associated with such phenomena as the Bibliothèque bleue, a form of peddled literature which was so called because it was bound in the same blue paper which protected sugar loaves. But between those writers who wrote for the happy few, and the mass of anonymous hacks who pandered to the ready market of the credulous and the curious, there were writers such as Dumas who ought to demand our attention and concern. Why was it that he was so famous that wherever he went he was the centre of interest and attraction, far more than a Flaubert or a Baudelaire? Why is it that the story of the Count of Monte-Cristo or the Three Musketeers still finds an echo in the minds and emotions of those who would otherwise be immune to romanticism? Why does he remain one of the most successful authors in young people’s editions (such as the Bibliothèque verte)?

Professor Hemmings does not altogether answer these questions, because he has written a book which revels in Dumas the man: his energy, his wit, his success with women, his carelessness over money, his restlessness and desire continually to be on the move. It is therefore a book which is filled with incident and anecdote. We are told of Dumas’s many loves, and of how he held onto the affections of actresses by promising to write plays in which they would be given particularly attractive parts. Sometimes a lot is made out of very little, as with the story of the liaison with Lola Montès, but it is pleasant to learn about the lady who announced her readiness to spend the night with Dumas on condition that he would first present her with a mongoose and an ant-eater (the former was not difficult, but where, asks Professor Hemmings, was Dumas to get hold of an ant-eater, short of burgling the Paris zoo?). There is the episode with Garibaldi and the Redshirts in 1800, when, after supplying Garibaldi with both arms and money, Dumas was reduced to silence and tears by the Italian leader addressing him as tu. And there are many examples of Dumas’s gift of repartee, which was much involved with his egoism. When asked if he had enjoyed having dinner with a minister, Dumas replied that he would have been bored to death had he not been there himself.

This is all very well. But why should the story of Monte-Cristo have had the success that it did? Professor Hemmings, who regards this as Dumas’s masterpiece, explains that, whilst some of the elements of this novel had been treated in an earlier work called Georges, the main outline came from a compilation of causes célèbres. In 1807, a poor shoemaker who was on the point of marrying an orphan girl, heiress to a small fortune, was denounced by jealous friends as a Royalist agent. He was imprisoned until 1814. In prison he learned of the whereabouts of a hidden treasure, and when he was released he found the treasure and devoted the rest of his life to finding and killing those who had been responsible for his arrest. Dumas changed some of the details of this story, but he also changed one of the essentials. Whereas the shoemaker was, after 1814, an ordinary assassin, who was eventually arrested and executed for his crimes, Edmond Dantès, when he becomes the Count of Monte-Cristo, does not carry out his revenge in the same manner. He is the instrument of Divine Providence, and those who were at the origins of his unjust imprisonment work out their doom, not because of the injury that they did, in far-off days, to Dantès, but because of the crimes and the sins they have committed since. Monte-Cristo reveals their shame and their crimes and encourages their enemies, and, as is pointed out here, he is a particularly interesting character because it is not certain whether he enjoys his revenge or not, whether or not his triumph is tinged with remorse because he has taken the kind of action which is the preserve of the gods.

Professor Hemmings finds it surprising that Dumas should have written a novel about revenge, since it was not, as he says, written by some aggrieved victim of society, for ever brooding over his wrongs, but by someone who was always blithely forgiving, who never bore a grudge, and who never admitted to having enemies. This is to overlook the obvious dramatic features of a revenge story, which Dumas’s skill as a successful writer of politico-historical plays was well able to adapt to the novel. Nor does he consider other aspects of Monte-Cristo, who is a man who neither looks nor behaves like any other man, who is a solitary, mystical figure, and who is the sort of person that Edmond Dantès dreamed of becoming in his youth. One should not read too much into Edmond Dantès’s relations with his father, but it could well be that this aspect of the novel might partly explain its success, especially with young boys. There is more to Dumas than Professor Hemmings allows.

But there is also the danger that one may read too much into Dumas. Thus we are told of his visit to England in 1857, a stay which was carefully arranged so as not to coincide with an English Sunday (an earlier visit had impressed on him that this was something to be avoided). He visited Madame Tussaud’s and the Crystal Palace, and when he went to Daniel’s porcelain emporium the manager apparently recognised him and insisted that he should pay only cost price of the pieces that he bought, since it was such an honour to have Dumas as his customer. There were the upper-class ladies, riding in Rotten Row, and Dumas reflected about England and about the English. Just as in Elba the visitor was warned that everything was one-third the size of what it was anywhere else, so in London one needed to be told that everything was a third larger, including hams, joints of beef and steaks.

And there was the visit to Epsom for Derby Day, a visit all the more remarkable for some because it was in the following year that Frith exhibited his famous painting, and the wistful can reflect on whether Dumas was amongst the crowd. But there is a difficulty. It has been pointed out that the description of the Derby as written up by Dumas is suspiciously like the account that appeared in the Times. Could it be that Dumas lifted his piece from the Times? Could it be that Dumas was never in England at that time, never saw the race, was not recognised as the famous writer in the porcelain shop, and so on? His accounts of the fantastic meals that were served to him in London, which Professor Hemmings does not refer to, would confirm the element of the fanciful (although Dumas had a sharp eye for recipes and can claim to have been the first writer to have publicised shish kebab in France).

If you were Dumas, you did not have to go to London in order to recount your visit. With Dumas we are in the presence of the phenomenon of the imagination, the ability to use odd pieces of knowledge, to exploit newspaper stories, to embroider on reality, to use history recklessly so as to give some impression of verisimilitude to the most dramatic of adventure stories, to keep up the excitement. Perhaps Professor Hemmings is too academic to appreciate this. There are times when he speaks severely of Dumas’s work failing into obsolescence, as if he were talking about an out-dated machine (but then, of course, Dumas was a machine). He speaks reprovingly of his ‘plebeian girlfriends’, and when he tells how Dumas’s younger daughter heard accidentally of her father’s death he says that she burst into tears, and finds it necessary to add: ‘to the astonishment and alarm of the other residents in the boarding-house’.

But when Professor Hemmings imagines the dying days of the old writer, then all is well. ‘Did his fading memory present him pictures of the distant lands he had visited, the Russian Steppes, the Tunisian deserts, showing him images of the Alhambra, the castles of the Rhine, the Jungfrau glittering under its eternal snows, and the shimmering Mediterranean he loved so dearly, with its islands scattered over its blue expanse, Stromboli, Pantelleria, Pianosa, Monte-Cristo …’ This is right for Dumas. Dumas has triumphed over the don.