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We know him best as author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, but Alexandre Dumas’ greatest creation was his own life. He had a saying: “Old age begins when daring dies”. Like Oscar Wilde, Dumas put his genius into his life and his talent into his work.
Dumas was a larger than life character. A six foot three (1.9m) part negro, he was an expert swordsman, superb calligrapher, fluent linguist, brilliant conversationalist, ardent Republican, collector of medals and Royal orders, organiser of his infamous ‘fiction factory’, outrageous plagiarist, spendthrift whose complex financial affairs might have inspired his contemporary Balzac, world traveller, gourmet cook, lover whose series of affairs scandalised all of Paris till he was well into his sixties, world famous playwright, yet more famous novelist, and possessed the dramatic instinct to a most perfect degree, both in his life and his works. Despite his defects and excesses he possessed the ability to inspire affection in all whom he met.
Dumas’ childhood is brilliantly evoked in his own Memoirs, as is the father he idolised and the many colourful characters he was raised amongst. Unfortunately this account, 40 vols in its French edition and just as much a history of France as of Dumas, is discreet about Dumas’ contemporaries, making the earlier portions by far the most vivid.
He was involved in most of the political events of his time. Dumas as a boy of thirteen saw Napoleon arrive, and leave, France during the Hundred Days; in the July Revolution of 1830, in a musketeer like flourish, he single-handedly took the garrison at Soissons Arsenal ; he bankrupted himself in support of the 1848 revolution; in a red shirt he marched into Naples at the head of Garibaldi’s volunteers in September 1860.
Dumas disseminated the ideas of the Romantic revolution to millions throughout the world. This was a man who assimilated the influences of Byron, Scott, Fenimore Cooper and Schiller, counted Victor Hugo, Berlioz, Liszt, Rossini and Delacroix as his friends, knew Gérard de Nerval, Frédérick Lemaître, Musset, Vigny and the Goncourts well and for three amazing years, 1844-47, was the ‘King of Paris’, with a worldwide reputation which made him one of the most popular authors who ever lived.
Michael Ross’ biography does a good job of sketching in most of this. It is a frustrating aspect of Ross’ book that much of Dumas’ relations with contemporaries is glossed over. Correspondingly more detail is given of his early life which occupies a large part of the text: Ross follows Dumas’ own Mes Memoires for much of this. He concentrates on seminal dates, and illustrates them with lively anecdotes. Dumas attending his first play in Paris and meeting the critic Nodier, who was subsequently thrown out of the theatre for booing his own play. The first night of Henri III in 1829, the popularity of which changed Dumas’ life. The year of 1844, which saw the publication of both Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Ross doesn’t attempt to deal in depth with Dumas’ approximately 600 novels, plays, autobiography, travel books, essays, tracts and cookbooks.
Andre Maurois’ The Titans covers the lives of three Alexandre Dumas: grandfather, one of Napoleon’s generals; father; and son, author of the novel and play Lady of the Camellias or Camille (inspiration for Verdi’s La Traviata) . One of the remarkable things about Maurois’ book is how fascinating the part about Alexandre the father is, and how dull the part about Alexandre the son. The former was a good, great and entertaining man, and his personality comes vividly through. The son was a frigid, unhappy man who covered a badly scarred soul with misogyny and pomposity. He lived a sad life despite his fame and prestige. It is clear that Dumas the father – with his prodigality, his egotism, his generosity, his impulsiveness, his energy, his disorder, passions, idealism, self-deceit, power, charm, wit and intelligence – did blight his son’s life, did create the frightened, arrogant, moral poseur that son became.
Endore’s The King of Paris takes a leaf from Dumas’ own book. It is written in the style of a Dumas romance, full of imagined anecdote and vivid conversations that should have taken place: it goes beyond relaying facts, and attempts to create the character Dumas, and does so successfully. Endore tells the story of the omelette competition with Delacroix, who won by making a painting from the ingredients, and another of Dumas standing guard, covered most completely by his collection of medals: the ones on the seat of his trousers he explained had been given him by monarchs since deposed. We learn that after squandering more than one fortune, Dumas died with exactly the same amount in his pocket with which he arrived in Paris as a poor young man, and boasted: “I’m just as rich as when I started out: how can anyone accuse me of extravagance!”
Dumas seems to jump right off the page, 120 years after his death, in all these books, so great was his vitality then. It is this vitality which gives to his books, and his greatest work, his life, their enduring interest.
This review is based on three books: Alexandre Dumas by Michael Ross (ISBN 0715377582), The Titans by Andre Maurois (ISBN 0837161517) and The King of Paris by Guy Endore. All are highly recommended for information on Dumas and his age and for entertainment value.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.