Alexandre Dumas biography
Alexandre Dumas, also known as Alexandre Dumas père, was a French author and playwright, best known for his historical adventure fiction. As one of France’s most widely read authors, his works have been translated into dozens of languages. In this Dumas bio, you will a man whom acquaintance, English playwright Watts Phillips, described as generous, large-hearted, and amusing. He also remarked that Dumas’ “tongue was like a windmill – once set in motion, you never knew when he would stop, especially if the theme was himself.”
Dumas’ Early Life
DUMAS, ALEXANDRE [Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie] (1802 – 1870), French novelist and dramatist, was born at Villers-Cotterets (Aisne) on the 24th of July 1802. His father, the French general, Thomas Alexandre Dumas (1762 – 1806) — also known as Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie — was born in Saint Domingo, the natural son of Antoine Alexandre Davy, marquis de la Pailleterie, by an enslaved Afro -Caribbean woman, Marie Cessette Dumas, who died in 1772. As an adult, Thomas-Alexandre used his mother’s name, Dumas, as his surname after a break with his father.
Brought as a boy to France by his father and legally freed there, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy was educated in a military school and joined the army as a young man. He was still a private at the outbreak of the revolution, but he rose rapidly and became general of division in 1793, at age 31, the first soldier of Afro-Antilles origin to reach that rank in the army of France.
Thomas Alexandre Dumas was general-in-chief of the army of the western Pyrenees, and was transferred later to commands in the Alps and in La Vendée. Among his many exploits was the defeat of the Austrians at the bridge of Clausen on the 22nd of April 1797, where he commanded Joubert’s cavalry. He lost Napoleon’s favour by plain speaking in the Egyptian campaign, and presently returned to France to spend the rest of his days in retirement at Villers Cotterets, where he had married in 1792 Marie Élisabeth Labouret.
The novelist, who was the offspring of this union, was not four years old when General Dumas died, leaving his family with no further resource than 30 acres of land. Mme Dumas tried to obtain help from Napoleon, but in vain, and lived with her parents in narrow circumstances. Alexandre received the rudiments of education from a priest, and entered the office of a local solicitor. His chief friend was Adolphe de Leuven, the son of an exiled Swedish nobleman implicated in the assassination of Gustavus III. of Sweden, and the two collaborated in various vaudevilles and other pieces which never saw the footlights. Leuven returned to Paris, and Dumas was sent to the office of a solicitor at Crépy.
When in 1823 Dumas contrived to visit his friend in Paris, he was received to his great delight by Talma. He returned home only to break with his employer, and to arrange to seek his fortune in Paris, where he sought help without success from his father’s old friends. An introduction to the deputy of his department, General Foy, procured for him, however, a place as clerk in the service of the duke of Orleans at a salary of 1200 francs. He set to work to rectify his lack of education and to collaborate with Leuven in the production of vaudevilles and melodramas. Madame Dumas presently joined her son in Paris, where she died in 1838.
Soon after his arrival in Paris Dumas had entered on a liaison with a dressmaker, Marie Catherine Labay, and their son, Alexandre Dumas fils (see below), was born in 1824. Dumas acknowledged his son in 1831, and obtained the custody of him after a lawsuit with the mother.
Dumas as Playwright
The first piece by Dumas and Leuven to see the footlights was La Chasse et l’amour (Ambigu-Comique, 22nd of Sept. 1825), and in this they had help from other writers. Dumas had a share in another vaudeville, La Noce et l’enterrement (Porte Saint-Martin, 21st of Nov. 1826). It was under the influence of the Shakespeare plays produced in Paris by Charles Kemble, Harriet Smithson (afterwards Mme Berlioz) and an English company that the romantic drama of Christine was written. The subject was suggested by a bas relief of the murder of Monaldeschi exhibited at the Salon of 1827. The piece was accepted by Baron Taylor and the members of the Comédie Française with the stipulation that it should be subject to revision by another dramatist because of its innovating tendencies. But the production of the piece was deferred.
Meanwhile Dumas had met with the story of the ill-fated Saint-Mégrin and the duchess of Guise in Anquetil’s history, and had written, in prose, Henri III. et sa cour, which was immediately accepted by the Comédie Française and produced on the 11th of February 1829. It was the first great triumph of the romantic drama. The brilliant stagecraft of the piece and its admirable historical setting delighted an audience accustomed to the decadent classical tragedy, and brought him the friendship of Hugo and Vigny. His literary efforts had met with marked disapproval from his official superiors, and he had been compelled to resign his clerkship before the production of Henri III. The duke of Orleans had, however, been present at the performance, and appointed him assistant-librarian at the Palais Royal. Christine was now recast as a romantic trilogy in verse in five acts with a prologue and epilogue, with the sub-title of Stockholm, Fontainebleau, Rome, and was successfully produced by Harel at the Odéon in March 1830.
The revolution of 1830 temporarily diverted Dumas from letters. The account of his exploits should be read in his Mémoires, where, though the incidents are true in the main, they lose nothing in the telling. During the fighting in Paris he attracted the attention of La Fayette, who sent him to Soissons to secure powder. With the help of some inhabitants he compelled the governor to hand over the magazine, and on his return to Paris was sent by La Fayette on a mission to raise a national guard in La Vendée. The advice he gave to Louis Philippe on this subject was ill-received, and after giving offence by further indiscretions he finally alienated himself from the Orleans government by being implicated in the disturbances which attended the funeral of General Lamarque in June 1832, and he received a hint that his absence from France was desirable. A tour in Switzerland undertaken on this account furnished material for the first of a long series of amusing books of travel. Dumas remained, however, on friendly and even affectionate terms with the young duke of Orleans until his death in 1842.
Meanwhile he had produced Napoléon Bonaparte (Odéon, 10th of Jan 1831), his unwillingness to make a hero of the man who had slighted his father having been overcome by Harel, who put him under lock and key until the piece was finished. His next play, Antony, had a real importance in the history of the romantic theatre. It was put in rehearsal by Mlle Mars, but so unsatisfactorily that Dumas transferred it to Bocage and Mme Dorval, who played it magnificently at the Porte Saint-Martin theatre on the 3rd of May 1831. The Byronic hero Antony was a portrait of himself in his relations with Mme Mélanie Waldor, the wife of an officer, and daughter of the journalist M.G.T. de Villenave, except of course in the extravagantly melodramatic dénouement, when Antony, to save his mistress’s honour, kills her and exclaims, “Elle me résistait, je l’ai assassinée.”
He produced more than twenty more plays alone or in collaboration before 1845, exclusive of dramatizations from his novels. Richard Darlington (Porte Saint Martin, 10th of Dec 1831), the first idea of which was drawn from Sir Walter Scott’s Chronicles of the Canongate, owed part of its great success to the admirable acting of Frédérick Lemaître. La Tour de Nesle (Porte Saint-Martin, 29th of May 1832), announced as by MM. × × × and Gaillardet, was the occasion of a duel and a law-suit with the original author, Frédéric Gaillardet, whose MS. had been revised, first by Jules Janin and then by Dumas. In rapidity of movement, and in the terror it inspired, the piece surpassed Henri III. and Antony. A lighter drama, Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle (Théâtre Français, 2nd of April 1839), still remains in the repertory.
In 1840 Dumas married Ida Ferrier, an actress whom he had imposed on the theatres that took his pieces. The amiable relations which had subsisted between them for eight years were disturbed by the marriage, which is said to have been undertaken in consequence of a strong hint from the duke of Orleans, and Mme Dumas lived in Italy separated from her husband.
Short Stories and Novels
As a novelist Dumas began by writing short stories, but his happy collaboration with Auguste Maquet,2 which began in 1839, led to the admirable series of historical novels in which he proposed to reconstruct the whole course of French history. In 1844 he produced, with Maquet’s help, that most famous of “cloak and sword” romances, Les Trois Mousquetaires (8 vols.), the material for which was discovered in the Mémoires de M. d’Artagnan (Cologne, 1701-1702) of Courtils de Sandras.
The adventures of d’Artagnan and the three musketeers, the gigantic Porthos, the clever Aramis, and the melancholy Athos, who unite to defend the honour of Anne of Austria against Richelieu and the machinations of “Milady,” are brought down to the murder of Buckingham in 1629. Their admirers were gratified by two sequels, Vingt ans après (10 vols., 1845) and Dix ans plus tard, ou le vicomte de Bragelonne (26 pts., 1848-1850), which opens in 1660, showing us a mature d’Artagnan, a respectable captain of musketeers, and contains the magnificent account of the heroic death of Porthos. The three musketeers are as famous in England as in France. Thackeray could read about Athos from sunrise to sunset with the utmost contentment of mind, and R.L. Stevenson and Andrew Lang have paid tribute to the band in Memories and Portraits and Letters to Dead Authors.
Before 1844 was out Dumas had completed a second great romance in 12 volumes, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, in which he had help from Fiorentino as well as from Maquet. The idea of the intrigue was suggested by Peuchet’s Police dévoilée, and the stress laid on the earlier incidents, Dantès, Danglars and the Château d’If, is said to have been an afterthought.
Almost as famous as these two romances is the set of Valois novels of which Henri IV. is the central figure, beginning with La Reine Margot (6 vols., 1845), which contains the history of the struggle between Catherine of Medicis and Henry of Navarre; the history of the reign of Henry III. is told in La Dame de Monsoreau (8 vols., 1846), generally known in English as Chicot the Jester, from its principal character; and in Les Quarante-cinq (10 vols., 1847-1848), in which Diane de Monsoreau avenges herself on the duke of Anjou for the death of her former lover, Bussy d’Amboise.
Much has been written about the exact share which Dumas had in the novels which bear his name. The Dumas-Maquet series is undoubtedly the best, but Maquet alone never accomplished anything to approach them in value. The manuscripts of the novels still exist in Dumas’s handwriting, and the best of them bear the unmistakable stamp of his unrivaled skill as a narrator. The chief key to his enormous output is to be found in his untiring industry and amazing fertility of invention, not in the system of wholesale collaboration which was exposed with much exaggeration by Quérard in his Superchéries littéraires and by “Eugène de Mirecourt” (C.B.J. Jacquot) in his misleading Fabrique de romans, maison Alexandre Dumas et cie (1845). His assistants, in fact, supplied him with outlines of romances on plans drawn up by himself, and he then rewrote the whole thing. That this method was never abused it would be impossible to say; Les Deux Diane, for instance, a prelude to the Valois novels, is said to have been written entirely by Paul Meurice, although Dumas’s name appears on the title-page.
Later Life and Writing
The latter part of Dumas’s life is a record of excessive toil to meet prodigal expenditure and accumulated debts. His disasters began with the building of a house in the Renaissance style, with a Gothic pavilion and an “English” park, at Saint Germain-en-Laye. 656This place, called Monte-Cristo, was governed by a crowd of hangers-on of both sexes, who absorbed Dumas’s large earnings and left him penniless. Dumas also founded the Théâtre Historique chiefly for the performance of his own works. The enterprise was under the patronage of the duc de Montpensier, and was under the management of Hippolyte Hostein, who had been the secretary of the Comédie Française. The theatre was opened in February 1847 with a dramatic version of La Reine Margot.
Meanwhile Dumas had been the guest of the duc de Montpensier at Madrid, and made a quasi-official tour to Algeria and Tunis in a government vessel, which caused much comment in the press. Dumas had never changed his republican opinions. He greeted the revolution of 1848 with delight, and was even a candidate for electoral honours in the department of the Yonne. But the change was fatal to his theatrical enterprise, for the failure of which in 1850 he was made financially responsible. His son, Alexandre Dumas, was at that time living with his mother Mlle Labay, who was eventually reconciled with the elder Dumas. Father and son, though always on affectionate terms when they met, were too different in their ideas to see much of one another.
After the coup d’état of 1851 Dumas crossed the frontier to Brussels, and two years of rapid production, and the economy of his secretary, Noël Parfait, restored something like order to his affairs. On his return to Paris in the end of 1853 he established a daily paper, Le Mousquetaire, for the criticism of art and letters. It was chiefly written by Dumas, whose Mémoires first appeared in it, and survived until 1857, when it was succeeded by a weekly paper, the Monte-Cristo (1857-1860). In 1858 Dumas travelled through Russia to the Caucasus, and in 1860 he joined Garibaldi in Sicily. After an expedition to Marseilles in search of arms for the insurgents, he returned to Naples, where Garibaldi nominated him keeper of the museums.
After four years’ residence in Naples he returned to Paris, and after the war of ’66 he visited the battlefields and produced his story of La Terreur prussienne. But his powers were beginning to fail, and in spite of the 1200 volumes which he told Napoleon he had written, he was at the mercy of his creditors, and of the succession of theatrical ladies who tyrannized over him and feared nothing except the occasional visits of Dumas fils. He was finally rescued from these by his daughter, Mme Petel, who came to live with him in 1868; and two years later, on the 5th of December 1870, he died in his son’s house at Puys, near Dieppe.
Dumas was never an actual candidate for academic honours, but he had more than once taken steps to investigate his chances of success. A statue of him was erected on the Place Malesherbes, Paris, in 1883, and the figure of d’Artagnan finds a place on the pedestal.
Dumas’ Novels in Historical Sequence
The novels of Dumas may be conveniently arranged in a historical sequence. The Valois novels and the musqueteers series brought French history down to 1672. Contributions to later history are:
- —La Dame de volupté (2 vols., 1864), being the memoirs of Mme de Luynes, and its sequel Les Deux Reines (2 vols., 1864);
- La Tulipe noire (3 vols., 1850), giving the history of the brothers de Witt;
- Le Chevalier d’Harmental (4 vols., 1853), and Une Fille du régent (4 vols., 1845), the story of two plots against the regent, the duke of Orleans;
- Two books on Mme du Deffand, Mémoires d’une aveugle (8 vols., 1856-1857) and Les Confessions de la marquise (8 vols., 1857), both of doubtful authorship;
- Olympe de Clèves (9 vols., 1852), the story of an actress and a young Jesuit novice in the reign of Louis XV., one of his most popular novels; five books on the beginning of the Revolution down to the execution of Marie Antoinette:
- The Mémoires d’un médecin, including Joseph Balsamo (19 pts., 1846-1848), in which J.J. Rousseau, Mme du Barry and the dauphiness Marie Antoinette figure, with its sequels;
- Le Collier de la reine (9 vols., 1849-1850), in which Balsamo appears under the alias of Cagliostro;
- Ange Pitou (8 vols., 1852), known in English as “The Taking of the Bastille”;
- La Comtesse de Charny (19 vols., 1853-1855), describing the attempts to save the monarchy and the flight to Varennes;
- Le Chevalier de maison rouge (6 vols., 1846), which opens in 1793 with the hero’s attempt to save the queen.
- Auguste Maquet was Dumas’s chief collaborator. Others were Paul Lacroix (the bibliophile “P.L. Jacob”), Paul Bocage, J.P. Mallefille and P.A. Fiorentino.
Novels of the later revolutionary period
- —Les Blancs et les bleus (3 vols., 1868) and Les Compagnons de Jéhu (7 vols., 1857).
- Les Louves de Machecoul (10 vols., 1859) deals with the rising in 1832 in La Vendée.
- —Les Frères corses (2 vols., 1845);
- La Femme au collier de velours (2 vols., 1851);
- Les Mohicans de Paris (19 vols., 1854-1855), detective stories with which may be classed in the series of Crimes célèbres (8 vols., 1839-1841), which are, however, of doubtful authorship;
- La San Félice (9 vols., 1864-1865), in which Lady Hamilton played a prominent part, with its sequels Emma Lyonna and Souvenirs d’une favorite.
- Of his numerous historical works other than fiction the most important is his Louis XIV et son siècle (4 vols., 1845).
- Mes Mémoires(20 vols., 1852-1854; Eng. trans. of selections by A.F. Davidson, 2 vols., 1891) is an account of his father and of his own life down to 1832.
There are collective editions of his plays (6 vols., 1834-1836, and 15 vols., 1863-1874), but of the 91 pieces for which he was wholly or partially responsible, 24 do not appear in these collections. The complete works of Dumas were issued by Michel Lévy frères in 277 volumes (1860-1884). The more important novels have been frequently translated into English.
There is a long list of writings on his life and his works both in English and French. The more important French authorities are: his own memoirs, already cited;
- C. Glinel, Alexandre Dumas et son œuvre (Reims, 1884);
- H. Parigot, Dumas père (Grands écrivains français series, 1902)
- Le Drame d’Alexandre Dumas (1899);
- H. Blaze de Bury, Alexandre Dumas (1885);
- Philibert Andebrand, Alexandre Dumas à la maison d’or (1888);
- G. Ferry, Dernières Années d’Alexandre Dumas (1883);
- L.H. Lecomte, Alexandre Dumas (1904).
Of the English lives of Dumas perhaps the best is that by Arthur F. Davidson, Alexandre Dumas Père, his Life and Works (1902), which contains an extensive bibliography. See also lives by P. Fitzgerald (2 vols., 1873) and H.A. Spurr (1902), and essays by Andrew Lang (Letters to Dead Authors), Brander Matthews (French Dramatists), R.L. Stevenson (Memories and Portraits).
1His friendship with Victor Hugo was interrupted in 1833-1834 by the articles contributed to the Journal des débats by a friend and protégé of the poet, Granier de Cassagnac, who brought against Dumas charges of wholesale plagiarism from other dramatists.
2The details of this collaboration were brought to light in a suit brought against Dumas by Maquet with regard to his share in the profits. See the Gazette des tribunaux (January 21, 22, 28, and February 4, 1858).