The Elder Dumas

IN his recent work on the elder Dumas,1 Mr. A. F. Davidson has produced an eminently readable and entertaining book, illustrated by a series of twelve interesting portraits and caricatures, and furnished with a complete bibliography, containing a very large amount of information hitherto inaccessible to readers outside of France. Moreover, he seems to us to have performed a service long due to Dumas’s memory, and one which should be welcomed by the reading public, by setting forth in their true light the character and talents of a man to whom nothing like full justice in this respect has ever been done. Dumas has been for so many years the property of all the world that it is quite time that the world should know the truth concerning him and his work; should know that if he was not the “literary giant, ” the “Colossus of genius and strength,” which some too enthusiastic admirers have discovered in him, he is even less accurately described as the “father of humbug,” or the “tawdry purveyor of books which he did not write.”

Mr. Davidson has not attempted a complete and formal biography of Dumas. “After a fairly extensive study, during the last fifteen years, of Dumas and whatever has been written about him,” he says in his Preface, “it seemed to me that there was room for a coördination of facts which might represent, in justly balanced proportion, and with some pretense of accuracy, both the life of the man and the work of the author.” And again: “None but a simpleton or an impostor would think to measure the length and breadth of Alexandre Dumas within the compass of one moderate volume. Any one, out of half a dozen aspects of the man, supplies material for a book as large as this. In fact . . . there does not exist in his own country any comprehensive and continuous work, biographical and literary, such as this is intended approximately to be.”

The publication of the book coincided very nearly with the hundredth anniversary of Dumas’s birth at VillersCotterets (Aisne), July 24, 1802. His paternal grandfather, the Marquis de la Pailleterie, representative of one branch of an ancient Norman family, emigrated, about 1760, to St. Domingo, where he took unto himself (but probably did not marry) a native woman named Marie Cessette Dumas. The strain of tropical blood inherited from this grandmother unquestionably counted for much in the character of Dumas, as it did in his physical appearance. The only child of this union, Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, accompanied his father to Paris in 1778, after his mother’s death. There the young man, a fine specimen of tropical growth, but most distinctly un homme de couleur, found his social progress impeded by the prejudice of the aristocratic society of the old régime against a swarthy skin, and by the ungenerous treatment of his father, with whom he came to an open rupture after the marquis’s marriage to a woman of his own class. “Thereupon, ” wrote the young man’s son nearly seventy years later, “my father resolved to carve out his fortune with his sword, and enlisted in what was then (1786) the Queen’s Dragoons.” The marquis having stipulated that his name should not be borne by a common private, the young soldier enrolled himself under his mother’s name of Dumas, dropping all of his baptismal names except Alexandre. With the death of the marquis soon after, the marquisate became extinct, “but the arms (three eagles) and the title were, fifty years later, claimed by the novelist and used by him in official designations. They had obviously, ” says Mr. Davidson, “only a burlesque value at a time when all the world had become familiar with the name of Alexandre Dumas.”

The first bearer of the name, who speedily became one of the most brilliant and successful of the young generals developed by the Revolution, fell out with Napoleon during the Egyptian expedition, and passed his latter years in obscurity, under the ban of the imperial displeasure. He married in 1792 the daughter of an innkeeper at Villers-Cotterets. Of the validity of this marriage there is no possible question, although during the lifetime of the novelist it was not infrequently asserted that he was born out of wedlock, as his father probably and his son certainly were.

General Dumas was, as Mr. Davidson well says, “essentially the most admirable of the three men who have borne the name. . . . A simple heroic figure, fairly to be classed with Hoche and Marceau, Joubert and Kléber . . . a man of single purpose and heroic deeds. Some few of his characteristics will appear to have been inherited by his son.” He died at Villers-Cotterets in 1806, leaving his widow burdened with the care of two children (Alexandre, then four years old, and a sister some ten years his senior) and almost penniless.

Substantially the only authority for the story of Dumas’s early years is his own ten volume compilation, Mes Mémoires, of which a large part of the first volume is devoted to traditions and anecdotes of the father whose memory he never ceased to revere. Indeed, whatever his faults in other domestic relations, he cannot justly be charged with lack of filial respect and affection: throughout all the péripéties of his extraordinary career, replete with every sort of interest, his mother, while she lived, was always the object of his tenderest care and solicitude; and her death, in 1838, caused him the most profound sorrow of his life. These Mémoires, which, except for a few brief allusions, do not carry the author’s life beyond 1832, abound in information and anecdote upon all sorts of subjects. They were begun in 1852, when he was living at Brussels in voluntary exile, after the financial crash from which he never really recovered.

Those portions of Mr. Davidson’s book which deal with Dumas’s life rather than with his work are based mainly upon the Mémoires and upon the numerous volumes (between thirty and forty in the familiar duodecimo edition of Lévy) of Impressions du Voyage, in which he describes his travels in many European countries and in Africa. These volumes have been carefully weeded out, the facts and incidents related have been checked, whenever practicable, by reference to contemporary sources of information, and the result is an interesting and entertaining narrative, interspersed with amusing anecdotes, and containing material from which the great Dumas, as he sometimes called himself, might have turned out more than one romance rivaling in interest many of those to which he owes his fame. Indeed, M. Blaze de Bury says that Dumas has told the story of the most important events of his life in his books, and has thereby obviated the necessity of a biographer. Of all his varied experiences there is none more characteristic and at the same time more amusing than his participation in the Revolution of July (1830), and his self-imposed mission to Soissons to obtain ammunition from the magazine there. Mr. Davidson gives to this episode a chapter by itself (A Political Interlude). Of Dumas’s account of the Revolution itself he says: “Otherwise agreeing in all principal facts with the narratives of professed historians like Louis Blanc, the pages of Dumas present perhaps the best picture ever penned of what Paris in Revolutionary times looked like. The picture of course is colored — it would be ungracious to say over - colored — by the personality of the narrator, and the grouping of it is so arranged as to show us La Fayette, Laffitte, Odilon Barrot, and the rest flitting like pale shadows across a scene mainly occupied by Alexandre Dumas.”

Lack of space makes it impossible for us to follow him through the many notable incidents of his career not connected with his literary work: his unique experiences as a government clerk; his relations with Louis Philippe and his sons ; his marriage to one of his many “ friends ” of the gentle sex, because her unmarried presence with him at a state function was frowned upon by the Citizen King; his travels; the semipolitical trip to Spain, and thence to Algiers on a government ship, of which he proceeded to make use as if it were his private yacht, to the scandal of the opposition and consequent interpellation and harassment of ministers; his experience as a landed proprietor, and the disastrous financial crash coming close upon the construction of the gorgeous château of Monte Cristo at Saint-Germain; the exile at Brussels and the “Struggle to Retrieve; ” the years of diminishing popularity and of growing disappointment and bitterness ; and the pathetic end. It is our purpose to refer to one or two questions connected with Dumas’s literary work, and especially with that part of it in which English and American readers are most deeply interested — the great novels. In the book before us more space is given to Dumas’s work as a playwright than to his vast output in other branches of literature. This may be in accord with the fitness of things ; it certainly is from Mr. Davidson’s point of view, — the belief that Dumas’s influence has been greatest in the sphere of the drama, which was especially his, and that M. Sardou justly called him the best allround homme de théâtre of his century. Moreover Dumas began his career as a playwright; his name first became known to the world through his plays; and lastly, the instinct of the dramatist, the dramatic touch, are apparent in the least as in the greatest of his works: memoirs, notes of travel, history, fiction. The fact remains, however, that to English-speaking readers — at all events to that vast majority who are obliged to rely on translations — Dumas is known through his novels alone; and that for every one who has ever heard of Henri III., or Christine, or the Tour de Nesle, there are thousands who can say with Stevenson : “ Yet a sixth time, dearest D’Artagnan, we shall kidnap Monk and take horse together for Belle Isle.”

The great service for which we have to thank Mr. Davidson is his lucid and authoritative exposition of the facts concerning the degree of credit due to Dumas’s collaborators for their share in the various works published under his name. It may be said in the first place that it was a natural assumption that no one mortal could produce, unassisted, the enormous mass of material that was given to the world under the name of Alexandre Dumas in the twenty years succeeding 1830. (The Lévy edition contains upwards of three hundred volumes, and a very large proportion of the works now included therein first appeared before 1850.) Indeed, the fact that Dumas had collaborators from the very beginning was no secret; but the nature and extent of their collaboration, particularly in the works of fiction, were the subject of much controversy — savage and vindictive on the one side, contemptuous, yet good-humored, on the part of Dumas himself. The most determined attack upon him was made in 1844 by one “Eugène de Mirecourt ” (born Jacquot), who, after failing to demolish him by presenting him to the Société des Gens de Lettres as an impostor and disgrace, published a pamphlet full of personalities and abuse, under the catchpenny title of Fabrique des Romans : Maison Alexandre Dumas et Cie. It was “spicy enough to meet with a ready sale and libelous enough to incur a fortnight’s imprisonment for its author. ... It has in itself no importance, and neither then nor since has influenced any reputable critic.” But its echoes have never entirely died away; and even at the present day we sometimes hear it said that Dumas was not the author of one tenth of the books published under his name, but that he was an impostor incapable of writing anything good himself, and indebted for all his successes to the brains of others. The true story of this matter, as evolved by Mr. Davidson, is deeply interesting, if for no other reason, because it is probably without a parallel in the history of literature.

Dealing with what he calls “legitimate collaboration,” with which alone we are concerned in all those of Dumas’s works on which his reputation depends and which fall into the hands of the ordinary reader, Mr. Davidson says: “There is no need to shirk the question. Maison Dumas et Cie. — why not? The fact, if not this way of putting it, was common enough in Paris at that time. It was brought about by the insistence of editors, publishers, and theatrical managers upon having some well-known name with which to attract the public; and all sophistry apart, the only difference between a commercial and a literary undertaking was, that in the former the firm might bear the name of one who took no active part in it, whereas in the latter honesty demanded that the name on the cover of the book should indicate a real and chief share in the work. To this condition the collaboration of Dumas conforms — that wonderful infusion of himself into others which, so far from belittling the man, has only in the course of time intensified the greatness of his individuality and power. . . . The various forms of collaboration may be reduced to two main classes, according to the nature of the principal partner’s share. . . . To the second category belong those works in which Dumas was responsible for the subject, and in this class come all the books written in partnership with Maquet, ” and more particularly referred to below. “In such cases, after discussing the plan with his partner, Dumas’s habit was to draw up in outline a scheme of the whole, with the divisions and titles of chapters; then, when the assistant had filled in the outline, the MS. was handed to Dumas, who rewrote it with such additions and alterations as he thought fit.” Paul Lacroix, familiar to most book-lovers under the name of “Le Bibliophile Jacob,” was one of those who afforded Dumas most assistance, next to Maquet, and he wrote thus of their relations: “I used to dress his characters for him and locate them in the necessary surroundings, whether in old Paris or different parts of France at different periods. When he was, as often, in difficulties on some matter of archæology, he used to send one of his secretaries to me to ask perhaps for an accurate account of the appearance of the Louvre in the year 1600. I used to revise his proofs, make corrections as to historical points, and sometimes write whole chapters.”

Many anecdotes bear witness to the unruffled good temper with which Dumas met the virulent attacks upon him in relation to this matter. The critic Quérard having made the assertion that one part of Monte Cristo was written by Fiorentino and the other by Maquet, Dumas, after demonstrating the facts of the case, added: “After all it was so natural to think that I had written it! ” He once called upon a magistrate of Bourg-en-Bresse, a local antiquarian of some note, to make an inquiry concerning certain facts that he proposed to work into one of his novels. “Ah! ” said the magistrate, “so you are going to write a novel yourself this time ? ” “Yes,” was the reply; “I hired my valet to do the last one, but as it was very successful, the rascal demanded such an exorbitant increase of wages that to my great regret I have had to part with him.”

It is a most significant fact that the relations between Dumas and his assistants were generally excellent, especially when we consider their number: the bibliography furnished by Mr. Davidson names more than twenty, of whom about a third had some share in the production of the great mass of fiction. Maquet was the only one of them all with whom there was any falling out, and the breach with him was of pecuniary rather than literary origin. Maquet stands upon an entirely different footing from the rest; and his relations with Dumas demand a few words of more detailed explanation. He was originally a lecturer at the Collège Charlemagne, but for a number of years had been known as a writer of stories and verses when, in 1839, his association with Dumas began, through assistance furnished by the latter in the construction of a drama. Dumas, then known almost exclusively as a playwright, had begun to cherish the idea of popularizing French history, which he had had occasion to dip into more or less in connection with certain of his dramas. Ambitious to do for the history of his country what Scott had recently done for the history of Scotland, he needed some one to look after the costumes and scenery. It happened that Maquet had written a short story called Jean Buvat, dealing with the Cellamare conspiracy against the Regent d’Orléans. As he had been unable to dispose of it, he carried it to Dumas (1843), who expanded it into a long romance, renamed it Le Chevalier d’Harmental, and secured for it the feuilleton space in Le Siècle, paying Maquet twelve hundred francs for his share, in place of the hundred francs he had tried vainly to obtain. So began this most notable of literary partnerships. Maquet was grateful; he was a student of history, “an unwearied rummager of documents; ” and for the next ten years the two worked together in perfect harmony, the result of their collaboration being the whole collection of historical romances by which Dumas is best known to us: the D’Artagnan series, the Valois series, the Revolution series (except La Comtesse de Charny, which was written after their rupture), and Monte Cristo; to say nothing of other less known books. During their association they were never far apart, and “between the two a ceaseless stream of messengers came and went, bearing copy. In the course of time this fidus Achates developed powers of invention and description which made him far more than the mere searcher-out of facts he was at the outset. ... Yet never till the breach between them came did he claim a position of equality. . . . Bankruptcy is a terrible solvent of friendship; and when Maquet, to whom considerable arrears of salary were due, found himself in the position of an ordinary creditor and entitled only to twenty-five per cent, which the other creditors had agreed to accept, it occurred to him that he might assert his right to be joint-author instead of mere collaborator, a right which would involve the appearance of his name with that of Dumas on the novels they had written together, and an equal share in any profits arising from these books. Twice the case came before the courts. . . . In both cases Maquet’s claim was disallowed, though his share in the production of eighteen works was recognized; and with this barren honor he had to he content. The legal proceedings add nothing to what has already been said on the nature of the collaboration, but they leave us convinced of two things: first, that, as a matter of equity, Maquet ought to have been described as co - author; and secondly, that, as a matter of literature, he was not the essential author. Dumas without Maquet would have been Dumas; what would Maquet have been without Dumas ? ” To illustrate this point we have an anecdote concerning Ange Pitou (1853), the last book in which Maquet had any share. “Maquet had been making researches at the library and came to Dumas with a mass of information about the hero, who was to be traced back to Louis Pithon, one of the authors of La Satire Menippée. . . . Dumas thereupon made an agreement with Le Constitutionnel for the story, receiving an installment of the money in advance. As ill luck would have it, a disagreement with Maquet— the beginning of their quarrel — supervened. Dumas, bound by contract to supply Le Constitutionnel, had no time to look up the antecedents of Ange Pitou, and for that matter he did not know where to look. And so, like a brave man, he cut the difficulty by constructing a Pitou whose early years were passed in Villers-Cotterets, and whose early experiences were those of Alexandre Dumas! So little in reality did he, except as a luxury, depend on the help of others.”

On this whole subject, we may, with Mr. Davidson, leave the last word with M. Blaze de Bury, whose book on Dumas (Sa Vie, Son Temps, Son Œuvre, Paris, 1885) is more comprehensive than any other French work, and who knew more about the subject than most people. He says: “Dumas in a way collaborated with every one. From an anecdote he made a story, from a story he made a romance, from a romance he made a drama; and he never let go an idea until he had extracted from it everything that it could yield him. Admit — as the critics will have it — his collaboration,plagiarism, imitation: he possessed himself what no one could give him ; and this we know because we have seen what his assistants did when they were working on their own account and separately from him.”

In connection with what Mr. Davidson calls a “reasoned résumé ” of all the more familiar stories, he discusses another much vexed question, to wit, the historical value of Dumas’s “historical romances.” In the judgment of one who had occasion several years ago to investigate this subject with some care, the conclusions arrived at are eminently fair; if they err at all, it is in claiming too little rather than too much. “Let us grant at once to the author of dramatic historical romance the privilege of regulating facts and marshaling them for effect. Otherwise how can he realize that famous ideal which Dumas set before himself, of ‘ elevating history to the dignity of romance ’ ? ‘ Inaccuracies, ’ then, or ‘ elevations ’ — many such may be discovered, . . . yet these, and some ‘ extra-historical ’ incidents, are but the acknowledged licenses of fiction, with which none but a pedant will quarrel. The more important question is: What impression of the main characters and events of French history will these romances leave on a reader who knows French history only through them? Will such a one on the whole see right? Doubtless, yes. About the course of religious strife, of domestic intrigue, of foreign policy, he will gather little which serious history would have him unlearn. And as to the persons of the drama, admit that their characters are modeled on the traditional and popular view ; it is always possible that this view, formed at or near the time itself, may be the truest. . . . For Dumas it has to be said that whenever he touches history — in novels, plays, or studies — he has the true historical instinct; without either faculty or inclination for the drudgery of analysis, he somehow arrives at a synthesis quite as convincing as any that can be reached by the most minute methods.” In some of the less well - known works, for instance Olympe de Clèves (temp. Louis XV.), which Mr. Henley calls a masterpiece of fiction, and in which Dumas had the valuable help of Lacroix, this truth is quite as apparent as in the more familiar ones. In this one respect the historical romances of Dumas are superior, if that be the proper word, to the Waverley Novels, but for which the former would probably not have been written.

Every reader may determine for himself the measure of Dumas’s great indebtedness to Scott in this and other respects. Mr. Davidson’s parallel between the two is drawn with skill, but we must confine our excerpts to one epigrammatic sentence : “Scott wooed the Muse of History as a sedate and courteous lover; Dumas chucked her under the chin and took her out for a jaunt.” This, by the way, recalls another equally happy comparison, drawn in connection with an entirely distinct subject of discussion. “Monte Cristo resumes and sublimates Dumas the conteur, and Edmond Dantès is the ideal Dumas. In some respects the idol is close to the real. Type and anti-type, the one is an ardent lover, so is the other; the first, with his jewels and fine clothes, is not a little vain, so is the second; both have traveled the wide world over, and read or learned about all things. Dantèes has usurped the functions of Providence, Dumas is not averse from that rôle —a prophet, if only the rulers would listen to him ; Dantès has become a millionaire, Dumas was at one time on that way; Dantès flings his money broadcast, Dumas does likewise; Dantès discharges his debts and even those of others, Dumas — well, every analogy must break down somewhere.” It may be noted here that the most enthralling part of the story of Monte Cristo, that is to say, the beginning, including the escape from the Château d’If, was an afterthought, prefixed to a story of which the middle and the end had already been outlined.

In his final chapter, The Real Dumas and Others, Mr. Davidson discusses the many-sided character of Dumas with absolute fairness and impartiality, not as an advocate, but as a just judge, giving due weight to his many and glaring faults, but seeking, and it seems to us with success, to defend him from the exaggerated and unjust aspersions which would make of him not only a monster of dishonesty and hypocrisy in letters, but of the grossest immorality, if not of downright wickedness, in his private life. Here again each reader must be left to form his own judgment; we venture to quote an additional sentence or two upon the general subject of Dumas’s moral standing in literature, to show the author’s method of treatment. “Dumas has survived the excess both of eulogy and of abuse. What is more, he has survived the purposed slight of those who ignore him when discussing French literature of the nineteenth century, and the polite condescension of those who consider him as a meritorious amuser of children. The condescenders, it must be said, have no alarming altitude from which to climb down; they are mostly men who from lack of the creative faculty make much of the critical, and no one is simpler to criticise than Dumas. To such minds his fecundity, his ease, and his rapidity are an offense. The man of one labored book cannot forgive the man of a facile hundred. . . . Therefore the literary crimes of Dumas have been paraded, some of them inconsistent with others. It is said that he was neither original nor justly unoriginal; that he was careless and unscrupulous about facts and utterly deficient in style; that he wrote too much, and was a reckless and lucky improviser; that he wrote nothing and lived by the sweat of other men’s brows; that he degraded literature to the position of a dubious though profitable commerce ; that by sheer force of swagger he imposed himself upon his fellow creatures ; and much else. . . . But, in truth, any views of him which imply design or deliberation are false and ridiculous. . . . Dumas had no style, it is said; and certainly, if by ‘ style ’ be meant that body of mannerisms which one author affects in order to distinguish himself from others, he has nothing of the sort. ” The truth of this last statement will be readily apparent to one who considers how much less Dumas suffers by translation than Balzac, Daudet, and others, who have such distinguishing mannerisms in a greater or less degree, whether affected or not. Although there has been no English version of the more famous romances nearly so adequate, from a literary standpoint, as those of some volumes of the Comédie Humaine and of some of Daudet’s masterpieces of literary art, the result of a comparison with the original is much less satisfactory with respect to the last two. This is due, doubtless, not only to the absence of a distinctive “style,” but to what Mr. Davidson characterizes as “the one true and serious reproach against his work,” that “it seldom indicated thought in the writer and hardly ever provokes thought in the reader. . . . ‘ He makes us, ’ as some one said, ‘ turn over the pages, but he never makes us meditate.’ . . . What he did was to absorb such lines of thought as were in the air around him, and to put them — either by raising or by lowering — on the exact level of popular appreciation. He did this in his dramas, he did it notably in his historical novels; and he did it always in a way of his own, by feeling rather than by understanding.”

With all his limitations (Mr. Davidson justly denies him the epithet of “great,” but attributes to him genius, in the sense of “the possession and use of natural gifts ”), Dumas has for two generations maintained an honorable place among the authors most popular with English and American readers; nor are his admirers confined to the rank and file only, for no one has ever been more sanely enthusiastic in his praise than have two of these men whom most of us delight to honor. “ If I am to choose virtues for myself or my friends, ” said Stevenson, “let me choose the virtues of D’Artagnan. I do not say that there is no character as well drawn in Shakespeare ; I do say that there is none that I love so wholly. . . . No part of the world has ever seemed to me so charming as these pages ; and not even my friends are quite so real, perhaps quite so dear, as D’Artagnan.” 2 The humblest of us need not be ashamed to confess our liking for the creator of a character of whom this was said, even though the facts that lie at the basis of the story were gathered by Maquet from the Mémoires d’Artagnan by Courtils de Sandras, which, by the way, have recently been translated into English for the benefit of those who may desire to know how much Dumas borrowed from them. But if Stevenson’s sanction be insufficient for our justification, let us turn to that one of the Roundabout Papers (On a Lazy Idle Boy) in which Thackeray tells of a visit to Chur in the Grisons, and of a boy whom he fell in with on one of his walks, so absorbed in a book he was reading as to be utterly oblivious to aught else.

“What was it that fascinated the young student as he stood by the river shore ? Not the Pons Asinorum. What book so delighted him, and blinded him to all the rest of the world ? . . . Do you suppose it was Livy, or the Greek grammar ? No; it was a novel that you were reading, you lazy, not very clean, goodfor - nothing, sensible boy! It was D’Artagnan locking up General Monk in a box, or almost succeeding in keeping Charles the First’s head on. It was the prisoner of the Château d’If, cutting himself out of the sack fifty feet under water (I mention the novels I like best myself — novels without love or talking, or any of that sort of nonsense, but containing plenty of fighting, escaping, robbery, and rescuing) — cutting himself out of the sack and swimming to the island of Monte Cristo! O Dumas! O thou brave,kind,gallant old Alexandre! I hereby offer thee homage and give thee thanks for many pleasant hours. I have read thee for thirteen hours of a happy day, and had the ladies of the house fighting for the volumes.”

But all this is by the way; most of us have read and enjoyed Les Trois Mousquetaires and La Reine Margot without knowing or caring what others thought of them. We repeat that the greatest service Mr. Davidson has rendered by his book is the dispelling of that vague feeling of uncertainty as to whether our interest and emotion are aroused and rearoused by the pen of some nameless, hired writer, or by the fertile imagination of the “immortal quadroon ” himself.

George B. Ives.

  1. Alexandre Dumas, his Life and Work. By A. F. DAVIDSON. Philadelphia: Lippincott. 1902.
  2. Gossip upon a novel of Dumas (Le Vicomte de Bragelonne).