Last reviewed: June 2018
French novelist, playwright, and nonfiction writer
July 24, 1802
December 5, 1870
Alexandre Dumas, pére, the most famous of the French Romantic novelists, was the son of General Dumas, who had been born in San Domingo, the illegitimate, mixed-race son of the marquis de la Pailleterie, and who had taken his mother’s name and come to France early in the Revolution. Here he had entered the army and had a brilliant career, rising under Napoleon to the rank of major general of cavalry. He offended Napoleon by his outspoken criticism, however, and retired to Villers-Cotterets, where he died, leaving his widow and their four-year-old son in straitened circumstances. Alexandre Dumas, père
Alexandre Dumas, père
Young Dumas received only a scanty education. While still quite young, he was writing plays in collaboration with a Swedish friend. In 1823 he went to Paris and became a clerk in the secretariat of the duc d’Orleans. He continued to write vaudeville sketches and melodramas, and he entered into a liaison with a dressmaker, Marie Catherine Labay, by whom he had a son, the younger Alexandre Dumas.
As a dramatist, Dumas was much influenced by seeing some of William Shakespeare’s plays that were being produced in Paris at this time. Some critics have called his Henry III and His Court the first great triumph of the romantic drama in France, and through it he won the friendship of Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny. It was at the end of this period that he married the actress Ida Ferrier.
Dumas’s novel Captain Paul was serialized in 1838, but it was during the 1840s that he began working with several collaborators, particularly Auguste Maquet, and produced the novels on which his fame rests. It is unclear how much he owed to his collaborators, though it is significant that none of these men ever did original work, and their function seems to have been to find plot material and to sketch the broad outlines of the story. The element that gave life to the books was Dumas’s genius.
The first of his major novels, and probably the greatest “cloak and sword” story ever written, was The Three Musketeers. Using some seventeenth-century memoirs as a source, Dumas created the immortal figures of D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, who have won the affection of generations of readers. The novel won wide acclaim throughout Europe and was a particular favorite of William Makepeace Thackeray and later of Andrew Lang and Robert Louis Stevenson. Realizing his success, Dumas continued the adventures of his heroes, carrying them, in four more stories, from the time of Louis XIII and Richelieu to their old age in the early reign of Louis XIV with the great mystery of The Man in the Iron Mask. By skillfully introducing such actual figures as Anne of Austria, the duke of Buckingham, Jules Mazarin, and Nicolas Fouquet, he succeeded in giving an air of verisimilitude to the novels; readers gain a genuine feel of living in the period and sharing the adventures of the swashbuckling guardsmen. Unlike most historical novelists, Dumas was able to create characters who achieve growth, and he possessed a real sense of history.
Though not nearly so well known, the series of novels dealing with the France of the last Valois kings is almost the equal of the Musketeer series. Dumas was especially fascinated by the court of Henry III and gave a strangely sympathetic portrait of this last, degenerate member of a once virile house. In these novels the two great antagonists are Henry of Navarre and Catherine de Médicis, and the popular conception of the latter as the embodiment of subtle and relentless cruelty probably stems from these books, just as the portrait of Richard III has been indelibly fixed by Shakespeare. Dumas created one of his greatest characters in Chicot, gentleman-jester to Henry III and an incomparable swordsman. Many consider the secondary figure of Dom Gorenflot second only to Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff among comic creations. In the midst of these historical novels appeared The Count of Monte-Cristo, which became equally famous for its suspenseful, clever plot.
Dumas’s later life was remarkably like that of Sir Walter Scott. Dumas, too, built a huge country house, “Monte-Cristo,” and toiled equally hard to meet his expenses. He founded a theater for the production of his own plays, but its failure added to his financial woes. In spite of his preoccupation as a writer with the French monarchy, he remained a Republican in politics and hailed the Revolution of 1848. The coup d’état of 1851 coincided with his need to flee his creditors, but he always alleged that his expatriation to Brussels was political. Having lived a life as romantic as that described in any of his novels, Dumas spent his last years at the mercy of his creditors and died at the home of his son at Puys, near Dieppe, in 1870.
Dumas’s prodigious literary productivity can be gauged from the fact that the French edition of his works fills 277 volumes. It is as a novelist, however, that he has survived. He had an acute sense of plot construction and historical reality; above all, an irrepressible gaiety pervades his books.