Biography of Alexandre Dumas

Alexander_Dumas_1802-1870Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, better known as Alexandre Dumas was born in Villers-Cotterêts, France, on 24th July 1802.

His parents were Marie-Louise Élisabeth Labouret (the daughter of an innkeeper), and Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. Dumas’s father has a particularly interesting story: Thomas-Alexandre was born in the French colony of Haiti, as the son of  the marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a French nobleman and général commissaire in the artillery of the colony, and Marie-Cessette Dumas, a slave of Afro-Caribbean ancestry. He used the name of Dumas after a break with his father, but succeeded him in profession and was promoted to general by the age of thirty-one. Thomas was the first soldier of Afro-Antilles origin to reach that rank in the French army. He served with distinction in the French Revolutionary Wars, and became general-in-chief of the Army of the Pyrenees, also the first man of colour to reach that rank.

Although a general under Bonaparte in the Italian and Egyptian campaigns, Dumas had fallen out of favour by 1800 and requested leave to return to France. On his return, his ship had to put in at Taranto, in the Kingdom of Naples, where he and others were held as prisoners of war. During his two-year imprisonment, his health was ruined. At the time of Alexandre’s birth, his father was impoverished.

His father died of cancer in 1806 when Alexandre was four. His widowed mother Marie-Louise could not provide her son with much of an education, but Dumas read everything he could and taught himself Spanish. His mother’s stories of Thomas-Alexandre’s bravery during the campaigns of the Revolutionary Wars inspired the boy’s vivid imagination. Although poor, the family had their father’s distinguished reputation and aristocratic rank to aid the children’s advancement.

In 1822 (after the restoration of the monarchy), Dumas moved to Paris to work in the office of Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans, in the Palais Royal. It was here that he began to write for essays and plays for magazines and the theatre.

In 1829 and 1830 respectively, Dumas produced the plays Henry III and His Court and Christine, both of which met with critical acclaim and financial success. As a result, he was able to commit himself full-time to writing. Despite the turbulent economic times which followed the Revolution of 1830, Dumas turned out to have something of an entrepreneurial streak, and did well for himself in this decade.

In 1830 Dumas participated in the Revolution that ousted Charles X and replaced him with Dumas’ former employer, the Duke of Orléans, who ruled as Louis-Philippe; ‘The Citizen King’. Until the mid-1830s, life in France remained unsettled, with sporadic riots by disgruntled Republicans and impoverished urban workers seeking change. But as the economy gradually god back to normal, improved finances – combined with the end of press censorship – worked in Dumas’s favour.

As newspapers were publishing many serial novels, in 1838 Dumas rewrote one of his plays as his first serial novel, Le Capitaine Paul. He consequently went on to found a production studio that turned out hundreds of stories under his creative direction, and began to produce serialised novels for newspapers which were widely read by the French public. The best known of these, were the Celebrated Crimes series. It was over the next two decades, as a now famous and much loved author of romantic and historical novels, that Dumas produced his best-known works – the D’Artagnan romances, including The Three Musketeers, in 1844, and The Count of Monte Cristo, in 1846. Dumas wrote in a wide variety of genres and published a total of 100,000 pages in his lifetime.

To keep up this prolific output, Dumas depended on numerous assistants and collaborators, of whom Auguste Maquet was the best known. It was not until the late-twentieth century that his role was fully understood. Maquet is known to have outlined the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo, and made substantial contributions to The Three Musketeers and its sequels, as well as to several of Dumas’ other novels. Their method of working together was for Maquet to propose plots and write drafts. Dumas added the details, dialogues, and the final chapters. Marquet was consistently un-acknowledged for his help however, and eventually took Dumas to court to try to get authorial recognition and a higher rate of payment. He was successful in getting more money, but not a byline.

In his personal life, on 1st February 1840, Dumas had married the actress Ida Ferrier (born Marguerite-Joséphine Ferrand). He had numerous liaisons with other women however – Dumas had a total of forty mistresses – and was known to have fathered at least four children by them.

Dumas made a lot of money from his writing – especially his classic stories – but he was almost constantly penniless as a result of his extravagant lifestyle and love of women. In 1846 he had built a country house outside Paris at Le Port-Marly, the large Château de Monte-Cristo, with an additional building for his writing studio. In Gatsby-esque style, it was often filled with strangers and acquaintances who stayed for lengthy visits and took advantage of his generosity. Two years later, faced with financial difficulties, Dumas sold the entire property.

In 1848, King Louis-Philippe was ousted in a revolt, and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected as president. Bonaparte heavily disapproved of Dumas, and in 1851, the author fled to Brussels, Belgium, which was also an effort to escape his creditors. He then moved on to Russia, where he published travel books, and subsequently Italy, where he stayed for three years. During this time, Dumas participated in the movement for Italian unification, and founded the newspaper, Indipendente. Dumas finally returned to Paris in 1864.

Dumas died in Puys, France, in 1870, at the age of sixty-eight.

Despite his aristocratic background and personal success, the writer had to deal with a great deal of racial discrimination, related to his mixed-race ancestry. In response to a man who once insulted him about his African ancestry, Dumas famously stated:

My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.

Dumas is now enshrined in the Panthéon of Paris alongside fellow authors Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. Since his death, his fiction has been translated into almost a hundred languages, and has formed the basis for more than two-hundred motion pictures. Changing literary fashions have seen his writings rise and fall in popularity, but in the late twentieth century, scholars such as Reginald Hamel and Claude Schopp have caused a critical reappraisal and new appreciation of his art. Today, he is one of the most widely read and appreciated French authors. As French President, Jacques Chirac stated at a 2002 honorary ceremony:

With you, we were D’Artagnan, Monte Cristo, or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castle – with you, we dream.

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