Born just over two centuries ago, Alexandre Dumas remains one of the most famous and widely-read French authors. A playwright, novelist and author of numerous travelogues, his works have been translated into more than 100 languages and made into the subject of more than 200 movies. In fact, some of his fictional characters, such as the Count of Monte Cristo and the Three Musketeers (members of the Royal guard of the French kings during the 17th century) have become literary and cultural icons throughout the world.
Dumas: the coloured man at ease with himself in French Society
For all of literary fame and financial success, there is, however, one central fact of his life, which while widely known, has rarely been commented upon: Alexandre Dumas was a Creole. In French society, when people of color were widely disregarded in the upper classes, Dumas’ mixed racial heritage still did not seem to have an adverse effect on his literary, social or financial standing. Some of this may have been due to the changing attitudes towards race – and the meaning of the word “equality” – during the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary periods in France, but it may also have been due, to some degree, to the fact that Dumas himself all but ignored it. He neither attempted to deny or hide his ethnic heritage nor to make it a central issue, but instead chose to live his life just as himself: a writer, a man of opinion and – although someone who took a somewhat modern attitude towards marriage – one who had strong feelings of fidelity towards his family, particularly his parents and grandparents.
Dumas’ lineage and early life
Alexandre (or Alexander) Dumas was given the birth name of Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie on July 24, 1802 in Picardy, France. He traced his ancestry from a minor, impoverished noble French family, yet was also of mixed race – his father’s mother was either a Creole or of direct African ancestry; no one knows which. When his father, formerly a general in France’s Revolutionary army, died in 1806, Dumas was not quite four years old, the family was living in France with little in the way of income. Although his mother could not afford to send him to a good school, Dumas read widely, taught himself Spanish and learned to write with excellent calligraphy. By the time he was a young man, these talents plus his grandfather’s connections, helped him to gain a position with Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans, in the Palais Royal.
An Author’s Life
Unwilling to simply work as a government functionary, Dumas began to write plays in the mid-1830s, while he was still in his mid 20s. From the beginning, these plays were successful and lead to an increasing popularity in the world of letters. At the time, it was a fad for Paris newspapers to publish serial novels, and Dumas soon began to follow this trend. Another tendency Dumas established early in his writing career was to collaborate with other writers. One of his famous early novels, Le Maitre d’armes (The Fencing Master), published in 1840, was written in collaboration with Dumas’ own fencing master, Augustin Grisier.
It was in the mid-1840s, however, that Dumas writing career hit full stride with the publication of his adventure and “swash-buckling” novels. The Corsican Brothers, soon followed by the unmatchable The Three Musketeers, were both published in 1844, followed by The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-1845) and the following volumes in the Musketeers’ adventures, including Twenty Years After and Vicomte de Bragelonne (the last part of which is The Man in the Iron Mask). All the while that these most famous of his novels were being published – and translated into other languages, especially English – Dumas continued to write many plays as well as other, now-lesser-known novels and travel works.
Troubles, Financial and Legal
His growing fame brought increased wealth and, inevitably, jealousy. His collaborator on many novels, Auguste Maquet, sued Dumas to gain credit as co-author and for a greater share in the financial gains from the books. Although the court did direct Dumas to pay Maquet a larger amount for his work, it denied the requirement for title-page credit.
In the meantime, Dumas enjoyed the wealth he earned from his writing. Although he married the actress Ida Ferrier (who was born Marguerite-Joséphine Ferrand) in 1840, a marriage that lasted 19 years until her death, Dumas was anything but a faithful husband. During his lifetime, he was known to have had numerous mistresses (later biographers estimate as many as 40), from whom four “natural” (out of wedlock) children were a result. Supporting his wife, his mistresses and children and even building a country house outside Paris, the Château de Monte-Cristo, brought him to the edge of financial disaster. To avoid his creditors, and because his writing was not favoured by the newly-elected Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Dumas left France in 1851 to live in Belgium, later moving to Russia and Italy. He returned to Paris in 1864, where he continued to write, particularly novels and books about his travels, until his death in 1870.
A Son, a Grandson and a Father
It can be said of anyone that his greatest influence and inheritance is his ancestry. For an author living in mid-nineteenth century France, how much did the mixed-race heritage of Alexandre Dumas affect his life? His grandfather was the marquis Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Paillaterie, who had moved to the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (later known as Haiti) when he was a young man, to live with his brother Charles, who had become wealthy as a sugar planter. While living in Saint-Domingue, he lived with a woman known as Marie-Cessette Dumas and had several children with her, including Thomas-Alexandre, who was to become Alexandre Dumas’ father.
Unfortunately for his own fortunes, Alexandre-Antoine argued with his brother Charles and moved back to France in 1776, taking his young son with him. In France, slavery was illegal, so young Thomas-Alexandre grew up free, and was able to claim a place in society as a member of the petit nobility – even as his mixed racial heritage was acknowledged. With this odd status, and as the French Revolution began to take hold, the young Creole entered the Revolution’s army as a private. His natural talent as a soldier saw him rise to become the highest-ranking mixed race officer in France, commanding more than 50,000 troops and playing a key role in France’s campaign against the Italians in 1797.
His may have been a career filled with fame and honour, but for an incident which took place during the Egyptian Campaign. Fresh from his stunning contribution to the victory just a year earlier, General Dumas found himself opposed by the Expedition’s supreme commander, Napoleon Bonaparte. These verbal clashes with Bonaparte convinced Dumas that his career in the Army was at an end, so he left Egypt for France. The ship began to sink during the voyage, however, and was forced to put into port in the Kingdom of Naples, where Dumas was held prisoner until 1801. When he was finally freed, he returned to France, but his health was broken. He was denied an Army pension by Bonaparte despite his long service, so he lived in poverty until his death from stomach cancer in 1806, just over three years after the birth of his son Alexandre.
Just as his own grandfather had acknowledged his own mixed-race natural child, Alexandre Dumas himself not only acknowledged his own natural son, Alexandre Dumas fils, from one of his mistresses, but supported him in his career as a writer in his own right. When Dumas père came to write his memoirs, it quickly turned into an elegy to his own father, whom he greatly admired, even though he died when Alexandre was yet a young child.
As for the source of the split between General Dumas and Napoleon Bonaparte, was it caused by racial animosity or was it a clash between professional soldiers? More to the point, what did Alexandre Dumas himself think of the level of prejudice in French society against people of mixed race? The answer may be found in the medium in which Dumas best expressed himself, in his books. Dumas only attempted to write one novel devoted to the subject of slavery and Creoles in the French colonies. The novel Georges, published in 1840, began as a tale of the cruelty and stupidity of white plantation owners in a distant French colony, but soon devolved into a wonderfully Dumasesque tale of hidden identities, spies and pirates!
Honoured by the French
If the works of Alexandre Dumas went through a period during which they were under appreciated, it was almost certainly not a matter of racial animosity but a change in taste and style. In the decades since his death, the works of Dumas have been re-read, examined and placed in their rightful place in the canon of world of literature. Upon the bicentennial of the birth of Dumas, his ashes were re-interred in the Panthéon de Paris, in honour of his contribution to French letters. Fittingly, the burial party included four mounted Republican guards dressed in the uniforms of the Musketeers.