If I were to say the name “Alexandre Dumas” most of you would probably answer with “Who?” If, however, I were to mention either The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo, there might be some glimmer of recognition.
Of all the writers the nineteenth-century produced, Alexandre Dumas was among the most prolific. In just one decade of his career, we wrote no less than forty-one novels, twenty-three plays, seven historical works, and several travel books. One decade.
Yes, you read those numbers correctly.
Ready to know more? Here’s five facts you didn’t know about Alexandre Dumas. Or, as I like to think of it, five reasons why I think Alexandre Dumas is more important now than ever before.
1. He worked at being a writer from the beginning
Dumas, like Edgar Allen Poe, wrote for a living. He started his career as a clerk for the palace of the restored French monarchy–hired specifically because he had beautiful handwriting. He wrote for magazines first, and then moved on to bigger projects–plays specifically–until he finally found the niche that would make him famous. Novels.
It was a fantastic time in which to write too. The French Revolution had come and gone. So had Napoleon’s march across Europe. His contemporaries were all the leading lights of French literature: Gustav Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, and more. Much had changed since the days when a wealthy patronage was the only way to make money and Dumas proved that by living a very travel-heavy, party-hearty life.
His career as a writer should, quite frankly, be an inspiration to all of us. For my own generation, what was it we were told? You can’t make money as a writer. You can’t go into marketing unless you have a business degree. You can’t make it unless you go into a certain field. You are going to be a starving artist for your entire life.
The sad truth of it is that we have decades’ worth of evidence that supports all the negative thinking.
We read about Poe’s poverty throughout his entire life, Robert Burns worked the fields and didn’t even rate high enough in society to be able to vote. James Hogg was a shepherd and farmer and only wrote part-time. The Bronte sisters lived in penury for most of their lives. Jane Austen and Cassandra were only able to live as well as they were able to because one of their brothers had come into a massive inheritance.
Over and over again, we’re told we’ll fail, or starve, or we don’t have the right connections, the right education, the right style, and the list goes on.
Alexandre Dumas challenges all this. He was a nobody and he became somebody with the power of his pen.
If anything, he proves to us that if you remain agile, explore several different avenues of writing, and you write well–it really is possible to start from nothing and go to everything. But it takes work.
2. Alexandre Dumas was descended from African slaves.
Yes, you read that correctly. Alexandre Dumas was black. Didn’t teach you that in school, did they? Read on: it gets better!
His family name–Dumas–is from his grandmother, Marie Dumas, who was a slave in the French Caribbean–modern day Haiti/Dominican Republic. His grandfather was a French nobleman.
Dumas’ father, also Alexandre Dumas (birth name of Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie) we know a good deal about thanks to recent scholarship. There are even some suggestions that General Dumas’ life was part of the inspiration behind some of his son’s novels–particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. Undoubtedly it was. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas lived a very dramatic life and died a very tragic death–when his son was only a child.
Alexandre Dumas the writer did not the typical life of a man with African ancestry–not by a long shot and it would be very foolish of anyone to claim otherwise. Suffer no delusions on that point. Slavery of Africans in the Caribbean and elsewhere was alive and well. His own father, aunts and grandmother had been enslaved at one point. But times were changing.
In his own lifetime, slavery ended in both the Caribbean and the United States. Imagine that. He was alive to see the majority of African slavery in the colonies end. Only in Brazil and in a few other places in South America did slavery endure until the 1880s. Let that sink in.
Did Dumas face racism in his own day? There’s very little doubt that he must have done at some point. He was the illegitimate child of a revolutionary general and very obviously did not have a completely European heritage. Did he let that deter him? Well, I think the results speak for themselves on that point.
It makes a very important point about our own assumptions not only about the time period, but about the field of letters itself. We assume no one of color could rise above the level of impoverishment. We assume failure until success is proven.
These are fallacies similar to the ones about being a writer and it’s high time we stop catering to them. Whatever our vocation, occupation, creed, culture, heritage, or skin color.
3. Dumas was deeply interested in the world around him.
Did you know The Count of Monte Cristo was based upon actual events?
Dumas had a zest for the world around him and that shows in his writing. Whether it ‘s the banter between Athos, Porthos, and Aramis in The Three Musketeers, or the tale of Luigi Vampa in The Count of Monte Cristo, there are any number of details to keep you entertained when reading a Dumas novel.
The Count of Monte Cristo is perhaps one of the best examples of just how much of life Dumas crammed into his books.
From the Turkish wars in the Balkan Peninsula, to the manners of Parisian high society, the fortunes of a merchant family, the blend of cultures in Marseilles, and the famed Italian banditti (which were a feature of the earlier Gothic novel too) to the workings of law and justice in society, the novel is honeycombed with details, anecdotes, and subplots which boggle the mind.
Even more so is Dumas’ grasp of current events.
Edmond Dantes goes to prison partially because of the touchy political landscape which characterized France. He’s accused of being a Bonapartist and is sent to prison to protect the involvement of an actual Bonapartist in communicating with the exiled would-be emperor.
Ironically, the Abbe Faria who he meets in prison was imprisoned on accusations that he did not support Napoleon.
Now there’s a political commentary if ever there was one!
For the modern writer, for whom information is available at the press of a few keys, this should be a greater call for us to experience not only what we read, but what we live in a more mindful, present manner. While we may still be limited in our travel options, we can do something as simple as going to a coffee shop for the day’s writing. Or changing where we usually work.
4. He would have been banned today but he was a best-seller in his own day.
Alexander Dumas wasn’t just a bestselling author in his day. Since their publication, his novels have had hundreds of adaptations in movies, plays, musicals, abridgments, television, radio, and the list goes on. And on. And on. It’s the stuff of legends!
But there’s a flip side to this.
The story of Monte Cristo that you hear today, is an abridgment of what actually happens in the novel itself. An abridgment based upon Victorian-era translations that left out a lot of the juicier stuff Dumas put in. Like the drug use. The sex dreams. The serial poisoner. The lesbian couple. The human trafficking. The sugar daddy/sugar baby dynamic. The disregard and general disdain of authority. It’s all there.
Sounds like something that any number of sanctimonious moralists would hasten to have banned to me as being “inappropriate.” In fact, Flaubert’s Madam Bovary is far less provocative and it flat out was banned for a while.
And yet Monte Cristo was a bestseller in its day. Sort of challenges your thinking, doesn’t it?
If there is a single takeaway from this, it should be the so-called “rules” which are placed upon us as writers can be broken. But it matters how you break them.
Because he made it seem like the higher moral good. The Count seeks revenge–morally wrong–and it turns out that all the men who were the objects of his revenge were secret criminals and end up being ruined because their crimes come to light. Seeking revenge doesn’t sound quite so bad, does it?
The drugs? The Count uses them because otherwise he cannot sleep and can eat very little. Undoubtedly because he suffered from the years of imprisonment and that’s the only way he can get any relief.
The sex dreams? More of a look into the character of the person having them and revealing him to be what he is–a show of nobleness and not an actual noble.
The serial poisoner? None other than our old fairy-tale friend, the wicked stepmother jealous of her step-daughters sweetness and the favor her grandfather showers upon her.
This begs the question of when something which is ordinarily wrong becomes the right thing to do. Or is what we consider right and wrong just a construct of our society?
There’s a lot you can learn about a character, be it your own or someone else’s, just from asking this question. Is what they are doing actually wrong? Was Edmond Dantes wrong to seek revenge? Was he wrong to engineer some events to his advantage? Was he wrong to be essentially a law unto himself?
It’s tempting to write your heroes and heroines as being perfect–as always wanting what’s right. As always doing the right thing, or saying the right thing, or being strong. It’s far more challenging to have your character deliberately court wrongdoing.
But Dumas does it to perfection and it is something which more writers should emulate.
5. He had help when he wrote
He was also criticized for having help. The help? Research and outlines. That was it. Dumas did the rest.
Are you shocked? Why should you be?
Today, we have AI programs that essentially do the same thing. Google researches any topic we could possibly wish for in the blink of an eye AND it even sorts the information based upon an algorithm to determine which sites have the most useful information.
Well, is that what a research assistant is supposed to do? Dumas didn’t have the luxury of the internet and Google. But he could hire help. So he did.
This stands in stark contrast to our popular conception of the novelist as a lone figure. Jane Austen famously wrote at a small table, painstakingly revising and re-writing her own works. for example.
The writer at his desk. Lonely, hunched over his pens and papers as he slaves away in a garret room, writing his masterpiece.
That’s our romantic perception.
If you’re stuck in a place in your novel, it’s ok to ask for help. If you can’t get all the research you need done for your own magnum opus, get some help. It’s ok to not do all the work yourself. It’s ok to have someone help you get some of the less-fun parts of writing done.
If you enjoyed that little foray, stay tuned!
Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo will feature very heavily this month. It’s one of my personal favorite novels and one which I dearly hope you’ll pick up again and enjoy.
If, by the way, you are looking for a good translation. I have one name for you: Robin Buss. I have it on very good authority from an avid Dumas fan I met in October 2020 that Buss’ translation is the best out there. And this was on the recommendation of someone who had The Count of Monte Cristo in the original French from an edition published and bound in Marseilles.