The Neglected Side of Dumas

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Author: A. Craig Bell
Date: July 1952
From: The National and English Review
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,454 words

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[In the following essay, Bell briefly examines more than a dozen of Dumas's lesser-known novels and other works.]

On July 24 this year the Mayor of Villers-Cotterets is unveiling a new statue1to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the little town's most illustrious citizen—Alexandre Dumas. The ceremony will be attended by admirers from all over the world; for despite austere critics and academic historians of literature, Dumas continues to hold the attention of posterity.

Anniversaries of the births and deaths of great writers have in reality little significance; if their works survive at all they are timeless, and if they do not live in the affection and esteem of posterity no amount of eulogy, however erudite, will give them new life. Nevertheless they provide occasion and material for the pointing of a moral or the adorning of a tale, and for the making of comparisons which are not always odious. I will begin by stating that precisely a hundred years ago, when Dumas' celebrity was just past its peak, and until about the time of his death, the name of a contemporary was frequently linked with his merely on account of the equal popularity of a couple of works; and I leave it to the French Academy and such-like highly respectable literary institutions to enlighten us as to why there is unlikely ever to be a statue erected to Eugène Sue, and why the Mystères de Paris and The Wandering Jew have long ago dropped out of circulation while Monte-Cristo and Twenty Years After live on.

“Genius is always prolific.” The dictum, attributed both to Haydn and to Beethoven, is true enough. One might even add to it and say: “Genius is always too prolific,” recalling the colossal output of nineteenth-century French writers. (The complete works of Balzac, Hugo, Georges Sand and Dumas would form a reasonable library.) Like all such writers Dumas has had to pay the price of an almost incredible fertility, namely, that of having a mere handful of his works perpetuated, and the rest consigned (in many instances unjustly) to oblivion.

But it is useless for the critic to shake his head over this “squandering of genius,” as it has been termed, and to call to mind the meticulous (dare one say over-meticulous?) Flaubert. No amount of revision and polish would have been any use to such as Balzac and Dumas, consumed by the damon of creation. They wrote their best when they wrote at their fastest. Balzac wrote La Cousine Bette in six weeks and Dumas the first four volumes (roughly a quarter) of Monte-Cristo in sixteen days. With them speed and inspiration were indivisible.

To try to assess in the brief space of one article the achievement of a man who wrote nearly sixty novels, without counting a host of plays, books of travel, memoirs, causeries, poetry, history and even cookery, is virtually impossible. One can only make a general survey. But even this may be useful if, during the course of it, we endeavour to throw light on dark corners and to break down traditional barriers of prejudice and caution.

To the average reader and critic Dumas is first, foremost and all the time, a writer of historical romances rather than a novelist. This view is imposed by blind tradition, merely because the historical romances from the outset achieved such popularity as to overshadow the rest of his works out of all proportion to merit or justice. And it is all but forgotten, at least in this country, that Dumas began his literary career as a dramatist and that for more than a decade (1830-43) he was known in France chiefly as a playwright. He was, in fact, one of the very few writers who have achieved success both as dramatist and novelist. It was Walter Scott, that predominant influence on French Romanticism, together with Froissart, Barente and Thierry, who turned him to history. The death of the “Wizard of the North” in 1832 spurred on his ambition to “do for France what Scott had done for Britain.” He began, not by writing historical romance, but a serious historical study—Gaule et France. In the course of his career Dumas wrote something like a dozen works in this vein. The fact that they were not successful and have been utterly forgotten does not alter the fact that his attitude towards history was always one of respect, even reverence. He never regarded history as a mere picturesque background for bloody intrigues, or as an escape from contemporary realities, as so many third-rate writers of historical romance have since done. This is worth remembering and should be set against his oft-quoted dictum: “It is permissible to violate history provided you have a child by her.” And it is worth while recording that The Three Musketeers, perhaps the most famous historical romance ever written, only came into being fortuitously. For it was while making researches for a history of the reign of Louis XIV that he chanced to come across the Mémoires de d'Artagnan of Gatien de Courtilz.

It was not, in fact, until 1838, when he was thirty-six, that Dumas produced his first historical romance. This was Acté, set in the reign of Nero. It was neither a failure nor a success. Read to-day, it comes apparent that Dumas had not yet found himself. It was not until three years later, with Le Chevalier d'Harmental (known in English as The Conspirators), that it became apparent that the successor to the author of Quentin Durward had been found. The first of Dumas' great historical romances, it still remains one of the best.

The next three— Sylvandire, Ascanio and Cécile—bear too obvious traces of Maquet's hand, and fall short. Then with The Three Musketeers and Monte-Cristo in 1844, the spate begins. I shall say nothing of the historical romances produced thereafter. Posterity has decreed that they shall be the Dumas who is for Everyman. That achievement received its full measure of reward in its own time and has never ceased to receive it. Instead, I should prefer to draw attention to an achievement which, while it is quite as great, has been unjustly overlooked by all except the few who are adventurous enough to stray off the well-beaten track and to explore for themselves: I mean the achievement of Dumas the novelist as distinct from Dumas the historical romancer.

That this is an achievement may be gathered from the fact that Dumas wrote over twenty novels of contemporary life, of which some seven or eight are to be counted among his best works—an assertion which will doubtless be hotly disputed, especially by those who have never read them. All the same, it is a fact little known, even to Dumas enthusiasts, that Dumas began his career as a writer of fiction in 1836 with two novels of contemporary society— Pauline and Pascal Bruno. Both must be accounted indifferent. Then, following hard on Acté (already mentioned) came La Chasse au Chastre and Le Capitaine Pamphile, and with them Dumas can be said to have found himself. They are indeed two bottles of the brightest Dumas vintage, sparkling with a humour and a fantasy which Dumas alone brought to French literature.

Between the appearance of Le Chevalier d'Harmental in 1842 and The Three Musketeers in 1844, no less than seven novels were written. Of these three are historical romances, and are negligible; the others, novels of modern society, are of far greater power and interest. They comprise: Georges, a tale of racial antagonism in the Isle de France; Amaury, a study of paternal love and jealousy; Fernande, the story of a courtesan; and Gabriel Lambert, the story of a galley slave Dumas purported to have met at Toulon. The two latter stand out from the others. In some ways, indeed, they are among the most remarkable of all Dumas' novels. Had they appeared among the vast Comédie Humaine of Balzac they would not have been out of place.

The fallen woman has always been a theme of attraction for French writers, from Prévost to modern times. Manon Lescaut, Marion de Lorme, Bernerette, Marguerite Gautier, Nana, are all famous courtesans of fiction. Fernande is Dumas' one and only contribution to the gallery. As was to be expected he takes the sentimental Romantic view, selecting the exceptional, educated girl, an officer's daughter who has been seduced by her guardian, and who only awaits some real deep love to shed all grossness. This Romantic attitude had been adopted by Hugo with Marion de Lorme, and was to achieve its apogee later by Dumas' son in La Dame aux Camélias. There is nothing here of the realistic brutality of Balzac's Valérie Marneffe (in La Cousine Bette) or Zola's Nana, or the icy, ruthless objectivity of Prévost's Manon. Nevertheless it would be wrong to condemn Dumas' novel on that count merely. The exceptional can be as convincing and true as the average; it all depends on how it is done. Within its limits Fernande is a first-rate novel, one of the outstanding examples of nineteenth-century Romantic fiction.

Having touched the magical spring of historical romance, Dumas wrote little in a different vein for the seven years following the appearance of The Three Musketeers in 1844. But with the Revolution of 1848 and the coup d' état of 1851, a change came over the political and literary scene. Romanticism became gradually outmoded, and the Romanticists themselves were exiled, self-exiled, dispersed or finished. Dumas himself, his greatest days over, his magnificent château “Monte-Cristo” stripped and sold to pay his debts, his theatre, the “Historique,” bankrupt, fled to Brussels to work in peace. There, free from pestering creditors and would-be collaborators, his thoughts swung backwards to the place of his birth and the days of his youth, and laying aside his colossal autobiography, Mes Mémoires (one of his greatest works) he dashed off that trilogy of pastoral novels—Conscience l'Innocent, Catherine Blum and Le Meneur de Loups—three of the most delightful and perfect novels that came from his pen, redolent of country life and with ordinary country folk as the characters.

Returning to Paris in 1854, he brought out his own journal Le Mousquetaire, for which he wrote among other things those charming sketches of the animal life at his former palatial mansion of “Monte-Cristo,” under the title of Histoire de mes Bêtes, and continued Mes Mémoires. He also wrote several historical romances, but none of them came up to the standard of those written in the greatest days.

Then in 1857 came the great Naturalistic novel of Flaubert— Madame Bovary. Dumas read it and disliked it, but it influenced him nevertheless. The growing posthumous influence of Balzac, although he had no sympathy with the latter's work, made itself felt too, as also the later work of Georges Sand. He saw clearly that the endless feuilleton was finished, the historical romance out of favour and Romanticism itself a spent force. So, just as the spirit of the age had urged him to write Antony and the Romantic dramas of the 1830's, and the historical romances of the 1840's, now he returned to the genre of his earlier Fernande and Gabriel Lambert, and produced between 1857 and 1860 seven novels of contemporary life, of which Black, Le Chasseur de Sauvagine, Le Fils du Forçat and Le Père la Ruine are outstanding.

These novels are unique among Dumas' output, and reveal an even greater transformation in technique and style than do the later novels of Dickens from his earlier ones. With their concentration on the smaller, domestic issues, their attention to detail, their careful building up of background and deliberate unfolding of the story, above all, in the milieu and the ordinary, unromantic nature of the characters, they are almost Naturalistic. Le Père la Ruine, indeed, is sheer tragedy, grim and stark in its relentless impetus.

It is one of the injustices of posterity, and the price of an excessive popularity, that these great novels have never received their due share of recognition. If he had not written historical romances and left only the novels to his name, Dumas would still have been one of the outstanding novelists of the nineteenth century. Only a public unconscious of real values, only critics who are content to remain ignorant of hidden worth, could allow publishers to go on printing and reprinting the same handful of romances, leaving these novels unread.

But fiction and drama were only two facets of Dumas' genius. Poetry, history, short story, biography, travel, journalism—he was to attempt them all. Space forbids discussion of each here. It is enough to say that, poetry and history excepted, he left something of enduring worth in each genre. He was not a short story writer like Mérimée, Daudet or Maupassant; but Un Bal Masqué, Le Cocher de Cabriolet and Marianna can hold their own in any representative anthology of the conte. Mes Mémoires, already mentioned, in spite of its inordinate length, inequalities and longueurs, is a remarkable work. And no survey of his achievement would be complete without reference to his books of travel, which contain some of his best writing and were among his most popular works in France. En Suisse, describing his travels in Switzerland in 1832, and De Paris à Cadix, recounting his trip to Spain in 1847, are particularly fine, as also is the unclassifiable Les Garibaldiens — translated by R. S. Garnett (Benn, 1929) as On Board “The Emma”—which, vividly narrating Dumas' own part in Garibaldi's Sicilian campaign, and published serially in La Presse, gives him the claim of having been the first accredited war correspondent, and remains the outstanding production from his pen in the last decade of his life.

Even so hurried and cursory a glance over Dumas' gargantuan output must, surely, give an impression of astounding vitality, fecundity and diversity. Not even Scott, or Dickens, created more hugely and intensely. Very superior critics, who see no further than Flaubert, Henry James, Proust and James Joyce, may sneer and belittle: but the greatest intellects such as Hugo, Lamartine, Heine, Georges Sand and Bernard Shaw have paid their tributes to Dumas. He was a “force of nature,” as Michelet apostrophized him in wonderment and admiration, and has reserved for himself a deep and lasting place in the affection of posterity.


1. The former bronze statue, by Carrier-Belleuse, erected on the centenary of Dumas birth, was removed and melted down for war purposes by the Nazis during their occupation of France.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420012986