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Alexandre Dumas, père
Alexandre Dumas, père, born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie (July 24, 1802 – December 5, 1870), is best known for his numerous historical novels of high adventure which have made him the most widely read French author in the world. Many of his novels, including The Count of Monte Cristo and the D'Artagnan Romances, were serialized, and he also wrote plays, magazine articles, and was a prolific correspondent. Dumas was a quadroon, and suffered from racism during his lifetime.
Origins and early life
While his grandfather, Marquis Antoine-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, served the government of France as General Commissaire in the Artillery in the colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), he married Marie-Céssette Dumas , a black slave. In 1762, she gave birth to his father, Thomas-Alexandre, and died soon thereafter.
When the Marquis and his young mulatto son returned to Normandy, slavery still existed, so the boy suffered as a result of being half black. In 1786, Thomas-Alexandre joined the French army, but to protect the aristocratic family's reputation, he enlisted using his mother's maiden name. Following the Revolution in France, the Marquis lost his estates, but Thomas-Alexandre Dumas distinguished himself as a capable and daring soldier in revolutionary army, rising through the ranks to become a General by the age of 31.
General Dumas married Marie-Louise Elizabeth Labouret and on July 24, 1802 and in Villers-Cotterêts, Aisne, near Paris, France, she gave birth to their son, Alexandre Dumas, who would become France's most commercially successful author. General Dumas died in 1806 when Alexandre was only four, leaving a nearly impoverished mother to raise him under difficult conditions. Although Marie-Louise was unable to provide her son with much in the way of education, it did not hinder young Alexandre's love of books, and he read everything he could get his hands on. Growing up, his mother's stories of his father's brave military deeds during the glory years of Napoleon spawned Alexandre's vivid imagination for adventure and heroes. Although poor, the family still had the father's distinguished reputation and aristocratic connections and after the restoration of the monarchy, twenty-year-old Alexandre Dumas moved to Paris where he obtained employment at the Palais Royal in the office of the powerful duc d'Orléans.
While working in Paris, Dumas began to write articles for magazines as well as plays for the theatre. In 1829 his first solo play, Henry III and his Court, was produced, meeting with great public acclaim. The following year his second play, Christine, proved equally popular and as a result, he was financially able to work full time at writing. However, in 1830, he participated in the revolution that ousted King Charles X and replaced him on the throne with Dumas' former employer, the duc d'Orléans, who would rule 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. As life slowly returned to normal, the nation began to industrialize and with an improving economy combined with the end of press censorship, the times turned out to be very rewarding for the skills of Alexandre Dumas.
After writing more successful plays, he turned his efforts to novels. Although attracted to an extravagant lifestyle, and always spending more than he earned, Dumas proved to be a very astute business marketer. With high demand from newspapers for serial novels, in 1838, he simply rewrote one of his plays to create his first serial novel. Titled "Le Capitaine Paul," it led to his forming a production studio that turned out hundreds of stories, all subject to his personal input and direction.
In 1840, he married an actress, Ida Ferrier, but continued with his numerous liaisons with other women, fathering at least three children. One of those children, a son named after him, would follow in his footsteps, also becoming a successful novelist and playwright. Because of their same name and occupation, to distinguish them, one is referred to as Alexandre Dumas père, (French for father) the other as Alexandre Dumas, fils (French for son).
Alexandre Dumas, père, wrote stories and historical chronicles of high adventure that captured the imagination of the French public who eagerly waited to purchase the continuing sagas. A few of these works are:
- the D'Artagnan Romances:
- The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousqetaires, 1844)
- Twenty Years After (Vingt Ans Après, 1845)
- The Vicomte de Bragelonne (Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, ou Dix ans plus tard, 1847) -- when published in English it was usually split into three parts, of which the last part (which deals with the Man in the Iron Mask) is the best-known
- The Count of Monte Cristo (1845–1846)
- The Regent's Daughter (1845)
- The Two Dianas (1846)
- the Valois romances
- the Marie Antoinette romances :
- Joseph Balsamo (1846–1848) (aka "Memoirs of a physician", "Cagliostro", "Madame Dubarry", "The Countess Dubarry", or "The Elixir of Life")
- The Queen's Necklace (1849–1850)
- Ange Pitou (1853) (aka "Storming the Bastille", or "Six Years Later")
- The Countess de Charny (1853–1855) (aka "Andrée de Taverney", or "The Mesmerist's Victim")
- The Black Tulip (1850)
- The Nutcracker (1844) -- a revision of Hoffmann's story, later adapted by Tchaikovsky as a ballet
- The Gold Thieves (after 1857) -- a play that was lost, and rediscovered by the Canadian Reginald Hamel researcher in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2004
- The Knight of Sainte-Hermine (Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, 1869) -- the novel was his last major work and was lost until its rediscovery by Claude Schopp was announced in 2005
His writing earned him a great deal of money, but Dumas was frequently broke and in debt as a result of spending lavishly on countless women and high living. A soft touch, the huge and costly château he built was constantly filled with strangers who took advantage of his generosity. With King Louis-Philippe ousted in another revolt, he was not looked upon as favorably by the newly elected President, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and in 1851 Dumas finally had to flee to Brussels, Belgium to escape his creditors. From there he traveled to Russia where French was the second language and his writings were also enormously popular.
Dumas spent two years in Russia before moving on to seek adventure and fodder for more stories. In March of 1861, the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, with Victor Emmanuel II as its king. For the next three years, Alexandre Dumas would be involved in the fight for a united Italy, returning to Paris in 1864.
Despite Alexandre Dumas' success and aristocratic connections, his being of mixed-blood would affect him all his life. In 1843, he wrote a short novel, Georges, that addressed some of the issues of race and the effects of colonialism. Nevertheless, racist attitudes impacted his rightful position in France's history long after his death on December 5, 1870.
Buried in the place where he had been born, Alexandre Dumas remained in the cemetery at Villers-Cotterêts until November 30, 2002. Under orders of the French President, Jacques Chirac, his body was exhumed and in a televised ceremony, his new coffin, draped in a blue-velvet cloth and flanked by four men costumed as the Musketeers: Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D'Artagnan, was transported in a solemn procession to the Panthéon of Paris, the great mausoleum where French luminaries are interred.
In his speech, President Chirac said: "With you, we were D'Artagnan, Monte Cristo or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles -- with you, we dream." In an interview following the ceremony, President Chirac acknowledged the racism that had existed, saying that a wrong had now been righted with Alexandre Dumas enshrined alongside fellow authors Victor Hugo and Voltaire.
The honor recognized that although France has produced many great writers, none have been as widely read as Alexandre Dumas. His stories have been translated into almost a hundred languages, and has inspired more than 200 motion pictures.
Alexandre Dumas' home outside of Paris, the Château Monte Cristo, has been restored and is open to the public.
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