Alexandre Dumas Biography


Alexandre Dumas was perhaps the most popular author of the nineteenth century, and his best works continue to be popular today. Two of his novels, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, are ranked among the best adventure stories of the world and have been read by countless thousands. The Three Musketeers has also been the subject of many movies and has inspired many similar types of swashbuckling films.

Born on July 24, 1802, Dumas was one of the most prolific writers of the nineteenth century. His father, a mulatto, was somewhat of an adventurer-soldier and was not a favorite of Napoleon because of his staunch republicanism. When his father died, young Dumas was only four, and the family was left in rather severe financial straits. The young boy's formal education was scanty, most of it provided by a priest, and as soon as he could qualify, Dumas worked in the office of a lawyer. As he grew older, he became close friends with the son of an exiled Swedish nobleman, and the two of them began to dabble in vaudeville enterprises.

As a young man, Dumas went to Paris and secured a position as a clerk to the Duc d'Orleans; this was a marvelous stroke of good fortune, for the Duc would soon become king, and Dumas would write a superb memoir about his many and varied mishaps while he was employed by the future king. At the same time, Dumas and an old friend, Adolphe de Leuven, produced several melodramas.

When Dumas was twenty-two, his life underwent a drastic change: first, he wrote and produced his own melodrama which was a popular success and, second, he became the father of an illegitimate son by a dressmaker. When the boy was seven, Dumas went to court to get custody of the boy and succeeded.

Professionally, these years were extremely happy times for Dumas; for six years, he and Leuven had been collaborating on plays, and their legitimate dramas had been staged to much popular acclaim. In 1829, Dumas's Henry III et sa Cour (Henry III and his Court) was produced; it was Dumas's first spectacular triumph. The Duc was so fond of it that he appointed Dumas the librarian of the Palais Royale.

The Revolution of 1830 interrupted Dumas's playwriting, and for a pleasant and amusing account of these years, one should consult Dumas's memoirs for many richly humorous anecdotes (don't worry unduly about the degree of truth in them). Later, because Dumas was implicated in some "irregularities" during a noted general's funeral, he decided to "tour" Switzerland; as a result, we have another long series of memoirs, this time issued as travel books. It should be noted, though, that Dumas always retained his affectionate relationship with the Duc and that he eventually returned to France, where he composed many first-rate, long-running plays.

Dumas's well-known collaboration with Auguste Maquet began in 1837 and resulted in a series of historical novels in which Dumas hoped to reconstruct the major events of French history. For example, in The Three Musketeers, the musketeers are united in order to defend the honor of Anne of Austria (the queen of France) against Cardinal Richelieu's schemes. This particular novel was so popular that Dumas immediately composed two sequels and, by coincidence, his other great novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, was also written during this same creative period, even though the time periods of the two novels vary greatly.

With the aid of collaborators, Dumas turned out so much fiction and miscellaneous writing that it has been remarked that "no one has ever read the whole of Dumas, not even himself." We know now, however, that Dumas's assistants provided him with only rough plotlines and suggested incidents. He himself filled in the outlines, and all of his manuscripts are in his handwriting.

Like so many creative and productive men, Dumas's life ended in a series of personal and financial tragedies. He built a strangely beautiful and impressive French Gothic, English Renaissance hybrid mansion and filled it with a multitude of scavenger-friends; both his home and his hangers-on were tremendous drains on his purse, as was the construction and upkeep of his own theater, the Theatre Historique, built specifically for the performance of his own plays.

In 1851, Dumas moved to Brussels, as much for his political advantage as to escape creditors — despite the 1,200 volumes which bore his name — and he died not long after a scandalous liaison with an American circus girl, a situation that he might well have chosen as a fictional framework for his demise.

Dumas's son, Alexandre ("Dumas fils"), is remembered today chiefly for his first novel, The Lady of the Camellias, which was the basis for the libretto of Verdi's opera La Traviata, as well as the plot of one of Hollywood's classic films, Camille, starring Greta Garbo.