French Literature Of The 19th Century:
The Romantic Novelists
Philosophers And Historians
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Alexandre Dumas shares with Hugo the glory of the revival of the romance of adventure. He was the son of General Alexandre Dumas, who was a Creole, the illegitimate son of a French Marquis and a negro girl. General Dumas was a man of remarkable gallantry, but so little inclined to submit to control that Napoleon dismissed him from the army. His wife was an innkeeper's daughter, who proved an affectionate mother. The great Alexandre was born at Villers-Cotterets on July 4, 1802. He was boisterous and troublesome in youth and at the age of twenty-one went to Paris to seek his fortune. He entered the employ of the Duke of Orleans, and two years later began to write small pieces for the theater. He took quite naturally to the Romantic movement, being influenced by the visit of some English actors to Paris, who introduced him to Shakespeare. The performance of his drama of "Henri III" on February 11, 1829, was the first success of the Romantic school. In the Revolution of July, 183o, Dumas took an active part. But he soon returned to the theater and wrote "Antony," a powerful but immoral play. When his "Tour de Nesle" (1832) led to a charge of plagiarism, critics discovered that in his earlier plays also he had appropriated whole scenes from foreign plays, fitting them ingeniously to his plot. Dumas not only continued this practice afterward in his novels, but employed various collaborators, none of whom, however, could obtain the same success, when working independently. On account of a duel, he was ordered to leave France, and went to Switzerland. In 1842 he married an actress, who three years later separated from him and went to Italy.
At last, in 1844, appeared the first of his great novels, which gave Dumas at once a European reputation. No romance since "Waverley" had excited such universal interest as "The Count of Monte Cristo." The brilliance of its coloring, the unflagging rush of the narrative, the frequent surprises and the air of probability given to the most improbable circumstances filled the world with astonishment. Scarcely was this story finished when "The Three Musketeers" followed, characterized by the same qualities. The immediate demand for Dumas' services as a story writer for the daily journals led him to put in practice the plan already mentioned of employing skilled assistants. In one year he is said to have issued forty volumes and still the demand grew for more. Whatever the amount of help from others, or of direct plagiarism, which he called "conquest," Dumas had the gift and the ambition of story-telling. He saw life in fascinating motion, a series of adventures dazzling and exciting. He loved the elemental, and believed in it as an artist. The secret of all genuinely great art is to appeal to the senses and not in vain. Dumas had this gift in perfection. Thackeray wrote to Dumas : "Of your heroic heroes I think our friend Monseigneur Athos is my favorite. I have read about him from sunrise to sunset, with the ut-most contentment of mind. He has passed through how many volumes, forty, fifty? I wish there were a hundred more."
Dumas made money by his manufacture of novels, but squandered it faster than it came. Among his most celebrated works, besides those already mentioned, were "Twenty Years After," a continuation of "The Three Musketeers," "The Vicomte de Bragelonne," "Margaret of Anjou," and "The Memoirs of a Physician." Novel writing did not withdraw him from the drama. He adapted some of his best romances for the stage and wrote original pieces, such as "The Youth of Louis XIV," "A Marriage Under Louis XV. He also published several historical works, chiefly relating to France. In 1852 he began the publication of his "Memoirs," which gives beautiful pictures of his early life. The Revolution of 1848 had cut off much of his income, and his splendid but unfinished palace of Monte Cristo was sold in 1854 for a tenth of its cost. Dumas lived to witness the Prussian invasion, and died at Dieppe in December, 187o.