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15 October, 2013


The library I inherited from my parents continues to reveal surprise nuggets of history.  My recent discovery is a novel "The Forty-Five Guardsmen" written by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) in 1847. Quite remarkably, the book was "borrowed" from the Dresden (ON,) Continuation School library by my father in 1915 when he was 16 years of age.  It is in remarkably good condition for a book that is 168 years old.

I cannot explain why this 484-page publication, the third in a Valois Romances series by Dumas, has escaped my scrutiny for all these years other than to say that it is one of the few books in the family library that I never got around to reading.  The find, thanks to a Thanksgiving Day reorginization of book shelves in my study, sparked my curiosity and set me off on a new research project, leaving all else in its wake.

It is really curious how this novel, written by a 19th century Frenchman with black bloodlines, ended up in a school library in the Southwestern Ontario Town of Dresden 100 years ago.  Most of Dumas' writings were translated to English and "The Forty-Five Guardsmen", a sequel to "LaDame de Monsoreau", is a tough study especially for a continuation school student at the turn of the last century.

Here is what I have uncovered about one of the most famous and controversial French authors of the 1800s.

Dumas is best known for the historical novels The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, both written within the space of two years, 1844-45, and which belong to the foundation works of popular culture. He was among the first, along with Honoré de Balzac and Eugène Sue, who fully used the possibilities of roman feuilleton (serial novel or contempory soap opera). Dumas is credited with revitalizing the historical novel in France, although his abilities as a writer were under dispute from the beginning.

Dumas was born in Villes-Cotterêts, France. His grandfather was a French nobleman, who had settled in Santo Domingo; his paternal grandmother, Marie-Cessette, was an Afro-Caribbean, who had been a black slave in the French colony. Dumas's father was a general in Napoleon's army, who had fallen out of favor. After his death in 1806 the family lived in poverty. Dumas worked as a notary's clerk in Villers-Cotterêtes and went in 1823 to Paris to find work. Due to his elegant handwriting he secured a position with the Duc d'Orléans - later King Louis Philippe. He also found his place in theater and as a publisher of some obscure magazines. An illegitimate son called Alexandre Dumas fils, whose mother, Marie-Catherine Labay, was a dressmaker, was born in 1824.

Alexandre Dumas
Before 1843 Dumas wrote 15 plays. Historical novels brought Dumas enormous fortune, but he could spent money faster than he made it. He produced some 250 books with his 73 assistants, especially with the history teacher Auguste Maquet, whom he wisely allowed to work quite independently. Dumas earned roughly 200,000 francs yearly and received an annual sum of 63,000 francs for 220,000 lines from the newspapers La Presse and the Constitutionel. Maquet often proposed subjects and wrote first drafts for some of Dumas' most famous serial novels, including Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844, The Three Musketeers) and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-45, The Count of Monte-Cristo). Dumas himself claimed that he only began writing his books when they were already completed in his head.

As a master dialogist, he developed character traits, and kept the action moving, and composed the all-important chapter endings - teaser scenes that maintained suspense and readers interest to read more.

Dumas' role in the development of the historical novel owes much to a coincidence. The lifting of press censorship in the 1830s gave rise to a rapid spread of newspapers. Editors began to lure readers by entertaining serial novels. Everybody read them, the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie, young and old, men and women. Dumas' first true serial novel was Le Capitaine Paul (1838, Captain Paul), a quick rewrite of a play. It was addressed to a female readership and added 5,000 subscribers to the list of Le Siècle when it was serialized. Along with Balzac and other writers, he also contributed to Emile de Girardin's weekly, La Mode, which became the voice of an aristocratic and wordly tout-Paris.

Dumas lived as adventurously as the heroes of his books, and his way of life created a number of anecdotes.

In 1851 Dumas escaped his creditors to Brussels. He spent two years there in exile and then returned to Paris and founded a daily paper called Le Mousquetaire. In 1858 he traveled to Russia and in1860 he went to Italy, where he supported Garibaldi and Italy's struggle for independence (1860-64). He then remained in Naples as a keeper of the museums for four years. After his return to France his debts continued to mount. Called as "the king of Paris", Dumas earned fortunes and spent them right away on friends, art, and mistresses. He was professed to have had dozens of illegitimate children, but he acknowledged only three. According to a story, when Dumas once found his wife in bed with his good friend Roger de Beauvoir, he said: "It's cold night. Move over and make room for me."

Dumas died of a stroke on December 5, 1870, at Puys, near Dieppe. It is claimed that his last words were: "I shall never know how it all comes out now," in which he referred to his unfinished book. Dumas' son Alexandre Dumas fils, became a writer, dramatist, and moralist, who never accepted his father's lifestyle.

Dumas did not generally define himself as a black man, and there is not much evidence that he encountered overt racism during his life. However, his works were popular among the 19th-century African-Americans, partly because in The Count of Monte-Cristo, the falsely imprisoned Edmond Dantès, may be read as a parable of emancipation. In a shorter work, Georges (1843, George), Dumas examined the question of race and colonialism. The main character, a half-French mulatto, leaves Mauritius to be educated in France, and returns to avenge himself for the affronts he had suffered as a boy.

As I said earlier, perhaps we'll never know how "The Forty-Five Guardsmen" ended up on the book shelves of a school in Dresden all those years ago, nor what there was about it that interested my father, but I plan to keep working on it, if only to speculate. 

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