Celebrating Alexandre Dumas

Hats off to France's literary star

The historical novels of French writer Alexandre Dumas have thrilled generations. As a once-lost, last book is published, Dumas devotee Hugh Schofield explains the author's enduring appeal.

Alexandre Dumas
Dumas's novel was rediscovered after more than a century

A couple of years back I was witness to a strange but rather moving piece of French patriotic pageantry, a costumed procession by torchlight through the streets of the Latin Quarter.

It was the night they brought the body of Alexandre Dumas to be interred in the Pantheon, that bizarre combination of church and mausoleum that tops the hill in the oldest part of Paris.

Four men dressed as musketeers carried the coffin, draped in blue velvet, up the slope to the building's imposing facade, where they were met on horseback by a woman in white representing Marianne, the female embodiment of France.

Dumas books comprise a kind of swashbuckling novelistic accompaniment to the length of French history

It was France welcoming to its bosom one of its most cherished sons, a man who started life as the grandson of a Haitian slave, and ended it as one of the most popular writers of all time.

I have been a devoted follower of Dumas ever since I was introduced to The Three Musketeers, about 15 years ago.

Swashbuckling history

Not just the first book, of course, but the series of musketeer novels, culminating in The Man in the Iron Mask and (much to my surprise at the time) the deaths of Porthos, Athos and d'Artagnan.

The Count of Monte Cristo followed (to my mind not as good, the second half is rather flat), and since then bit by bit my collection has grown, until I have now about 20 novels in translation and the original French.

Man In The Iron Mask, illustration circa 1850.
The Man in the Iron Mask was the last musketeer novel

Not many people realise it, but the Dumas books taken as a whole actually comprise a kind of swashbuckling novelistic accompaniment to the length of French history, starting from the late Middle Ages through practically to the writer's own day.

The so-called Valois novels tell the stories of the wars of religion at the end of the 16th Century, the musketeer books deal with the reigns of Louis Treize (XIII) and Quatorze (XIV).

Later there is the Marie Antoinette series, and finally a trilogy set in the time of Napoleon, the last of which, Le Cavalier de Sainte Hermine, is now being published in book form for the very first time.

Lost, last book

The story of how The Last Cavalier was found is an exciting enough tale in itself.

A man called Claude Schopp is France's leading expert on Alexandre Dumas, and it was while looking through the national archives that he found a reference to a row in which Dumas was accused of besmirching the reputation of the Empress Josephine.

Dumas was not just a prodigious author, with more than 200 works to his name, but also a traveller, a republican activist and a renowned gourmet

He could not work out where, because there was nothing of that nature in any of the known novels, until he was poring over old editions of a provincial newspaper and fell upon serialised excerpts of what, with a palpitating heart, he immediately realised must be Dumas's lost, last book.

In fact The Last Cavalier was unfinished when the writer died in 1870 and Mr Schopp has done us all a service by adding the final couple of chapters.

The novel, I am pleased to say, is vintage Dumas, perhaps not his very top form, but full of all that we fans love best: the pace, the plot, the death and honour, the villains, the battles, and the history.

For, as usual, The Last Cavalier is peopled with real-life historical characters, and the fictional story is skilfully woven into events that really did take place.

French President Jacques Chirac bows at the coffin of author Alexandre Dumas
Alexandre Dumas's body was moved into the Pantheon in 2002

Here the prime mover is Napoleon Bonaparte, the arch-baddy is his police minister Fouche, and the main set-piece is the naval battle of Trafalgar.

Mystery has always surrounded the identity of the actual French soldier, perched high in the rigging, who fatally shot Lord Nelson on the deck of HMS Victory. Read The Last Cavalier and be mystified no more.

Presidential tribute

Back at that ceremony in the Latin Quarter. I remember the president of the day, Jacques Chirac, paid a moving tribute to Dumas, making the point, which I believe is absolutely true, that his books have done more to teach French history than any number of academics.

He also alluded to Dumas's own extraordinary life. It is so easy to forget that the writer was a quarter black, his father's mother had been a slave on the then French island of Haiti, and that his prodigious success was achieved in the teeth of all the racial prejudices of the day.

Dumas was not just a prodigious author, with more than 200 works to his name, but also a traveller, a republican activist and a renowned gourmet.

As the president said, to read Dumas is to love the French language, to appreciate French history and to learn a little of France itself. "Chapeau," as the French say, "hats off to all that."

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