DUMAS’ LITERARY CAREER
Just how far Dumas’ literary ability was an inheritance, or growth of his early environment, will ever be an open question. It is a manifest fact that he had breathed something of the spirit of romance before he came to Paris.
Although it was not acknowledged until 1856, “The Wolf-Leader” was a development of a legend told to him in his childhood. Recalling then the incident of his boyhood days, and calling into recognition his gift of improvisation, he wove a tale which reflected not a little of the open-air life of the great forest of Villers-Cotterets, near the place of his birth.
Here, then, though it was fifty years after his birth, and thirty after he had thrust himself on the great world of Paris, the scenes of his childhood were reproduced in a wonderfully romantic and weird tale – which, to the best of the writer’s belief, has not yet appeared in English.
To some extent it is possible that there is not a little of autobiography therein, not so much, perhaps, as Dickens put into “David Copperfield,” but the suggestion is thrown out for what it may be worth.
It is, furthermore, possible that the historic associations of the town of Villers-Cotterets – which was but a little village set in the midst of the surrounding forest – may have been the prime cause which influenced and inspired the mind of Dumas toward the romance of history.
In point of chronology, among the earliest of the romances were those that dealt with the fortunes of the house of Valois (fourteenth century), and here, in the little forest town of Villers-Cotterets, was the magnificent manor-house which belonged to the Ducs de Valois; so it may be presumed that the sentiment of early associations had somewhat to do with these literary efforts.
All his life Dumas devotedly admired the sentiment and fancies which foregathered in this forest, whose very trees and stones he knew so well. From his “Mémoires” we learn of his indignation at the destruction of its trees and much of its natural beauty. He says:
“This park, planted by François I., was cut down by Louis-Philippe. Trees, under whose shade once reclined François I. and Madame d’Etampes, Henri II. and Diane de Poitiers, Henri IV. and Gabrielle d’Estrées – you would have believed that a Bourbon would have respected you. But over and above your inestimable value of poetry and memories, you had, unhappily, a material value. You beautiful beeches with your polished silvery cases! you beautiful oaks with your sombre wrinkled bark! – you were worth a hundred thousand crowns. The King of France, who, with his six millions of private revenue, was too poor to keep you – the King of France sold you. For my part, had you been my sole possession, I would have preserved you; for, poet as I am, one thing that I would set before all the gold of the earth: the murmur of the wind in your leaves; the shadow that you made to flicker beneath my feet; the visions, the phantoms, which, at eventide, betwixt the day and night, in the doubtful hour of twilight, would glide between your age-long trunks as glide the shadows of the ancient Abencerrages amid the thousand columns of Cordova’s royal mosque.”
What wonder, with these lines before one, that the impressionable Dumas was so taken with the romance of life and so impracticable in other ways.
From the fact that no thorough biography of Dumas exists, it will be difficult to trace the fluctuations of his literary career with preciseness. It is not possible even with the twenty closely packed volumes of the “Mémoires” – themselves incomplete – before one. All that a biographer can get from this treasure-house are facts, – rather radiantly coloured in some respects, but facts nevertheless, – which are put together in a not very coherent or compact form.
They do, to be sure, recount many of the incidents and circumstances attendant upon the writing and publication of many of his works, and because of this they immediately become the best of all sources of supply. It is to be regretted that these “Mémoires” have not been translated, though it is doubtful if any publisher of English works could get his money back from the transaction.
Other clues as to his emotions, and with no uncertain references to incidents of Dumas’ literary career, are found in “Mes Bêtes,” “Ange Pitou,” the “Causeries,” and the “Travels.” These comprise many volumes not yet translated.
Dumas was readily enough received into the folds of the great. Indeed, as we know, he made his entrée under more than ordinary, if not exceptional, circumstances, and his connection with the great names of literature and statecraft extended from Hugo to Garibaldi.
As for his own predilections in literature, Dumas’ own voice is practically silent, though we know that he was a romanticist pure and simple, and drew no inspiration or encouragement from Voltairian sentiments. If not essentially religious, he at least believed in its principles, though, as a warm admirer has said, “He had no liking for the celibate and bookish life of the churchman.”
Dumas does not enter deeply into the subject of ecclesiasticism in France. His most elaborate references are to the Abbey of Ste. Genevieve – since disappeared in favour of the hideous pagan Panthéon – and its relics and associations, in “La Dame de Monsoreau.” Other of the romances from time to time deal with the subject of religion more or less, as was bound to be, considering the times of which he wrote, of Mazarin, Richelieu, De Rohan, and many other churchmen.
Throughout the thirties Dumas was mostly occupied with his plays, the predominant, if not the most sonorous note, being sounded by “Antony.”
As a novelist his star shone brightest in the decade following, commencing with “Monte Cristo,” in 1841, and continuing through “Le Vicomte de Bragelonne” and “La Dame de Monsoreau,” in 1847.
During these strenuous years Dumas produced the flower of his romantic garland – omitting, of course, certain trivial and perhaps unworthy trifles, among which are usually considered, rightly enough, “Le Capitaine Paul” (Paul Jones) and “Jeanne d’Arc.” At this period, however, he produced the charming and exotic “Black Tulip,” which has since come to be a reality. The best of all, though, are admittedly the Mousquetaire cycle, the volumes dealing with the fortunes of the Valois line, and, again, “Monte Cristo.”
By 1830, Dumas, eager, as it were, to experience something of the valiant boisterous spirit of the characters of his romances, had thrown himself heartily into an alliance with the opponents of Louis-Philippe. Orleanist successes, however, left him to fall back upon his pen.
In 1844, having finished “Monte Cristo,” he followed it by “Les Trois Mousquetaires,” and before the end of the same year had put out forty volumes, by what means, those who will read the scurrilous “Fabrique des Romans” – and properly discount it – may learn.