He was not of course the Count Fersen we hear of in history, nor was he such an ideal of chivalry as Dumas makes him to be; but he was a certain audacious and rather disreputable adventurer called Rougeville who—as his recently published history shows 11 —lived between and , when he was shot by order of Napoleon as a spy and a traitor. About the writing of this book an anecdote is recorded by Blaze de Bury. Dumas often declared that, when once he had mapped out in his mind the scheme of a novel or a play the work was practically accomplished, since the mere writing of it presented no difficulty, and could be performed as fast as the pen could travel.
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Some one begged leave to dispute this assertion, and the result was a wager. Dumas had at that time in his head the plan of the Chevalier de Maison Rouge, of which he had not yet written a word, and he now made a bet of one hundred louis with his sceptical friend that he would write the first volume of the novel in seventy-two hours including the time for meals and sleep.
The volume was to be formed by seventy-five large foolscap pages, each page containing forty-five lines and each line fifty letters. In sixty-six hours Dumas had done the work—3, lines—in his fair flowing hand, disfigured by no erasions—and the bet was won with six hours to spare. Yet no one surely would say that the Chevalier de Maison Rouge bears any marks of haste or inconsiderateness.
On the contrary, it is, beyond doubt, the best of the Revolution novels, and not far from the best of all the novels. On closing it some retrospect and comparison is inevitable. There are weak points. The juggleries of Joseph Balsamo, however thrilling in themselves, are a feeble peg on which to hang the French Revolution, seeming indeed but a trivial burlesque of dire realities; and this fact becomes clearer as the series advances.
The peg gives way, and fiction has to glide—as in Ange Pitou and La Comtesse de Charny —more and more into a chronicle of facts. But the theory that Dumas had some special sense of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which he lacked when dealing with comparatively recent history is purely fanciful, and is falsified directly we get to the Chevalier de Maison Rouge, from which the Balsamo incubus has disappeared.
Here the romance of history and its dignity are equally consulted. The Marie Antoinette of the preceding books—faithfully described by a pen which erred neither in being too sentimental nor too ungenerous—was not a lovable person: the Marie Antoinette of this last story, now in the extremity of fate, is treated with all the sympathy and respect which her womanhood, her rank, and her misfortune demand. The Republican Dumas will have nothing to do with "Madame Veto" or "Veuve Capet" or any other scurrility of the sansculottes : the woman we see in the prison and on the scaffold is still Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and daughter of kings.
But the Musketeer books—while admirably adapted for continuity and for that "linked sweetness long drawn out" which the feuilleton requires—have also, it must be admitted, the defects of continuity. For one thing, inequalities are more marked: over so long a course good Homer has more chances of nodding—and nodding is infectious. For another, there is an absence of that finality which the mind of man craves for, even in fiction: there is indeed, except for the fate of all mortal things, no natural or necessary reason why these stories should ever end.
To postulate a continuation is, artistically, a sign of weakness. Les Trois Mousquetaires does not perhaps demand a sequel, but it certainly invites one. It had better therefore be disengaged at once and set on its own pedestal, there to remain as a masterpiece, plausible in history, in imagination immense. For the rest, if it is permitted to assume that excellence, whether in a novel or a play and remember that in Dumas the two are very close together consists in a reasonable size, in compactness, in self-sufficiency, together with concentred interest, crisp and unflagging action, unity of movement towards an end—if this be admitted, then, flanking that first pedestal, two others must be set up—certainly no smaller in stature; and on the one must be placed La Reine Margot, on the other Le Chevalier de Maison Rouge.
Whosoever bows before these will have done homage to the three greatest among the historical novels of Dumas. Having now covered in some fashion or other so wide a stretch of ground—having traversed without halt fifteen thousand pages of fiction and a period of time close on two hundred and fifty years—one would gladly rest and be thankful. Dumas does not allow it.
In giving precedence to those which we call "great" the epithet has been presumed as proper to the ones mentioned, whether considered in their conception or their extent or their fame: it is not meant to signify an arbitrary barrier or to exclude the preferences of individual taste. Other romances, to say nothing of dramas and historical works, were appearing during the same years and in the same way—first as newspaper serials, then in book form.
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Without degenerating at this place into a catalogue we may give a passing word to one or two of these. In came Ascanio a story chiefly concerned with Benvenuto Cellini , Fernande, and Amaury modern and non-historical. The publication of the latter in La Presse was interrupted for a reason of interest as illustrating an unusual and pathetic connexion between fiction and real life. The heroine of the story was a girl dying of consumption, and Mademoiselle de Noailles, who happened also to be suffering from this fatal malady, was so vitally interested in following the fate of the imaginary patient as to aggravate her own dangerous condition.
Therefore Amaury, on the request of M. It is a regular Froissart chronicle of the days of chivalry, having for its principal characters the Black Prince, Bertrand du Guesclin, Pedro of Navarre, and other warriors. There is also—but this has nothing to do with Froissart—a certain dog called "Allan," belonging to Don Frederick, the brother of Pedro the Cruel, "a slim wiry dog of the sierra, with a head pointed like that of a bear, piercing lynx-like eyes, legs fine and nervous as those of a deer.
About the antecedents of Mouton there had always been some mystery, and the friend from whom the dog came, parrying all questions, had contented himself with this advice: "Try first to attach him to you, and you will then see what he can do. It would be inexcusable in the eyes of many to pass over without honourable mention that pretty romance which tells how the godson of Cornelius de Witt reared, amid much tribulation, the precious bulb which gained the prize at Haarlem.
La Tulipe Noire , if not a great novel, is a charming story; and memory retains easily its few, though vivid figures— William the Silent , Boxtel, Gryphus, his daughter, and the gentle Van Baerle, whose love is divided between Rosa and his tulips, until the two are reconciled in the "Tulipa Nigra Rosa Barlaeensis. And there is yet one book—little known, little read—which enlightens, more than any other, that strange craving for the immeasurable and the impossible by which Dumas was always haunted.
Eventually, however, he discovered a frame capable of holding some such gigantic picture as he desired to make. That frame was the old theme of the Wandering Jew , whose name—as it is given in French tradition—served as the title of the story. Isaac Laquedem is nothing but a fragment—a mere paltry two volumes out of a projected dozen, for it was stopped by the Censorship, and Dumas never resumed it again. But even as a fragment it is astounding. We see, first, the wanderer arriving in Rome in and joining himself to those pilgrims whose feet the Pope, by old custom, was wont to wash on Holy Thursday in each year.
When it comes to his turn—he is the thirteenth—the Unknown falls at the Pontiff's knees, shows the brand upon his forehead, reveals himself as the accursed one who—for having refused the Christ bending under the Cross a moment's rest—had been condemned henceforth to wander through all countries and all ages, and finally begs the Holy Father to intercede for his pardon. This starting point having been established, the story plunges back into the remote past, traversing ancient Egypt, India, Persia, Greece, and Rome, comprising also Moses and the Prophets and the Old Testament history of the Jews, until it arrives at the New Testament and paraphrases the Gospel narrative with the miracles and sufferings of Christ—all in the most approved feuilleton style.
It was as well, perhaps, that the Government should intervene to prevent the sacred drama of the Passion from being presented to the Parisian public in the same style as the story of the Musketeers, since the thing was bound to move scoffing in some and pain in others. But there is no doubting the good faith of Dumas himself: irreverence and inexpediency were as far from his view as the opposite qualities they connote. In all sincerity he had set himself to explain and adorn the mysteries of religion for the benefit of the man in the street; and this ingenuousness of treatment is only less astonishing than the magnitude of conception.
What the future course of Isaac Laquedem would have been is but guess work. It is said—and is likely enough—that the author meant to have represented the Pope as securing for the criminal a conditional pardon—the condition being that he should still wander, but henceforth as the apostle of good, not of evil. In that case we can see how, after the interview with Paul II , the story would have started off again with the wide vista of the modern world before it, affording opportunities without end for the activity of the regenerate Jew.
As it stands Isaac Laquedem is an inchoate epic of the human race, which can only be criticized by large marks of exclamation. Marks of exclamation indeed punctuated Dumas all through his life. Sometimes they assumed a practical and hostile form. It was while these novels, greater and smaller, were appearing that an agitation was set on foot for the total abolition of Dumas. Ten years before he had been taken to task for appropriating in his plays the ideas and situations of other authors—mostly departed—whose reproachful spirits had been championed by Cassagnac.
On this occasion the "ghosts" were not of the dead but of the living.
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Whence, it was asked, came this marvellous fertility of production—this output some one had counted of sixty volumes in one year? One gentleman in particular considered the thing a scandal, and being a dealer in scandals naturally took it up. This was all very fine.
Then Jacquot, discarding the cloak of literary and ethical purism, resorted to the more congenial sphere of personalities; and having invented an excellent catchpenny title he launched the pamphlet Fabrique de Romans: Maison Alexandre Dumas et Cie.
To refer to this brochure is the mere duty of the chronicler: it has in itself no importance, and neither then nor since has influenced any reputable critic. So far as Dumas is concerned, he occasionally happened to say what was true in regard to collaborations: his personal anecdotes—inspired it was believed, by resentment at failure to become one of the great man's "secretaries"—may be allowed to have a certain negative value, since, in the absence of other evidence, they afford a fair presumption to the contrary.
All this is not to say that Dumas' collaborative methods require no comment, but only to bar at the outset that form of comment which assumes him to have been an impostor, incapable of writing anything good himself, and indebted for all his successes to the brains of others.
Apart from this absurd contention, which none of the men who worked with him ever put forward even in times of discontent and open quarrel, there are certain points proper for consideration. To avoid confusion, it is necessary in the first place to exclude altogether those jobbing "operations" to which Dumas—especially in his later years—lent himself, and which belong to the category of "trafficking" not of collaboration.
It was his nature to magnify and expand whatever he touched, and he probably persuaded himself that there might be an "extra-collaborative" just as there was an "extra-historic.
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He forgot—as he was reminded on a celebrated occasion 17 —that "there are degrees": the appreciation of degrees was his weakest point. These things—done sometimes to oblige a friend sometimes from the pressing need of money—must be regarded as disfiguring excrescences on the normal and legitimate form of collaboration. Ultimately, if the whole truth were known, they would resolve themselves into a sort of debtor and creditor account where the balance would be in Dumas' favour; he gave as freely and inconsiderately as he took, and while some of the publications bearing his name had little to do with him, it is equally certain that a great number appearing under other names were essentially his work.
So much for the "extra-collaborative" department. Return now to legitimate collaboration: with it alone we are concerned in all the principal works of Dumas—those on which his reputation depends, and which come within the view of the ordinary reader. Such an one, if asked, "What do you think of the collaborators of Dumas?
Still, there is no need to shirk the question. Maison Dumas et Cie.
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The fact, if not this way of putting it, was common enough in Paris at that time. It was brought about by the insistence of editors, publishers, and theatrical managers upon having some well known name with which to attract the public: and—all sophistry apart—the only difference between a commercial and a literary undertaking was that in the former the firm might bear the name of one who took no active part in it, whereas in the latter honesty demanded that the name on the cover of the book should indicate a real and a chief share in the work.
To this condition the collaboration of Dumas conforms—that wonderful infusion of himself into others which, so far from belittling the man, has only in the course of time intensified the greatness of his individuality and power. Single-handed he might be as in Henri III or Antony, or many-handed as in the host of other works: it is only the conditions of authorship that are changed, not the person of the author. Faith divines this conclusion: curiosity would like to know how the thing was done. The various forms of collaboration may be reduced to two main classes, according to the nature of the principal partner's share.
The first class includes those cases in which the subject of a play or a novel was brought to Dumas in an impossible or an imperfect state. Typical examples of this sort have been referred to in La Tour de Nesle.
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Mademoiselle de Belleisle 19 and Le Chevalier d'Harmental, in all which Dumas completed what was inchoate, strengthened what was puny, vitalized what was moribund. Sometimes he did more: he even resuscitated what was dead, as by recasting a play which had been hissed off the stage into that remarkable drama of his Le Comte Hermann. In all such cases where the book or the play would not otherwise have flourished, or perhaps even lived, who doubts that the giver of life is the real author? Sometimes, again, the suggestion from outside came in the course of conversation.
In this way the novelist once had as a collaborator the learned Schlegel, who, meeting Dumas in , told him from personal knowledge of certain events in the War of Liberation, which Dumas asked leave to make into a book and made into Le Capitaine Richard. To the second category of collaboration belong those works in which Dumas was responsible for the subject, and in this class come all the books written in partnership with Maquet, except Le Chevalier d'Harmental and Sylvandire, the subjects of which Maquet suggested.
In such cases, after discussing the plan with his partner, Dumas' habit was to draw up in outline a scheme of the whole, with the divisions and titles of chapters: then, when the assistant had filled in the outline, the MS. The same course was followed in other books besides those written with Maquet.
This re-writing process resulted in such a prodigious amount of "Dumas" copy as to give rise to the legend that his "secretaries" had learned to imitate his handwriting so closely as to baffle detection—a superfluous theory and in some instances demonstrably false.
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