Alexandre Dumas: The Life & Legacy of a Great Novelist

One of France’s most famous novelists, Alexandre Dumas is famed for his tales of derring-do – and his life was every bit as eventful as his novels.

Oct 3, 2023By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature

alexandre dumas life legacy great novelist


Alexandre Dumas is one of France’s best-known and widely read authors – but his relationship with the country of his birth was, at times, a complicated one. As a man of mixed race in a predominantly white country, he was subjected to racism throughout his life, and due to France’s political upheavals during his lifetime, he even went into voluntary exile for a time. Nonetheless, Dumas always lived life to the full while also maintaining a prodigious output of literary works. Here, we will explore Dumas’ life and career before reflecting on the legacy he left behind.


Alexandre Dumas’ Early Life and Family History

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Portrait du Général Dumas by Olivier Pichat, 1883, via Black Past


Alexandre Dumas was born Dumas Davy de La Pailleterie in Villers-Cotterêts in Aisne, Picardy, France, on July 24th, 1802. His father was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who had been born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today Haiti) to the French nobleman and general commissaire in the colony artillery, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, and Marie-Cessette Dumas, an enslaved woman of Afro-Caribbean descent, who was his concubine. The surname Dumas was thus an inheritance from his enslaved grandmother and is believed to mean “of the farm” (du mas), referring to her status as property.


After his two older brothers had died, Antoine inherited the title of marquis and the family estates in France. Returning to France to claim this inheritance, he then sold Marie-Cessette, their two daughters, and an older daughter of Marie-Cessette’s. However, he retained Thomas-Alexandre, whom he had enrolled at military school so that he could join the French army, there being no possibility that his mixed-race son would be able to inherit the family title and estate upon his death.


Thomas-Alexandre did go on to distinguish himself in his military career and was promoted to the rank of general by the age of 31. In doing so, he became the first soldier of Afro-Caribbean heritage to reach that rank in the French army.

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Despite his aristocratic grandfather and his father’s distinguished military career, Dumas often encountered racism throughout his life. Moreover, following his father’s death in 1806, the family fell on hard times. At age fifteen, he joined the law office of Mennesson at Villers-Cotterets before moving to Paris. Here, he found a post in the Duke of Orléans’ household.


Forging a Writing Career Amid Political Turmoil

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Promotional poster for the 2002 film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, via IMDb


Dumas would go on to be one of France’s greatest – and arguably, among its most widely read – authors, and he began his literary career writing plays and articles. His first play, Henry III and His Court, produced in 1829, was met with critical and commercial acclaim, allowing Dumas to pursue writing as a full-time career.


The year after the first performance of Henry III and His Court, Dumas was involved in the 1830 Revolution (France’s Second Revolution) that saw Charles X ejected from power and replaced by Dumas’ former employer, the Duke of Orléans. The Duke then went on to rule as Louis-Philippe, the Citizen King.


Following this power shift, Dumas started focusing on writing novels rather than plays, believing that novel writing would prove to be a more lucrative venture. His first novel, which was published serially from July to September 1836 and later as a single volume in 1839, was La Comtesse de Salisbury. In 1838, he revised an earlier play, Le Capitaine Paul, and rewrote it as a novel, and a year later, he published the children’s novel Captain Pamphile, which carried a strong, explicitly anti-slavery message.


Throughout his career, Dumas frequently collaborated with other writers, a fact which played no small part in allowing him to produce such a prolific number of works. In writing his 1840 novel The Fencing Master, he collaborated with his own fencing master, Augustin Grillier. Evidently, Grillier made quite an impression on Dumas, as he would go on to mention his fencing master in The Count of Monte Cristo and The Corsican Brothers.


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Promotional poster for the 2011 film adaptation of The Three Musketeers, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, via IMDb


In 1843, Dumas published the novella Georges, set on what was then known as the Isle de France (today Mauritius). The eponymous protagonist, Georges, is a mixed-race man who can “pass” as white. After being spurned by the island’s white planters, he forms a Black militia group that successfully routs an invading British column. The white planters, however, refuse to acknowledge the bravery of Georges and his troops.


Georges is then sent to France to be educated. When he returns to the island, the planters fail to recognize him. But when his conscience compels him to lead the island’s enslaved population in a revolt against the white slave owners, he jeopardizes not only his social standing but his life.


Georges features plot devices that were outlined by Dumas’ long-term collaborator Auguste Maquet and repurposed in The Count of Monte Cristo, published the following year. Set over a period stretching from 1815 to 1839 and encompassing Napoleon’s fall from power, the Bourbon Restoration, and the first half of King Louis-Philippe’s reign, the novel reflected the political turmoil of France’s recent history through the trials and tribulations of its heroic protagonist.


The year 1844 also saw the publication of The Three Musketeers, and it is chiefly for these novels that Dumas is best remembered today. While Dumas’ collaboration with Grillier was amicable, his collaboration with Maquet soured following the runaway success of these two novels. In 1851, the collaboration ended when Maquet took Dumas to court, seeking greater recognition as a co-author and to receive a share of the works’ royalties. The court, however, found in favor of Dumas. Maquet went on to pursue his own career as a writer, producing historical romance novels, dramatic works, and an opera libretto and becoming an officer of the Légion d’honneur.


Life in Voluntary Exile 

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Photograph of Alexandre Dumas, via Book Riot


Following the February Revolution of 1848 (France’s Third Revolution), King Louis-Philippe abdicated in favor of his nine-year-old grandson, fled Paris in disguise, and made his way to England aboard a packet boat. France’s Second Republic was soon proclaimed, and Louis Napoléon Bonaparte was declared president before the year was out. (Three years later, he proclaimed himself president for life and, the following year, Emperor Napoleon III).


Due to his connections with the ousted king, Dumas fled to Brussels in 1851 – a move that had the added advantage of allowing him to escape his creditors. In 1859, he relocated to Russia, where French was the second-most commonly spoken language among the upper echelons of society and where his works (which had, by this time, been translated into many languages) were very popular.


Just two years later, however, he decided to move once more, setting his sights on Italy. In 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed with Victor Emmanuel II as its king. Upon his arrival, Dumas dedicated himself to the movement for the unification of Italy (Risorgimento), employing his writerly skills to establish the newspaper L’Indipendente. His involvement was such that he even befriended Giuseppe Garibaldi, a fellow Freemason. Dumas contributed his own money to pay for weapons for the cause and was among Garibaldi’s troops when they entered Naples in triumph after having invaded the city in 1861. Under the new regime, Garibaldi went on to make Dumas Italy’s director of Fine Arts.


Having already written Le Corricolo (Sketches of Naples) in 1843, his time in Italy as part of the Risorgimento inspired him to write The Bourbons of Naples in 1862. The work was published serially in L’Indipendente, Dumas’ own newspaper. However, Dumas eventually fell out of favor and made his way back to Paris in 1864.


Dumas’ Fast Lifestyle and Lasting Legacy

Photograph of Alexandre Dumas, via IMDb


Though Dumas made a fortune from the novels he wrote, he led an extravagant lifestyle and was frequently insolvent. He was also a member of the Club des Hashischins – which also boasted Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, and Eugène Delacroix among its members – which met every month in Paris to take hashish.


On February 1st, 1840, Dumas married the actress Ida Ferrier, but the union produced no children. Dumas did, however, father at least four children out of wedlock and had (according to Claude Schopp) around forty mistresses. Among these mistresses was the American actress, artist, and poet Adah Isaacs Menken, with whom he is believed to have had an affair in 1866. He also fathered a son – also named Alexandre Dumas – with his mistress Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay, a dressmaker. Not only did his son take his name, but he also followed in his father’s footsteps by going on to become a comparably famous novelist and playwright.


Alexandre Dumas died on December 5th, 1870, at the age of 68, most probably from a heart attack. At the time, his death was overshadowed by the ongoing (and, for France at least, disastrous) Franco-Prussian War, and his literary reputation had somewhat faded.


Since then, however, his reputation has enjoyed something of a revival. In 1970, to mark the centenary of his passing, a Paris Métro station was named in his honor, while in 2002, on the bicentenary of his birth, the then French president Jacques Chirac had Dumas’ ashes re-interred at the mausoleum of the Panthéon in Paris alongside such literary greats as Victor Hugo and Émile Zola.


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Photograph of Alexandre Dumas, via Wordsworth Editions


This, however, proved somewhat controversial as local inhabitants of Villers-Cottertets pointed out that Dumas himself had stated his desire to be buried in his hometown. Nonetheless, the reinterment went ahead, and the ceremony – in which Dumas’ coffin was flanked by four Republican Guards dressed up as the four musketeers – was televised. During his speech, Chirac acknowledged the racism Dumas had endured, both in life and after death, and expressed the hope that this ceremony of reinterment would go some way to righting that wrong.


Both Alexandre Dumas’ life and legacy were marred by prejudicial attitudes. He encountered racist attitudes and abuse throughout his life, which – in the case of Georges and Captain Pamphile – fuelled his work and gave him a deep hatred of slavery and racial discrimination. At the same time, his works were dismissed as populist and low-brow: the popularity of his novels made Dumas’ fortune, but it also provided his detractors with a stick with which to beat him. Nonetheless, in recent years, there have been attempts to review and rehabilitate his reputation as a writer and to atone, in some small way, for the adverse role racism played both in his life and in how he was subsequently read and received by critics. Thanks in part to these efforts and to Dumas’ own skills as a storyteller, his are some of the most widely read works of French literature and are still read and loved around the world to this day.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.