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NA0033 - DUMAS, A.: Black Tulip (The) (Unabridged)
Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870)
The life of Alexandre Dumas was full of licentious brio and inventive energy: passionate, individual, outrageous, laced with scandals, affairs and illegitimate children, revolutionary in politics and art, irresponsible and irrepressible, and including the apparently mandatory strange pet (Byron had a bear at university; Dumas tamed a vulture). After even the briefest glance at his life, the fact that he wrote several of the best-loved novels of all time seems like a footnote.
His grandfather was a nobleman, his grandmother a slave in what is now Haiti; his father was a Creole general of great fame and bravery who left his family very poor at his death when Alexandre was just four. The stories of his father’s bravery stayed with him, however, and were to furnish (burnish, perhaps) some of the adventures of the Three Musketeers. Alexandre lived a rather wild outdoor childhood with the same gusto and energy that he applied to the rest of his life, and learned from an early age to stand up for himself. He later bore the racism aimed at his mixed-race background with considerable grace and wit; and although he was mocked (at times viciously) about it, it seems never to have held him back from preferment or success. Reckless overspending did that.
He moved from the small town of his birth to Paris as soon as he could, and managed to find a job as a clerk with the Duc d’Orléans largely because of his excellent handwriting. While working for the Duc, he continued his wide and extensive reading and took lessons in the sciences. He started to write in part because he needed the money. His mother had moved to Paris and his lover had borne his first child (also called Alexandre, later a respected, successful and well-known writer himself). These added responsibilities were beyond the means of an extravagant clerk, and he started to produce short plays and stories. Then, seemingly just by the vigour of his determination, he created one of the most successful dramatic genres in 19th century France. Abandoning the stifling, and in his view repressive, precepts of the classics, he wrote in 1829 a historical melodrama: Henry III. The public adored it, the Romantics hailed it, the critics hated it; and, leaving his job as a clerk, Dumas arrived on the literary scene.
France in the first half of the 19th century was an unstable place, however. In 1830 the King was deposed, and Dumas’s former employer was created ‘Citizen King’. He was not enough of the former and too much of the latter for Dumas’s liking, but this republican zeal was hardly a guarantee of success, and his works immediately after Henri III were failures. It was another few years before he created—again, largely out of a need for money—another hugely popular dramatic genre with Antony, this time a domestic melodrama, one where the passions were expressed and illicit matters discussed. It was again a huge success. This second rise to popularity allowed Dumas to express himself further; he lived in magnificent style and liked to be seen living in this way. He gave a huge costume ball in 1833 at which le tout monde of the arts was invited—the rooms were decorated by Delacroix—and it was the talk of society for years. Throughout the 1830s, he wrote warmly received travel pieces about his time in Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and Germany, trips undertaken partly because of health concerns, but also because his avowed republicanism made him a target at home. They were popular, though, and allowed him to develop narrative skills, resulting in a shift to novel writing.
By the mid 1840s, he had had at least two illegitimate children, had married and almost immediately separated from his wife (the marriage was a financial convenience, although its fiscal success was not much longer than its marital one), and was one of the great men of his age, as well known for his outfits as his work. And what work! He had written The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask. He had opened his own theatre, and had even become a mayor. Purely in terms of quantity, Dumas’s output was beyond prodigious, beyond overwhelming. He worked extensively with others, especially Auguste Maquet, but his energy and drive were frequently too much for them. They would bring him material thought to be worth attention but dully written and he would invest it with his personal style, panache, dialogue and more. He worked 14 hours a day, wearing out scores of collaborators, and created a kind of industrial production line of novels, plays, journalism, travel-writing and essays (although he successfully sued a rival who accused him of such a process). The numbers are almost incalculable, and in some cases extremely doubtful, for he was often—and often rightly—accused of plagiarism. He would claim almost anything as his, and there is a story that he nearly gave his name to someone else’s prose edition of the Iliad.
The Black Tulip was published in 1850 and is something of a departure for Dumas, being a much more intimate tale. Typically it does relish the bloodthirsty (and largely true) events in 17th-century Holland; but its general focus is on the love affair between Cornelius and Rosa, and it has as a central theme the tulip itself. This may well have a symbolic resonance, since Dumas does not spend much time on the issue of the tulip mania that gripped the Netherlands at the time but concentrates on the idea that such a near mythic plant can survive and grow under the very heels of oppression, much as does the love between Cornelius and Rosa.
Dumas fell into and out of fashion over the next 20 years, earned and spent several fortunes, was involved in the uprisings of 1848 in France, and befriended Garibaldi during Italy’s unification. As a result of this last development he became for four years the head of excavations and museums in Italy, and lived in Naples. He founded newspapers and magazines, scandalised society by being pictured with one of his mistresses, and was a dedicated gourmet and gourmand, writing a dictionary of cookery in the 1860s and frequently running from meals to the kitchen to get the recipe. He was occasionally obliged to run from France too, either for financial or political reasons, but he travelled widely in Europe as well as North Africa (where he found the vulture). He was profoundly good-natured and gregarious but the endless work was always going to wear him down (although his death came relatively quickly). In 1870 he moved in with his son near Dieppe, and died that December.
Dumas excelled in historical romances, and brought the past vividly, thrillingly to life, with a stirring sense of adventure and especially strong dialogue, something he had honed from his years as a dramatist. He represented a new kind of pragmatic, liberal Romanticism and gave expression to personal and artistic freedom—from repression, from convention, from stultifying ordinariness. He was a bursting barrel of invention and good-heartedness. He was for life.
Notes by Roy McMillan
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