Alexandre Dumas.

The lady of the camellias; online

. (page 1 of 17)
Online LibraryAlexandre DumasThe lady of the camellias; → online text (page 1 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


A LIBRARY OF FRENCH MASTERPIECES
EDITED BY EDMUND GOSSE, LL.D.

WlTH PORTRAIT-NOTES BY OCTANE UZANNE



This volume contains Three
Coloured Plates after
Water-colour Drawings by
CEORGES JEANNIOT.



ENGLISH EDITION

A LIBRARY OF FRENCH MASTERPIECES
EDITED BY EDMUND GOSSE

THE LADY OF THE
CAMELLIAS

TRANSLATED FROM THE
FRENCH OF

ALEXANDRE DUMAS

THE YOUNGER

WITH A CRITICAL INTRODUCTION BY

EDMUND GOSSE, LL.D.

ILLUSTRATED BY

GEORGES JEANNIOT




LONDON ; WILLIAM HEINEMANN. MCMIV



*.%



THE NOVELS OF
ALEXANDRE DUMAS THE YOUNGER



WITH every man who has excelled in several
directions, but particularly in one, there is a
temptation for the observer of his work to slip
immediately, though unconsciously, to that sec-
tion of it in which his qualities are seen in most
brilliant perfection. The younger Dumas was
successful as a novelist, as a pamphleteer, and as a
playwright, but his successes were so numerous
and so sparkling on the boards of the theatre that
they outdazzled the rest. If we speak of Dumas
fils, we are apt to be thinking of the author of
Denise and of Francillon ; we leap over every-
thing else which he has written, and settle on the
problem plays of the seventies. Even his most
famous novels were turned into not less famous
dramas, and if we describe La Dame aux Camtlias
and L Affaire Cltmenceau, we have to be very
careful to mention that it is the stories, not the
pieces, to which we refer. But, in truth, the domi-

v

215537



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

neering and revolutionary talent of Dumas had a
much greater interest in what it said than in how it
said it. If there was a certain thing to be spoken,
a certain moral departure to be made, to this the
younger Dumas applied himself with a frank per-
tinacity which thought very little of mere form.

Those who knew the second Alexandre per-
sonally combine in presenting to us certain traits
which are consistent with what we possess of his
work. When they tell us of his bold and pene-
trating eyes, his broad shoulders pushing through
the crowd, his loud, eager voice that insisted upon
attention and easily gained it, when they describe
how he laid down the law, and argued in and out
of season, and stared a new acquaintance out of
countenance while he was hammering away at his
point of view, we realize how like his books the
man must have been. In all French literature
there is so great a tendency toward charm, for its
own sake, that we are scarcely prepared, at first, to
take at his own valuation a writer who is fired
with so proselytizing an ardour of conviction, at-
tended often by so much ignorance and prejudice,
and by so little of the desire to please, as Dumas.
We find ourselves wondering where the magic lay,
since magic there unquestionably was, in his prob-
lems and sensations. But his force grows upon

vi



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

us as we study him. We come at last to under-
stand why he holds so uncontested a place in the
development of European, or at all events of
Latin, civilization.

The keynote to a comprehension of all these
vehement romances and prefaces and plays is the
moral temperament of the author. He was a
very close observer of life, and he was born into
the world with disadvantages which would have
made him a very sour observer, if he had not also
been extremely lucky, and if he had not been
almost immediately relieved from anxiety by ex-
ceptional good fortune. But he was not so re-
lieved too soon to have noticed, with his native
clairvoyance, that less lucky people are exposed to
a system of social disability which can prove so
irksome to them as to destroy the pleasure of life
altogether. So, on behalf of these exceptionally
luckless persons, the exceptionally lucky Dumas
early decided to be a propagandist. He was born
to look upon literature as the natural weapon of a
modern man, but he scorned to use the pen for
personal objects only. His great father, le pkre
prodigue, had been all for self ; Alexandre the
second, in his odd way, would be all for others.
He became, as we put it, " conscious of a mission."
In one of his prefaces speaking of the didactic

vii



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

elements in his work he says quite clearly : " I
have received from my conscience a mandate to
write in this particular way, on this special class
of subjects." To him, to write LEtrangbre or
U Affaire CUmenceau was an "action." On the
psychology of all this M. Paul Bourget has dis-
coursed with the most delicate discrimination.
But all we must pause to say here on the subject
is that Dumas fits must be read as one who was a
moralist above all things, as a man who saw errors
in the social scheme, and passionately desired to
correct them. It was no doubt a secret sense of
this vivid moral sensibility that so irresistibly
arrested the attention of his contemporaries.
Nowadays, the conditions being in many cases
corrected, it adds a difficulty to the sympathetic
study of his books.

There is -a general impression that the novels
of the younger Dumas are few and short ; on the
contrary, they are extremely numerous and many
of them are particularly long. But in a less
pedantic sense, it is correct to say that he is not
the author of more than two or three works of
prose fiction, since the vast majority of his novels
are as negligible as they certainly are neglected.
In his precocious and untrained youth, he lived in
close relations with that ebullient and absurd man

viii



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

tire to a castle in the woods and live for days
upon one penny loaf. In the course of time they
marry, and while retaining a " bouche rose et
fraiche comme celle dune femme" they spoil the
effect of it by wearing long Piccadilly whiskers
and a tall white hat. They are consummately ab-
surd, and they give the impression of a certain in-
nocence in the pursuit of pleasure which is as
captivating as the tune of a Barbary organ heard a
long way off.

But Dumas came after the great romantiques
had risen to their zenith and were preparing to
decline. He was never really romantic, and after
he grew tired of recording the silly little loves of
Amanda and Antonia, he broke away from the
influence of his father. He was among the young
writers of France who earliest comprehended the
importance of the moral reflections which struck
across the poetry of the romantic age from the
writings of George Sand and of Michelet. He
began to wish to be a realist, that he might come
nearer to the ideas which he already dimly saw
were to be his beacons. This tendency to realism,
or, in other words, to exact observation, was of
immense value to him. It saved him from intel-
lectual shipwreck ; it cured him of his absence of
equilibrium and his obscurity. He learned by im-

xi



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

pact with life and by revulsion against the pre-
posterous rodomontade of the hour, that the heart
alone, sensitive and unbiassed, can point the road
to moral truth. He dropped the tiresome ele-
ments of his early style, and in particular the
fatuous solemnity in facetiousness, which had been
so wearisome. He reformed his caricatures of
society ; for his chained anecdotes he substituted
the evolution of a single story. A fiery com-
passion for those who suffer, although they have
not acted ill, became more and more an instinct
with him.

Before, however, his genius became adult, and
thrilled Europe from one end to the other by a
succession of magnificent dramas, it continued
for some time to express itself by certain novels,
which are neither so empty as the author's legion
of early romances nor worthy to be named along-
side the two transcendent books with which he
has permanently enriched French fiction. Of
these transitional stories, the best known is Diane
de Lys, which has preserved a certain popularity.
This tale may be read with interest as an example
of the degree to which the mind of Dumas be-
came absolutely subservient to dramatic ideas.
Diane de Lys is a novel only in external form ;
in spirit it is purely a study for the stage, a series

xii



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

of artificially conceived incidents arranged for
dramatic business, and written down, one would
say, for no other purpose than to aid the play-
wright in preparing his scenario. Effective as it
has been behind the foot-lights, the plot of Diane
de Lys will hardly bear reading to-day, and will
certainly not bear telling in any detail, simply
because the author has not taken the trouble to
attend to the most elementary probabilities. There
is a marquise, Diane de Lys, who is insufferably
bored at home, and who, from sheer ennui, ac-
cepts an intrigue with a certain Baron Maximilien,
who is one of Dumas's typical young dudes white
teeth, black curls, small feet, and the rest of it.
They hold their assignations in the studio, kindly
lent them for the purpose on the Box and Cox
principle by a struggling but extremely gifted
painter, Paul Aubrey. The point of the whole
thing is that Diane de Lys, having an empty heart
and an idle mind, falls in love with the idea of
Paul Aubrey, of whom she has never seen even
a portrait. The painter is understood to be Du-
mas's conception of himself, such an adventure
having once occurred to him in the gallant days
of his youth, when he was pursued over half of
Europe by the eccentric and beautiful Countess
Lydie de Nesselrode.

xiii



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

The stories of which Diane de Lys is a type
are not to be recommended to readers to-day,
who will do better to pass at once to the drama-
tization of these and their parallels. But they
are interesting to the critic, as showing the mode
in which the mind of Dumas was working out
that extreme originality in the observation of life
which was to be his main characteristic. The
absurdities in Diane de Lys the heroine falls in
love with Paul Aubrey after reading a letter to
his mother, which she has stolen out of the pocket
of his painting coat ; and she has a virtuous friend
who acts throughout "for the best," as people
say, but in a manner which would justify her re-
moval to a lunatic asylum these very absurdities
are due to the process of growth in the author's
mind. He is in the act of becoming a very great
master on purely theatrical lines, and, engaged
in his problems, he neglects, for the time being,
the carpentering of the scenes he begins so boldly
to throw together. And after all, if we call the
sketch for Diane de Lys a novel, what we see
in it is a Dumas who is on his way to be a
very great master of another art than fiction.
He is the writer of moral dramas, who is very
soon to produce such comedies as Denise and
Francillon, and to be the only modern French

xiv



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

dramatist fit to be mentioned in the same hour
with Moliere.

But it is with another Dumas the Younger
that we have to deal to-day. It is unquestionable
that in his novels he did not, as a rule, attain to
anything like the same beauty of form that he
reached in his plays. But among so many failures
and half-successes, there stand out two romances
from the pen of Dumas which are admirable in
the absolute sense. Twice he contrived, by sheer
sincerity and intentness of purpose, to rise above all
the inconveniences for such he considered them
which fence about the structure of the novel.
Twice he was strong enough to compose works in
prose fiction which had the force, and passion, and
unity of his best dramatic masterpieces. When
we speak of the younger Dumas as a novelist, we
think of two books of The Lady of the Camel-
lias, the novel of his youth, and of The Cldmcn-
ceau Case, the novel of his maturity. In these
two books he spoke to the whole world, and he
still is speaking. He denounces in each of these
books one of the two errors of society which
came home to him most acutely the harshness
which excludes the woman of pleasure in her
decline from the natural consolations of pity, and
the cruelty which avenges on the nameless child
b x v



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

the egotism and error of its father. In either
case we miss the point of the novelist if we fail
to see that his central note is a tender humanity.
Dumas is loud, strident, sometimes hard and
rough, but he is always dominated by "love for
the lovely who are not beloved." Everywhere
the ruling quality of pity makes itself felt. On
this feature of his writing he has himself made
an observation which may be taken as the epigraph
of all his literary labours. He says in one of
his splendid prefaces, in that to La Femme de
Claude that when he began to feel his powers
ripen within him, he sought for the point at
which the faculty of observation, with which he
felt he was endowed, could be made to produce
most fruit, not merely for himself, but for others.
He found it at once. With something of the
glow of the mystic, with something rapturous
that takes him from the side of Ibsen to place
him at the right hand of Tolstoi, he exclaims:
"Ce point c'tait 1'amour."

Of the two great novels, we will take the later
first, since dates have unusually little importance
in the work of Dumas fits. L Affaire Cttmen-
ceau was published in 1864, and it produced at its
first appearance a sensation which it is now diffi-
cult to reconstitute. Up to that time the prin-

xvi



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

ciples of naturalism were scarcely developed,
although France was ripe to receive them. Zola
and Alphonse Daudet had given no sign of the
ultimate tendency of their work ; the Goncourts
were carefully preparing the field for the harvest
of the seventies. But if we compare such a book
as Rend Mauperin, which belongs to the same
year, with L Affaire Cttmenceau, we can perceive
the difference of appeal to the public. The style
of Dumas was never delicate, like that of the
Goncourts, nor did he sound very deeply into the
abyss of personality. But Dumas spoke with a
voice which every one was obliged to listen to.
It is amusing, after nearly forty years, to turn to
the original criticism of L Affaire CUmenceau.
Even those who admired it most were shocked
at what they called its " breathless realism." They
were embarrassed, while they applauded ; they
seemed to deprecate their own contemplation of
so naked a movement of life. And even to-day,
after so many years in which each young bravo of
the pen has sought to outdo the last in audacity,
the Affaire can not be read without a certain
troublous emotion.

The Cltmenceau Case is the defence drawn
up in prison by Pierre Clmenceau, a French
sculptor, who is accused of murdering his wife,

xvii



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

a Pole, whose name was Iza Dobronowska. In
order to set his soul right before his judges and
the world, the man writes his life from the be-
ginning, aiming to show that in the turbulence
and irony of events, and battered by the terrible
sorrows which have befallen him, he could have
done nothing else than " execute " his wife. This
form of a plaidoyer, or defence, gives a writer
of the temper of Dumas great advantages, since,
without any loss of verisimilitude, he can omit
whatever does not interest him, or emphasize what-
ever excites him. The whole novel is a vast and
magnificent pamphlet, and, dealing as it does with
violent and open moral obliquity, it is only right
to say that, with all the author's Latin license of
phrase, we never question for a moment that he
brings two cognate issues before us a sincere
hatred of sin, and a pitiful tenderness for the
sinner.

All the world knows, for he never pretended to
conceal the fact, that the author of IJ Affaire Cti-
menceau was a natural child. The earlier portions
of the novel have an extraordinary interest from
the minuteness of the picture they give of the life
of a boy brought into the world with this social
disadvantage. It is known that they form an auto-
biographical record of the discomforts which the

xviii



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

youthful Alexandra suffered from in his early
school-days. We are told by Pierre Clmenceau
that his mother kept a millinery establishment,
where he was brought up in comfort and happi-
ness, until the time came when he had to go to
school. We follow him to the fashionable pen-
sion to which his mother has the ambition to
send him, and where he soon finds the intolerable
discomfort of not being able to say what his father
" does " it being quite unknown to him whether
his father is alive or dead, and even what his name
is, since he bears his mother's surname only. It is
now known that the experiences of Pierre were
copied closely from those of his creator. The
young Alexandre was sent at the age of nine
to the Pension St. Victor, which was the larg-
est, most fashionable, and least-disciplined private
school in Paris. It was kept by a certain M.
Goubeaux, an educational theorist of some note in
that day, who lacked the moral and physical force
to keep his school in order. He was aware of the
social disability of his latest dark-eyed pupil, and
a very amiable story is told of him. When a re-
port reached Paris that the elder Dumas had been
killed while travelling in Sicily, M. Goubeaux
called the boy into his parlour, and said that if this
proved to be true, he was in future to consider

xix



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

himself his son. This schoolmaster is the M.
Frmin of the novel.

The lad left the Pension St. Victor at the age of
fifteen, having undergone in early years something
like the persecution and ostracism of which he
gives so moving an account. But before he was
called to face the world an event occurred which
altered his prospects. His father one day sur-
prised him in the deep study of a book, which the
boy endeavoured to conceal. The father insisted
on seeing what it was, and to his surprise discov-
ered the mile of Rousseau. " Do you find any-
thing there to interest you?" "Much," replied
the child, with a certain determination. " Well,
give me your impressions." " I think Emile
showed courage." "How?" "When a father
refuses to give his son his name " said the
child, and stopped. " Well ? well ?" cried Dumas.
"Then the son ought to take it." "Ah!" ex-
claimed the great Alexandre, who until that time
had never openly acknowledged the relationship
between them; "you rascal, you wish to use my
name, then, do you ? Well, then, for the future
use it, and let's say no more about it ! " At this
point, then, the author of L Affaire Cltmenceau
parts company from his Pierre, for, openly ac-
knowledged by his father, who gave him plenty

xx



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

of money to spend, and who loved to see himself
accompanied everywhere by the " demi-ethiopian
charm " of this handsome son with his curly head
and melting Creole eyes, the life of the younger
Alexandre became a delightful one. But his im-
agination enabled him to pursue the misfortunes
of a natural son less unusually lucky than himself.
No one, however, should study the first half of the
L Affaire CUmenceau without reading, as a per-
sonal corrective, the royal tribute to his magnifi-
cent parent, which forms such a purple passage in
the preface to Le Fits NatureL

Pierre Clmenceau is handsome, strong, and
pure. His isolation has even been an advantage
to him, for he has grown up in a noble solitude of
soul, with serene ambitions. He will be a sculp-
tor, and he discovers a marked predisposition to
this fine profession. But he is weak on the side of
experience, and his unsullied ideality exposes him
to be the dupe of an unworthy adventuress. At
a vulgar bal travesti, he meets a Polish girl, still
almost a child, who accompanies her mother, the
Countess Dobronowska, in the dress of a page.
The account of this couple, of the ball at which
they appear, of their behaviour, and of their
tawdry lodging, forms one of the finest descriptive
passages in the writings of Dumas. The Poles

xxi



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

disappear from Paris, but the young sculptor
who meanwhile becomes famous retains his in-
fatuation for the child, whom, now grown a lovely
woman, he finally invites to Paris, and marries.
Iza, a muddy soul in a marble body, at first loves
Pierre after her kind, but she is radically sensual,
graceless, and hateful. She plays upon his cre-
dulity, and fools him to the top of her bent. At
last, quite suddenly, and long after the more per-
spicacious reader has perceived her wickedness,
Pierre wakes up to her infamy, and drives her
from his house. He goes to live in Rome that he
may forget her ; but she has entered, like a poison,
into his bones, and he can not dismiss her from his
mind. He returns to Paris, to find her living in
splendour, the mistress of a foreign king, and he
quietly kills her.

It is in this novel that several of the most cele-
brated formulas of Dumas are first stated. In the
early pages we meet with the " recherche de la
pater nitt" which has since become so famous.
The end of the book is a statement of the Tue-la,
which became more famous still in the shuddering
denouement of U Homme-Femme and La Femme
de Claude. M. Anatole France, who is some-
thing of a Gallio in these grave matters, has de-
tected the germ of weakness in such excess of

xxii



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

strength. He has pointed out that Pierre Cle*-
menceau is too good for this world, or too bad,
and that, however splendid his intentions, he re-
mains neither more nor less than a murderer.
" C'est ^{,n ouvrage stupide qiie d'assassiner une
femme" So, indeed, it seems to an Anglo-Saxon
mind, which is pleased to find a supporter so bril-
liant as M. France ; the fact being that many of
the moral axioms of the younger Dumas are none
the less sincere and remarkable for being almost
exclusively addressed to the Latin conscience. It
is very difficult, without excess of phraseology and
tiresome circumlocution, to express in English
just what his position with regard to women is,
since it is formed out of antagonistic elements
pity and hatred, tender desire and contemptuous
loathing, anger and sympathy and shame. Such a
denunciation of women as is found in the long and
brilliantly written tirade of Constantin toward the
end of L Affaire Cldmeneeau is as good an ex-
ample as could be found of the chasm which
divides the Latin from the Anglo-Saxon race on
questions of sentiment.

Who shall explain by what necromancy Dumas
contrived, among the tedious and confused novels
of his earliest youth, all of which have been long
forgotten, to produce one romance which has be-

xxiii



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

come one of the permanent treasures of the
French language and an unquestioned classic?
Why is that fortune reserved for the Lady of the
Camellias whic^ was immediately and finally de-
nied to Tristan de Roux and The Silver Boxl
Mainly, no doubt, because, as we remarked before,
Dumas is not a great inventor, and could not be
successful until he took to telling simply, clearly,
poignantly what he had seen with his eyes and felt
with his heart. He had been born into a bad tra-
dition ; he had formed the impression that a
mountebank thing of rouge and tinsel, which was
called the " romantic novel," was the proper ob-
ject for a young man of letters to concentrate his
powers upon. A general florid looseness, a vague
acceptance of types, suited best with this spurious
kind of fiction. But Dumas fils required the very
opposite of this to stimulate his invention. He
was not mindful of the type ; by temperament he
was drawn to the study of sharply defined in-
stances and striking exceptional cases. It was out
of the impassioned contemplation of one of these
that the marvellous story of The Lady of the
Camellias arose.

The heroine of this book was closely studied
from a real person, prominent perhaps in her day,
but who owes her immortality entirely to the

xxiv



The Novels of Dumas the Younger

author's partiality. She was of the same age as
Dumas, having been born in 1824. She was a
farmer's daughter, and her baptismal name was
Alphonsine Plessis ; as something^flat and vulgar
rings to a French ear in " Alphonsine," she early
exchanged it for Marie. Her career was, in the
main, exactly that of Marguerite Gautier in the
story, and the curious incident of her having at-
tracted the attention of a duke, at Spa, through
her extraordinary resemblance to his dying daugh-
ter, is said to be historic. It was only the episode
of Marguerite's momentous sacrifice for the sake


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryAlexandre DumasThe lady of the camellias; → online text (page 1 of 17)