Arthur F. (Arthur Fitzwilliam) Davidson.

Alexandre Dumas (père) his life and works online

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of Charles IX and the arrival of his brother Henri from
Poland, some three or four months passed. But La Reine
M argot teaches us better by showing how Catherine just
secures the succession for her favourite son by bringing him
back at the dramatic moment before Charles has yet quite
ceased to breathe — an arrangement which every one will
admit to be more effective. Ex uno disce omnes : yet these,
and some " extra-historical " incidents, are but the
acknowledged licences of fiction, with which none but a
pedant will quarrel. The more important question is.
What impression of the main characters and events of French
history will these romances leave on a reader who knows
French history only through them ? Will such an one on
the whole see right ? Doubtless, yes. About the course

1 So far as Dumas is concernedj Maquet's two novels. La Belle
Gahrielle and La Maison du Baigneur to some extent fill this gap.
Dumas himself treated the period later on in his studies of Henri IV
and Louis XIII;

222



THE GREAT NOVELS

of religious strife, of domestic intrigue, of foreign policy, he
will gather little which serious history would have him
unlearn. And as to the persons of the drama, admit that
their characters are modelled on the traditional and popular
view ; it is always possible that this view, formed at or
near the time itself, may be the truest. Dumas, of course,
adopted it naturally and unconsciously as being the most
suitable for his purpose : even had he been aware of another
it is inconceivable that he would have hesitated between
— ^let us say — a white-washed Catherine de Medicis, a
passive instrument of Spanish policy, and the masterful
woman of scheme and intrigue, spell and poison : the one
was so colourless, the other so lurid. To name the Queen-
mother is to name the strongest instance of a possible per-
version of truth. Others are less questionable. Charles IX,
Henri III, Henri IV — what historian can amend the char-
acters of these kings as they are presented by the noveUst,
or what historian can draw their characters with more dis-
tinctness ? And if any one wants to see how Dumas had
advanced in historical knowledge since the days when he
wrote Henri III et sa Cour, let him compare the Due de
Guise of that drama with the Due de Guise of the Valois
novels. Human nature, as Plato long ago observed, has
been coined in very small pieces ; and the sorting of these,
to form a just estimate of character, involves so much
balancing and counterbalancing that it ends in being per-
plexing without being any the more infaUible. For Dumas
it has to be said that whenever he touches history — in novels,
plays, or studies — he has the true historical instinct ; without
either faculty or inclination for the drudgery of analysis
he somehow arrives at a synthesis quite as convincing as
any that can be reached by the most minute methods.
When the curtain rises again it is on a scene very different

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THE LIFE OF DUMAS

from that of the decadent Valois house. The gloom of
secret stratagems and snares has been dispersed : a brighter
and more buoyant air is felt at once, when on a morning
of 1625 — Louis XIII being King and Cardinal RicheHeu
his minister — a certain young Gascon appears in the town-
ship of Meung on a wonderful orange-coloured pony, which
excited the jeers of Rochefort and gave the newcomer a
first opportunity of showing his metal. To his sword also
D'Artagnan owed his introduction to Athos, Porthos and
Aramis, the three musketeers, who henceforth are four.
" Queen's musketeers " really rather than " King's," since
it is on them that Anne of Austria depends to protect her
love for Buckingham from the hostile schemes of Richelieu,
especially in that affair of the diamond studs, which — as
Madame Bonacieux revealed— the Queen of France had
given to her English lover. Hence the desperate journey
to England undertaken by the four heroes with their four
lackeys, when by one misadventure or another the rest
drop out, and on D'Artagnan and his man Planchet rests
the whole burden of saving the Queen's honour. How that
was accomplished is a matter of history — or at any rate
of romance. We know that D'Artagnan won his race
against time and that the Queen was able to wear her
diamonds when the King led her forth to open the ball
at the Hotel de Ville. We know also how Richelieu had
vainly employed on this business the beautiful criminal
" Milady," as he employed her again more successfully to
bring about that " miracle for the salvation of France "
which was wrought at Portsmouth by the dagger of Felton.
For these reasons and for others of a more private nature
the brotherhood had vowed a righteous vengeance against
Milady, performed with due ceremony by the executioner
of Bethune.

224



THE GREAT NOVELS

Not however to this sombre ending nor to the general
unpleasantness of " Miladyism " does the story of the
Musketeers owe its popularity. Rather it was the loyal
comradeship of these seventeenth-century gallants, their
reckless fighting, their impetuous love-making, which
typified to the French public certain characteristics identified
with France in her greatest days. Athos for dignity,
Porthos for strength, Aramis for subtlety, D'Artagnan for
wit and resourcefulness, all for a courage to which other
virtue is quite secondary — such qualities fascinate readers
of all nationalities, whether in the way of similarity or
of contrast. It is not a question here of historical persons
— they are less problematical, and the chief of them, Riche-
lieu, is excellently drawn in his day, of power — but rather
of catching the spirit of a particular epoch ; and this by
common consent Dumas has done most admirably. Nor does
any book illustrate better his power of assimilating material
and improving upon it than the story of the Musketeers.
The substance of the whole is to be found in the Memoires
d'Artagnan by Courtils de Sandras. There we have D'Arta-
gnan and his three friends, as also Milady (lady-in-waiting to
Queen Henrietta), de Vardes, Rochefort (called Rosnay),
^ Madame Bonacieux and her spouse, the rivalry of the King's
Musketeers with those of the Cardinal, and much else. The
life of D'Artagnan himself represents three phases of char-
acter. At first he is the quarrel-seeking adventurer,
swaggering in wine-shops, gambling in the ante-chambers
of the King, leading wives astray and beating husbands.
Then under Mazarin during the Fronde period he becomes
more attached to intrigue both in love and in politics, and
he is entrusted with confidential missions to England, where
he spends much time. Later on, when Louis XIV has as-
sumed power and the splendours of the Court have begun,

225 Q



THE LIFE OF DUMAS

D'Artagnan, now Capitaine-lieutenant of the Musketeers,
appears as a punctilious and particular gentilhomme, most
anxious to forget the wildness of his early fights and amours,
He died in 1673, killed during the siege of Maestricht. Thus
one may read in Courtils de Sandras,^ from whose voluminous
memoirs — without excluding other authorities of the same
sort* — ransacked by himself or Maquet, Dumas borrowed
freely, and at the same time discreetly. Over aU he sprinkled
the salt of his own wit : much he imagined and invented —
such as the entertaining characters of Grimaud, Mousqueton,
Bazin, and Planchet, or the details of the journey to Calais :
some things he altered — ante-dating, e.g., by several years
the birth of D'Artagnan, which seems really to belong to
1623, so that the young man could hardly have come from
Beam in 1625 except in the arms of his nurse : other things
he suppressed if they were either discreditable to his heroes,
gross in themselves, or likely to offend modem readers.'
Dumas' intent is ever to glorify France and to bring out all
that is most attractive in the French character. And here
it may be noted, in passing, that of the two really detestable
women in all his novels neither is French^ — Catherine de
Medicis an Italian, Milady an English woman.

The historical landmark which ends Les Trots Mousque-
taires is the murder of Buckingham (1629). When the story

1 Or in the more handy and corrected abridgment, D'Artagnan,
by Eugene d'Auriac. Paris, 1846.

2 Such as the Memoirs of La Porte, of Tallemant des Reaux, and
of Madame de la Fayette. A useful collection of all such docu-
ments, by Petitot, had recently been published (1829).

3 One of D'Artagnan's dealings with Milady might better per-
haps have been omitted for this reason. Was it, one wonders, from
squeamishness or from a patriotic dislike to see his hero worsted
by the. Englishwoman, that Dumas did not quote a certain letter
attributed to Milady by Madame de la Fayette which was reported
to run as follows : " (Elle lui repondit) que son nez I'incommoderait
trop dans son lit, pour qu41 lui fiit possible d'y demeurer ensemble " ?

226



THE GREAT NOVELS

is resumed, after an interval of eighteen years, Louis XIII
and his great Minister are dead ; and France, groaning under
the taxation of crafty and avaricious Mazarin, is divided
into two parties, the Cardinalists and the Frondists. Among
others whom Mazarin imprisoned was the Due de Beaufort,
grandson of Henri IV and Gabrielle d'Estrees : the escape
of this nobleman — by the help of a certain colossal pie, which
concealed beneath its crust daggers and rope ladder — is the
subject of several diverting pages. This, however, is inci-
dental : the proper continuance of the first story belongs
not to anti-Mazarin movements — D'Artagnan indeed is
nominally in the Cardinal's service — but to the fortunes of
the Musketeers in England, where by chance they foxmd
themselves, at first on different sides — since Athos and
Aramis fought for King Charles, while the other two were
agents from Mazarin to Cromwell ; but soon all made
common cause as loyal gentlemen to save the King. A
noble though vain struggle, involving many desperate
dealings with MUady's son, Mordaunt, who sought to avenge
his mother's death, and after coming often near success
perished at last in the waters, hurled down by the hand of
Athos. Thus history, public and private, pursues its
course, though — as is sometimes the way of sequels — Vingi
ans apres has not the charm of twenty years before.

It was often w6ndered what that last word of King
Charles on the scaffold meant, " Remember," until Dumas
found its meaning in an injunction to Athos that he should
discover and use, when the proper time came, a treasure
hidden in the vaults of Newcastle keep. Athos — or the
Comte de La Fere, to be correct — did not forget; and
having gone in 1660 to Newcastle he was negotiating with
General Monk when D'Artagnan and his followers, disguised
as fishermen, kidnapped the General, and having conveyed

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THE LIFE OF DUMAS

him in their smack over to Holland presented him to the
exiled Charles II, by whose graciousness he was deeply
impressed. All which things explain, in a way ignored by
the generality of historians, the reason why Monk took so
important a share in the Restoration.

So in 1660 begins the story of Le Vicomte de Bragelonne,
Raoul, the son of Athos, a youth full of valour and promise,
but short-lived and iU-fated. For, loving Loliise de la
Valliere, he came into rivalry with his royal master, whom
Louise loved more ; and so, broken-hearted, he left the
King's service and went into a far country, where, fighting
bravely, he perished ; which calamity being announced,
Athos, long distressed by his son's sorrow and by their
separation, himself faded out of life. Thus the eldest of the
Musketeers departed. And what of the others ? Aramis,
now General of the Jesuits, had renounced the sword for the
cassock, after which, we remember, he had always hankered.
In this capacity he must needs concern himself with a plot in
favour of that luckless twin brother of Louis XIV who was
languishing in the Bastille : the plot failed — though for one
short day the King and the prisoner of the Bastille changed
places — and the dangerous twin was secretly conveyed away
to the lie Sainte Marguerite, to be known henceforth only
as " the man in the iron mask." For these reasons, Aramis,
as sharing in the treason of Fouquet, was to be seized : and
with Aramis was involved Porthos, the innocent tool of his
clever friend — Porthos, who helped to fortify Belleisle,
picking up big boulders and flinging them about like pebbles
— Porthos, who with less of boisterous swagger now than in
early days, remained still the hon enfant, the good-natured
giant, slow of wit, large of heart, cheerfully working for
others without troubling to understand what it was all about.
Never did more repugnant duty fall to D'Artagnan than

228



THE GREAT NOVELS

when, as Captain of the King's Musketeers, he was sent to
arrest his friends at Belleisle. By every means he sought
to warn and save them, but a higher power and the secret
orders of Colbert baffled his loyalty. Fate, it seems, had
decreed that Porthos should die. See, then, this Titan
driven to bay in his cavern, while he beats off his foes time
after time and hurls at them that huge barrel of gunpowder,
which exploding devastates aU around. Amid the wreckage
Porthos stands, holding off by strength of arm the granite
masses which press upon him, until failing at last beneath
the incumbent weight — " too heavy — too heavy ! " — he falls
buried in the ruin his own hands have wrought. How
D'Artagnan afterwards died gloriously in battle has been
already said : for Aramis — or Monsieur d'Herblay, about
whom we care little — he recovered favour and found in
diplomacy a suitable sphere for his special gifts. But the
book is the book of Porthos — Porthos into whom Dumas
put most of himself and of his father, and whose death he
declared had stricken him with a heavy sorrow. The modem
reader may draw back aghast at the six volumes of Le
Vicomte de Bragelonne, but he will have missed the best
part of the Musketeer cycle should he fail to read those pages
which describe the end of Porthos — true epic pages such as
Homer's self had not disowned.

The later part of the reign of Louis XIV is not dealt with
by any novel of Dumas. ^ Again there is an interval of forty
years before we come to the date of the two Regency ro-
mances, Le Chevalier d'Harmenfal and Une Fille du Regent.
These are very similar in setting and in incident. Both re-
volve round plots formed against the Regent Due d' Orleans ;
in both we see much of the " ape-like face " of Dubois, who

1 Maquet however wrote Le Comte de Lavernie as a connecting link
between Le Vicomte de Bragelonne and Le Chevalier d'Harmenial.

229



THE LIFE OF DUMAS

scratches his nose while pondering, prowls about Paris in
all disguises, and tracks down every sort of conspirator :
in both the Regent figures, as a man of pleasure indeed,
whose petits soupers and other nocturnal amusements receive
full attention, but as essentially merciful and generous,
pardoning where Dubois was anxious to punish. The his-
torical pivot of Le Chevalier d'Harmental is the Cellamare
conspiracy of 1718 got up by the Spanish Ambassador and
the Duchesse de Maine for the purpose of kidnapping the
Regent in the interests of Philip of Spain ; and the Chevalier,
who has a private grudge against Orleans, is used by these
people as their instrument. Similarly in the second story
— which was suggested by an incident in the first — Helene
de Chavemy, a daughter of the Regent, is loved by a young
Breton nobleman who has pledged himself to take her father's
life — the relationship of course being unknown. The Regent,
disguised as a Spanish duke, talks with the young man, for
whom he has taken a great liking, and tries to dissuade him
from so dangerous a design : meanwhUe Dubois, with a
bag of gold pieces on the table, interrogates the valet, and
by the process of adding or taking away ten louis for each
answer — according as it is valuable or not — soon succeeds
in extracting all the information he requires. In both
stories the reader is introduced to the interior of the Bastille,
where M. de Launay presides and where various distin-
guished inmates are living as the guests of the State, for the
most part pleasurably enough and with every kind of
ingenious contrivance for communicating with one another.
On the whole we are moving now in a more subtle and de-
ceptive world : things are less often what they seem : love,
less eager to satisfy itself at the moment, has become more
elegant and artificial ; hatred, more long-headed, marks
down an enemy for distant vengeance rather than for im-

230



THE GREAT NOVELS

mediate chastisement. It is a changed atmosphere since
the days of the Musketeers, and no one runs any risk of
confusing the seventeenth century with the eighteenth.

With the Regent's death in 1723 the reign of Louis XV,
properly speaking, began : its history may be filled in from
all the recognized authorities.^ For the purpose of romance
the chief interest belongs to its closing years, which form a
sort of explanatory prologue to the Great Revolution. In
1770, then, the Memoires d'un Medecin series opens with the
five volumes called Joseph Balsamo, chiefly concerned with
the doings of that remarkable impostor — the " arch-quack "
of Carlyle's pages. The phenomena of occultism had always
fascinated Dumas : he dabbled, at different times, in palm-
istry, phrenology, clairvoyance, spiritualism ; especially
he was attracted by that form of mesmeric development
which is nowadays called hypnotism. To test the reality
of this power he made several experiments* at the time when

^ Dumas himself has treated it in other works not professedly
" romances," e.g. Louis XV et sa Cour, and the Memoires d'une
Aveugle (Madame du Defiand), with its sequel, Les Confessions
de la Marquise ; also in his novel Olympe de Cl&ves, which might be
called (like Ascanio) semi-historical, since — though the story of the
actress-heroine is fictitious — a great many historical figures come
in — Louis XV, Cardinal Fleury, Marshal Richelieu, etc.

^ Here is a characteristic one : " I was travelling in Burgundy
in 1848 with my daughter. In the same carriage with us there
happened to be a very charming lady of thirty or so. It was
eleven o'clock at night, and in the course of conversation this lady
mentioned that she had never in her Ufe been able to sleep while
travelUng in a coach. I made no remark, but exercised my will upon
her, and ten minutes later not only was she asleep but her head was
resting on my shoulder. I then woke her up : she was equally
astonished at having fallen asleep and at the position she had
chosen in doing so."

There is no end to the bonnes fortunes — real or imaginary — of
Dumas. A propos of his hypnotic powers he once told a story
(according to an article of reminiscences in La Nouvelle Revue of
August, 1899) about a certain Lady H., over whom his magnetic
influence was so extraordinary that, on merely thinking how much

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THE LIFE OF DUMAS

he was writing Joseph Balsamo, and with considerable
success, though he admits that the subjects he operated on
were always persons peculiarly liable to such influence —
young girls or impressionable women. The conclusion he
arrived at was this : "I believe that by the help of mag-
netism a bad man might do much harm, I doubt that a good
man could do much good. ... I consider that magnetism
is an amusement but not yet a science." In the story of
Joseph Balsamo the possibilities of magnetism are stretched
to the uttermost demands of fiction. The " arch-quack "
is seen with all his quackeries ; only, he is a quack who
believes in himself and in his mission to regenerate humanity
by breaking up the existing order of things. As the head of
a widespread society of Nihilists, whose motto is L.P.D.
(lilia pedibus destrue), he directs the undermining of society's
foundations : he puUs the strings with which the puppets
are made to dance. As a showman he introduces to us,
in one way or another, some famous people — Jean Jacques
for example, and the querulous Th^rdse (Rousseau by the
way win have nothing to do with Balsamo, preferring to
trust to the gentler process of time) ; a certain young
surgeon called Marat, who is aU for prompt and violent
methods ; the young Austrian princess just come to France
to be the bride of the shy studious dauphin, who is more
interested in the mechanism of clocks than in any affairs
of Court ; Madame Dubarry, with her pet negro Zamore
and all her intrigues to keep her position ; that eminent
churchman. Cardinal de Rohan, whose eyes are dazzled by

he would like to see her, he presently observed her entering his
room attracted by the suggestion. The rest of the story reads
better in French. " EUe semblait endormie. En galant homme
je la reconduisis chez elle, trois nuits de suite, en lui faisant re-
marquer que tout a una fin. Et, ma foi ! quand elle vint pour la
quatri^me, je ne la reconduisis plus I "

232



THE GREAT NOVELS

the sight of Balsamo making gold. Here too a beginning is
made with the romantic story of Andree de Taverney and
her brother Philippe, when the one becomes a lady-in-
waiting to the new Dauphiness and the other at first sight
of Marie Antoinette conceives for her that devoted love
which will last until she falls beneath the axe of the guillo-
tine. But Dumas knows that there are flaws in magnetism ;
and so Balsamo, whose power depends mainly on the in-
formation supplied by the clairvoyance of his wife Lorenza
Feliciani, comes near to an early and ignominious ending.
For that lady when she has escaped from his influence goes
off and betrays the secrets of the association to the Govern-
ment, with the result that several of the conspirators are
arrested and Balsamo himself only escapes by the help of
Dubarry. Gloom, mystery, and a sense of impending
cataclysm are the intended impressions of the book, which
ends with the death of Louis XV in 1774.

Ten years later Balsamo, reappearing as the Comte de
Cagliostro, resumed more openly his campaign against
Royalty. He it was who engineered all that affair of the
diamond necklace, using as his principal instruments Jeanne
de la Motte, Cardinal de Rohan, and a certain Nicole
Legay, whose marvellous resemblance to Marie Antoinette
gave opportunity for employing her in affairs which would
damage the reputation of the Queen. Many men there were
who loved Marie Antoinette ; none more than Philippe de
Taverney, for whom she did not care at all, and the Comte
de Chamy, whom in her cold, proud way she loved. It was
about her that these two friends quarrelled and fought, and
it was to save her from the King's displeasure that Charny
was made to marry Andree de Taverney. But the scandal
of the necklace — which after all the poor Queen had enjoyed
for so short a while — was sedulously spread abroad by the

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THE LIFE OF DUMAS

Comte de Provence and other enemies, nor was it abated
by the arrest of Rohan and Cagliostro, and the public whip-
ping of La Motte.

Then we plunge straight into the Revolution. The Ange
Pitou — ^who gives his name to the story and whose early life
is partly a reproduction of Dumas' own boyish days — is not
in himself a person of any consequence ; but having come
from Villers-Cotterets to Paris he found himself, July 14,
1789, engaged in the storming of the Bastille. Thence, among
other rescued prisoners, came the medecin whose memoirs we
are supposed to be reading, and whose ward Ange Pitou was.
This Dr. Gilbert, a disciple of Balsamo and imprisoned for
publishing revolutionary ideas, having now got himself
appointed one of the Court physicians, did his best — as a
moderate reformer — to advise the King and Queen for their
welfare. But events moved too fast for advice — those well
known events which no fiction can enhance — the rending in
pieces of Foulon and Berthier, suspected of " cornering "
bread ; the arrival of the Flanders regiment at Versailles
and the fatal banquet at which the tricolour was trodden
under foot ; the march of the hungry women from Paris,
and the hurried journey of La Fayette to protect the palace
from plunder and the sovereign from outrage.

More minutely La Comtesse de Charny describes all the
efforts made to save Royalty by the sound sense of Gilbert,
the self-sacrifice of Favras, the genius of Mirabeau. Every-
thing is frustrated by the vacillation of the King and the
obstinacy of the Queen, who is always P Autrichienne,



Online LibraryArthur F. (Arthur Fitzwilliam) DavidsonAlexandre Dumas (père) his life and works → online text (page 17 of 35)