Paul T. M. Jackson looks at the Classical side of a popular author.
Porthos, Athos, Aramis, d’Artagnan, “One for all, and all for one”; Edmond Dantès, the Count of Monte Cristo; The Man in the Iron Mask; The Nutcracker…Alexandre Dumas requires little in the way of introduction. 150 years since his death, his work remains popular, far beyond the borders of his country, with his writing spawning hundreds of adaptations on both the big and small screens and even Russian ballets. The French have named metro stations after him, turned his homes into museums, and laid his remains to rest in a televised event in the Panthéon alongside Hugo and Zola. And yet, even in France, even during his own lifetime, let alone elsewhere, today, Alexandre Dumas is not, and never has been, fully appreciated. This was not just a feuilletoniste whose swashbuckling, Napoleonic novels of high adventure were published serially in newspapers. There was much, much more to him, things that relate directly to us. Another side to him, you might say: Dumas the classicist.
His father, Général Dumas, was an avid reader of Plutarch and Caesar, but he died before Alexandre turned four. Even so, Dumas was, from an early age, fascinated by mythology. In his memoirs, he recounts how, as a child, he was in possession of mythologies, Les Lettres à Emilie sur la Mythologie by Charles-Albert Demoustier, and a Mythologie de la Jeunesse by Henri Tardieu-Denesle, which “I was everlastingly devouring,” he remembers. “Not a god or goddess or demi-god, not a single faun or dryad, not a hero was there whose attributes I did not know. Hercules and his 12 labours, Jupiter and his 20 transformations, Vulcan and his 36 misfortunes, I had them all at the tips of my fingers, and, what is more extraordinary, I still do.”
Dumas was subsequently taught by an Abbé Grégoire, and Dumas recalls in his memoirs that his “sole education then was limited to as much Latin as Grégoire could teach” him, with Virgil and Tacitus at the core of his curriculum. “I have always adored Virgil,” he admits, “his compassion for the wandering exiles, his solemn pictures of death, his intuition of an unknown God, touched my heart supremely from the first; the melody of his verses […] had an especial charm for me, and I knew by heart whole passages of the Aeneid” (some three or four hundred lines in fact). Though Ancient Greek never entered into Dumas’ curriculum, Andrew Lang, of Fairy Book fame, testifies to Dumas’ appreciation of Homer: “The Homeric student who takes up a volume of Dumas at random finds that he is not only Homeric naturally, but that he really knows his Homer.” Dumas himself proclaims, “Oh, ancient Homer, dear and good and noble, I am minded now and again to leave all and translate thee – I, who have never a word of Greek – so empty and so dismal are the versions men make of thee, in verse or in prose.” And indeed, later on in life, when he brought out his own newspaper, Le Mousquetaire, he proceeded to publish translations of Homer’s Iliad, for it is said that he was able to produce satisfactory and even elegant renderings of the classics. When the time came to give advice to his son, he wrote, “My dear boy, your letter gave me great pleasure, as every letter from you does, which shows you are doing what is right. You ask me the use of the Latin verses, which you are forced to compose. They are not very important. Nevertheless, you learn metre by so doing, and that enables you to scan properly and to understand the musicality of Virgil’s poetry and the freedom and ease of Horace. Again, this habit of scanning will come in useful, if you ever have to talk Latin in Hungary, where every peasant speaks it. Learn Greek steadily and thoroughly, so as to be able to read Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes in the original.”
At the age of 23, Dumas left his hometown for Paris where he made his name. Not, however, as a novelist, but as a playwright. Here, the influence of Racine and Corneille and their neoclassical tragedies was still being felt—plays such as Alexander the Great, Andromache, Britannicus, Mithridates, Iphigenia, Phèdre; Medea, Horace, The Death of Pompey. Now, two centuries after them, de Jouy and Arnault had taken up the reins with their plays such as Belisarius, Sulla; Marius at Minturnae, Lucretia, Quintius Cincinnatus, Horatius Cocles, Scipio the Consul, and Germanicus, and it was into this neoclassical climate that the Romantics came.
Dumas, who had seen de Jouy’s Sulla when it had opened in Paris’ Théâtre Francais in 1822, was ambitious enough to try to win over the Parisian audience by sparking theatre’s dry bones into life, feeling that the supply of plays seemed to fall inevitably into the hands of academic sorts who wrote according to rule and who had thereby reduced drama to a lifeless state. We will see this ambition of Dumas’—of breathing life into the stuffy—throughout his career.
Dumas advocated the classical precedents of Ancient Greek drama, with his 1830 Christine founded on classical traditions and conforming to the unity of time, place, and action as laid down by Aristotle. He also made shocking and revolting excesses the subject, best seen with his scandalous play about adultery, Antony. Antony was an absolute sensation, much, much more successful than Dumas had dared hope for – it is perhaps worth noting here that he was only 28 years of age at the time – running for 130 nights at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin at a time when the political situation in Paris was affecting theatres, for this was 1831, only a year after the July Revolution. Indeed Antony was to maintain such a strong hold upon French theatre that Dumas would be known much more as a dramatist than as a romancier for generations to come.
Dumas would bring out Caligula in 1837, Catiline in 1848, The Testament of Caesar in 1849, and The Oresteia in 1856, but the stage was not to be the only medium for his classical interests. Incredibly, only two years after the success of Antony, the playwright at the peak of his powers had a history, Gaul and France, published. His fans could not imagine what business he could have with dry, solid history, and academics resented his intrusion into their province, and yet Gaul and France wasn’t to be his only foray into this field. The Caesar who featured in Gaul and France was to make another, much bigger appearance over 20 years later. I’ll let Henri Blaze de Bury, a biographer of Dumas, take up the story: “‘I didn’t know you were a student of archaeology,’ said a local savant to Dumas one day, surprised by his recognition of the bust of Caesar. ‘I’m not,’ replied Dumas, ‘but I probably know as much about Caesar as most people. I’ve written a history of him.’ ‘You, a historian! Well, the work has never been spoken of amongst scholars.’ ‘Scholars never speak of me.’ ‘Yet a history of Caesar would have made quite some stir.’ ‘Mine didn’t. People read it, that was all. It’s the unreadable histories that make a stir. They are like the dinners you can’t digest. Digestible dinners give you no cause to think about them the next day.’”
This was his Caesar, which ran to some 600 pages.
Early on in this work Dumas announces his aim of trying to teach his readers more history than academic history can—an implicit criticism of those unreadable, undigestible histories which were, as he saw it anyway, as lifeless as those stuffy plays of the Théâtre Francais: “When we are shown the Greeks and the Romans, we are shown far too many statues and not enough people,” he argues. This is typical Dumas, wanting to make history, as with theatre, accessible to everybody, making it relatable, enjoyable, not boring: he wanted not only to teach, but to please and to move. “Who knows Levassor, Guillemot, and Techener,” he asks his readers part way through, “who sell their 25 volumes for 25 francs, not to the public, but to those who, like me, have to buy them?” Rather, Dumas seeks inspiration from someone closer to his heart, someone whose Hamlet he had himself put onto the French stage in 1848: “O great Shakespeare, you who understood these things much better than all of our wretched professors of Roman History!” Dumas’ history may indeed be more artistic than scientific, and yet, as was the case with a play like Catiline, it is evident that the likes of Sallust, Cicero, and Plutarch had been well and truly studied, as well as Suetonius, Velleius Paterculus, Florus, Aulus Gellius, Orosius, Macrobius, Catullus, Virgil, Ovid, and Lucan.
Dumas would also write a biography of Augustus, but let me take you back to the 1830s again, to 1839 in particular, when the dramatist-come-historian brought out one of his first novels, set in antiquity, Acte, about Agrippina, Nero, and his eponymous mistress, a novel which would come to inspire Quo Vadis by Nobel Prize laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, the movie version of which became a box-office hit, was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and reputedly rescued MGM from bankruptcy. Acte itself has one or two particularities, in that it depicts, for perhaps the first time in fiction, a Roman chariot race, from start to finish, and also in that it casts Nero, for perhaps the only time in history, in a positive light.
Dumas returns to Nero in 1852 with another historical novel, his incomplete tale of the Wandering Jew, Isaac Laquedem. Isaac Laquedem was a hugely ambitious undertaking, with Dumas planning to recount the whole history of the world through the eyes of his wandering Jew. An epic on the grandest of scales, one might say. Ultimately, however, and unfortunately, it was to prove too ambitious. Running into controversy, hostility, and objection, condemned for its use of apocryphal gospels and for dramatizing the Passion of the Christ en feuilleton, and accused of being antisemitic, no less, Le Constitutionnel, in which it was being published, suddenly brought publication to a halt. Intended to go all the way from the dawn of time, through Dumas’ own epoch, to the Last Judgment, and even the day after that, Isaac Laquedem ends abruptly during the reign of Nero, leaving us hanging, desperate for more of the same. Of a projected 30 volumes that Dumas is said to have envisaged for the whole thing in its entirety, “only two volumes remain for us, a prologue, but what a prologue,” Blaze de Bury says, in a chapter of his biography dedicated to this work.
And quite rightly so, for this ‘prologue’ amounts to 500 pages. Isaac Laquedem, though perhaps a fragment, though leaving us to imagine what could have been, is remarkable in many ways. Dumas had spent some twenty-five years on it, postponing the putting of pen to paper on it until he felt mature enough to do so. During this time he had amassed an unusually large amount of source material even for him, stuff from Apuleius’ Golden Ass, Pausanias’ Description of Greece, Herodotus’ Histories, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Hesiod’s Theogony, and Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana, which he then worked into these two volumes alongside the philosophical, the theological, and the doctrinal. Comparisons have been drawn between it and the Golden Legend by Jacobus da Varagine and Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus given the sheer number of legends packed into it, and even in the little we have, there are physical manifestations of the devil, Homeric voyages, and Virgilean descents down into the Underworld. And yet it is much more than a cornucopia of legends. It has been claimed that Dumas, in attempting to reconcile history, mythology, religion, and even science – for one can also recognise the evolutionary influence of Dumas’ contemporary, Darwin, in there – he essentially created a whole new genre, with myth and Scripture almost effortlessly and seamlessly interwoven into a novel hybrid form. And it is through this sweeping, sprawling epic, staged across the world and moving through the ages, through instances of sheer poetry and moments of pure fantasy, that his Byronic protagonist, the book’s Leitmotif even, walks.
It is also perhaps worth noting that, unlike The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, both of which owed much to Dumas’ chief collaborator Auguste Maquet, it can be safely said that Isaac Laquedem represents Dumas unassisted, for the manuscript, all in his own handwriting, was later presented by his son to the town of his birth.
Dumas vehemently objected to accusations of antisemitism and irreverence, wanting only, as with history and theatre, to make it accessible to everybody. Rather, he considered Isaac Laquedem his magnum opus, and that it would one day be recognised alongside the likes of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, works which he especially regarded so highly. Dumas, in announcing Isaac Laquedem to Le Constitutionnel, claims that it had no precedent in the history of literature, but even so, had to be read in its entirety before being judged. This is of course no longer possible, and so we are left to speculate about how good it actually could have been.
However, the discontinuation of one work did at least allow him to pursue other projects, one of which was his Memoirs of Horace, published in four volumes in 1860 in the Siècle. This is a Vita Horatii, if you like, and, written in the first person, it feels like a precursor to I, Claudius, and—as one might expect from one of Epicurus’ herd,—large parts of it concern Epicureanism. He took up arms on this matter with the editor of La Presse in 1853. The editor, a Monsieur de Valois, had taken exception to Dumas referring to his friend, the chansonnier Pierre-Jean de Béranger, as an ‘Epicurean’ in his Memoirs. Dumas’ reply is remarkable, not only in its lengthiness, but also in its content and structure. Dumas himself takes exception to the very definition of the word EPICUREAN given in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie français – the official dictionary of the French language that is – as ‘a follower of Epicurus and by extension a pleasure-seeker’, a definition, incidentally, which continues to trouble us to this day. In making his point, he calls upon Diogenes Laertius, Pierre Gassendi, Abbé Batteaux, and Epicurus himself, and he ends up offering his own definition to the dictionary, a definition which (correctly) omits the troublesome ‘pleasure-seeking’ aspect entirely.
We can perhaps already see then how passionate Dumas was about the classical world, from childhood and those books of mythology that so fascinated him, from the ancient authors that he took such great pleasure in, from the plays that he put on, the histories and novels that he wrote, and from the philosophies that he studied. He would spend months at a time in the places where his works were to be set, in Rome, Naples, Pompeii, and Herculaneum for Caligula, for instance, touring the Roman sites of Provence in 1834, visiting Carthage in 1846. At home, at his incredible Château de Monte-Cristo just outside Paris – which has now been turned into a museum and is well worth a visit – he surrounded himself with an ancient bestiary, a vulture that he had picked up in Constantine and so christened Jugurtha, a golden pheasant named Lucullus after the Roman gastronome, and a cock called Caesar. Dumas had another château constructed facing this home, the Château d’If, which acted as his writing studio, above the entry to which he had CAVE CANEM engraved – something he had perhaps picked up on that earlier trip to Pompeii – to indicate that when he was in there, working, he wasn’t to be disturbed, and where, in line with Virgil’s precept (Georgics, 1.299), nudus ara, sere nudus, he would be wearing a simple working costume.
Not much of this may be a huge surprise to us. Anyone who has read any Dumas will remember how he will almost habitually allude to the ancient world and to mythology. When recounting a hunt he was on, for example, who but Dumas would even think of describing the three hares advancing towards him at unequal distances from one another “as the three Curiatii”, and when he had one of them, of describing clasping it to his chest “as Hercules did with Antaeus”? When on a boar hunt, to whom but Dumas would “the picture of another Meleager and the boar of Calydon” occur upon seeing one of the gamekeepers, thinking he had killed the beast, sat proudly upon the carcass? Browse through any one of his numerous Travel Impressions and you will find them full to the brim with anecdotes about the ancient world; skim through his astonishingly encyclopaedic Great Dictionary of Cuisine, the 1,000-page monster published posthumously in 1873, and you will find it rich in historical, mythological, and classical allusions. But even so, he is still not as appreciated as he perhaps ought to be. The works mentioned here remain virtually unknown, especially to the English-speaking world, in spite of Dumas’ enduring popularity, paradoxically. In an attempt to bring this hitherto neglected side of our great feuilletoniste to light, his reception of the Graeco-Roman, I am currently working with the American publishing house Noumena Press on a Classical Dumas Series, producing new, English-language editions of the titles I have mentioned here. The first of these is due for a Christmas release later this year, a 150th anniversary edition – with 2020 being the 150th anniversary of his death – of Isaac Laquedem: A Tale of the Wandering Jew, which, remember, in the author’s mind at least, was his magnum opus, not The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo.
Dr Paul T. M. Jackson is a doctor of ancient philosophy, poet, translator, and writer based in Provence. He is currently working on the ‘Classical Dumas Series’ with American publishing house Noumena Press, the first in which is the 150th anniversary edition Isaac Laquedem: A Tale of the Wandering Jew. Further information about this and Paul’s other work can be found on his website: paultmjackson.com.