Boyd Tonkin discusses some of the real historical incidents that Alexandre Dumas drew upon for his fiction:
In September 1784, an unpleasant incident took place at M. Nicolet’s fashionable theatre in Paris. A young, aristocratic man-about-town, born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), had escorted to the play an elegant lady whose family also came from the West Indies. Dashing, handsome, the son of Count Davy de la Pailleterie might have seemed the ideal squire for the evening. Save, in many eyes, for one thing. He was black — notably dark-skinned, the mixed-race youth had a slave mother — and his companion white.
At Nicolet’s, a white West Indian officer, Jean-Pierre Titon de Saint-Lamain, decided that it would be good fun to insult the count’s black son. First, he pretended to mistake the young man of colour for the lady’s lackey. Then, after an affray, Titon’s henchmen forced the victim to kneel in front of his assailant and ask for pardon. Soon the police arrived and took both men into custody. Statements were taken, but no further action followed. In 1786, the humiliated colonial boy forsook his life of leisure to embark on a military career. He enrolled in the Queen’s Dragoons under a surname not his father’s. Instead, he chose the identity of his slave-born mother: Marie-Cessette Dumas.
By the early 1850s, this Alexandre Dumas had become not only the famous novelist but, arguably, the most famous Frenchman in the world. At this point, garlanded with international fame and quickly spent riches, he wrote his memoirs. Dumas the novelist adored and hero-worshipped his father, who had died in 1806 but left indelible memories. The first 200 pages of My Memoirs deal with General Alex; in fact, Dumas abandons the narrative of his own life at the age of 31. But in his version of the contretemps at Nicolet’s, the strapping young Alex picks up Titon and chucks him into the orchestra pit. This is a feat of derring-do worthy of… well, worthy of a musketeer.
Dumas relished his life, and the privileges and pleasures that his mythic tales earned. He made and lost fortunes as quickly as he wrote bulky novels. He meddled in revolutionary politics first in France and then in rebellious Italy (where he founded a paper called The Independent). He ran through perhaps 40 mistresses and sired (at least) seven children with them. His published works comprise 300 volumes and 100,000 pages. After packing around five lives into one, he died after a stroke in 1870 — the same year as Charles Dickens, whose A Tale of Two Cities pays its own tribute to the style of the comrade with whom he dined in Paris. If living well is the best revenge, then Alexandre made the bigoted society which had tried to humble General Alex kneel to him.
H/T to Jessica Brisbane for the link.
Update, 4 February: A.A. Nofi reviews The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss.
Reiss [...] fits Dumas into his times and his social environment. So we get a look at the brutalities of slavery and racism under the Ancien Régime and later during the supposedly enlightened French Republic. We see the dying days of the Bourbon monarchy, the Revolution that finished it off, and the rise of Bonaparte’s empire, which brought things part way back to their start again. Reiss also gives us little portraits of many individuals; the general’s family, of course, but also soldiers and rulers such as Carnot, Kleber, the Neapolitan and French royals, Lafayette, and others, including Bonaparte, who would become Dumas’ nemesis. Finally, Reiss looks at how the count’s life shaped that of his son and influenced the latter’s novels, noting traces of the senior Dumas in some of the younger’s characters, notably Edmund Dantes of The Count of Monte Cristo.
The book has some flaws. Reiss betrays a certain over-fondness for Revolutionary France, failing to see its dark side. He neglects the corruption of French officials, both at home and in occupied territories, the widespread plundering of supposedly “liberated” peoples, the slaughter of dissidents, and the widespread atrocities committed by French troops, which often sparked resistance from the very people the Revolution claimed to be liberating. There are, however, flaws common in treatments of the era, and Reiss is commendably more critical of Napoleon, who also tends to get a favorable press.
The Black Count, which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in biography, is an excellent work, well-crafted, with a flowing narrative that makes for an easy read.