Prolific in several genres, Dumas began his career by writing plays, which were successfully produced from the first. He also wrote numerous magazine articles and travel books; his published works totalled 100,000 pages. In the 1840s, Dumas founded the Théâtre Historique in Paris.
His father, General Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) to a French nobleman and an enslaved African woman Marie-Cesette. At age 14 Thomas-Alexandre was taken by his father to France, where he was educated in a military academy and entered the military for what became an illustrious career.
Dumas' father's aristocratic rank helped young Alexandre acquire work with Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans. He later began working as a writer, finding early success. Decades later, in the election of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851, Dumas fell from favour and left France for Belgium, where he stayed for several years. Upon leaving Belgium, Dumas moved to Russia for a few years before going to Italy. In 1861, he founded and published the newspaper L'Indipendente, which supported the Italian unification effort. In 1864, he returned to Paris.
Though married, in the tradition of Frenchmen of higher social class, Dumas had numerous affairs (allegedly as many as forty). In his lifetime, he was known to have at least four illegitimate or "natural" children; although twentieth-century scholars found that Dumas fathered another three "natural" children. He acknowledged and assisted his son, Alexandre Dumas, to become a successful novelist and playwright. They are known as Alexandre Dumas père (father) and Alexandre Dumas fils (son). Among his affairs, in 1866, Dumas had one with Adah Isaacs Menken, an American actress then less than half his age and at the height of her career.
The English playwright Watts Phillips, who knew Dumas in his later life, described him as "the most generous, large-hearted being in the world. He also was the most delightfully amusing and egotistical creature on the face of the earth. His tongue was like a windmill – once set in motion, you never knew when he would stop, especially if the theme was himself."
Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie (later known as Alexandre Dumas) was born in 1802 in Villers-Cotterêts in the department of Aisne, in Picardy, France. He had two older sisters, Marie-Alexandrine (born 1794) and Louise-Alexandrine (born 1796, died 1797). Their parents were Marie-Louise Élisabeth Labouret, the daughter of an innkeeper, and Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.
Thomas-Alexandre had been born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), the mixed-race, natural son of the marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a French nobleman and général commissaire in the artillery of the colony, and Marie-Cessette Dumas, a slave of Afro-Caribbean ancestry. At the time of Thomas-Alexandre's birth, his father was impoverished. It is not known whether his mother was born in Saint-Domingue or in Africa, nor is it known from which African people her ancestors came.
Brought as a boy to France by his father and legally freed there, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy was educated in a military school and joined the army as a young man. As an adult, Thomas-Alexandre used his mother's name, Dumas, as his surname after a break with his father. Dumas was promoted to general by the age of 31, the first soldier of Afro-Antilles origin to reach that rank in the French army. He served with distinction in the French Revolutionary Wars. He became general-in-chief of the Army of the Pyrenees, the first man of colour to reach that rank. Although a general under Bonaparte in the Italian and Egyptian campaigns, Dumas had fallen out of favour by 1800 and requested leave to return to France. On his return, his ship had to put in at Taranto in the Kingdom of Naples, where he and others were held as prisoners of war.
Thomas-Alexandre died of cancer in 1806 when Alexandre was four. His widowed mother Marie-Louise could not provide her son with much of an education, but Dumas read everything he could and taught himself Spanish. Although poor, the family had their father's distinguished reputation and aristocratic rank to aid the children's advancement. In 1822, after the restoration of the monarchy, the 20-year-old Alexandre Dumas moved to Paris. He acquired a position at the Palais Royal in the office of Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans.
While working for Louis-Philippe, Dumas began writing articles for magazines and plays for the theatre. As an adult, he used his slave grandmother's surname of Dumas, as his father had done as an adult. His first play, Henry III and His Courts, produced in 1829 when he was 27 years old, met with acclaim. The next year, his second play, Christine, was equally popular. These successes gave him sufficient income to write full-time.
In 1830, Dumas participated in the Revolution that ousted Charles X and replaced him with Dumas' former employer, the Duke of Orléans, who ruled as Louis-Philippe, the Citizen King. Until the mid-1830s, life in France remained unsettled, with sporadic riots by disgruntled Republicans and impoverished urban workers seeking change. As life slowly returned to normal, the nation began to industrialise. An improving economy combined with the end of press censorship made the times rewarding for Alexandre Dumas' literary skills.
After writing additional successful plays, Dumas switched to writing novels. Although attracted to an extravagant lifestyle and always spending more than he earned, Dumas proved to be an astute marketer. As newspapers were publishing many serial novels, in 1838, Dumas rewrote one of his plays as his first serial novel, Le Capitaine Paul. He founded a production studio, staffed with writers who turned out hundreds of stories, all subject to his personal direction, editing, and additions.
From 1839 to 1841, Dumas, with the assistance of several friends, compiled Celebrated Crimes, an eight-volume collection of essays on famous criminals and crimes from European history. He featured Beatrice Cenci, Martin Guerre, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, as well as more recent events and criminals, including the cases of the alleged murderers Karl Ludwig Sand and Antoine François Desrues, who were executed.
Dumas collaborated with Augustin Grisier, his fencing master, in his 1840 novel, The Fencing Master. The story is written as Grisier's account of how he came to witness the events of the Decembrist revolt in Russia. The novel was eventually banned in Russia by Czar Nicholas I, and Dumas was prohibited from visiting the country until after the Czar's death. Dumas refers to Grisier with great respect in The Count of Monte Cristo, The Corsican Brothers, and in his memoirs.
Dumas depended on numerous assistants and collaborators, of whom Auguste Maquet was the best known. It was not until the late twentieth century that his role was fully understood. Dumas wrote the short novel Georges (1843), which uses ideas and plots later repeated in The Count of Monte Cristo. Maquet took Dumas to court to try to get authorial recognition and a higher rate of payment for his work. He was successful in getting more money, but not a by-line.
Dumas' novels were so popular that they were soon translated into English and other languages. His writing earned him a great deal of money, but he was frequently insolvent, as he spent lavishly on women and sumptuous living. (Scholars have found that he had a total of 40 mistresses.) In 1846, he had built a country house outside Paris at Le Port-Marly, the large Château de Monte-Cristo, with an additional building for his writing studio. It was often filled with strangers and acquaintances who stayed for lengthy visits and took advantage of his generosity. Two years later, faced with financial difficulties, he sold the entire property.
Dumas wrote in a wide variety of genres and published a total of 100,000 pages in his lifetime. He also made use of his experience, writing travel books after taking journeys, including those motivated by reasons other than pleasure. After King Louis-Philippe was ousted in a revolt, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected president. As Bonaparte disapproved of the author, Dumas fled in 1851 to Brussels, Belgium, which was also an effort to escape his creditors. About 1859, he moved to Russia, where French was the second language of the elite and his writings were enormously popular. Dumas spent two years in Russia before leaving to seek different adventures. He published travel books about Russia.
In March 1861, the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, with Victor Emmanuel II as its king. Dumas travelled there and for the next three years participated in the movement for Italian unification. He founded and led a newspaper, Indipendente. Returning to Paris in 1864, he published travel books about Italy.
Despite Dumas' aristocratic background and personal success, he had to deal with discrimination related to his mixed-race ancestry. In 1843, he wrote a short novel, Georges, that addressed some of the issues of race and the effects of colonialism. His response to a man who insulted him about his African ancestry has become famous. Dumas said:
My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.
On 1 February 1840, Dumas married actress Ida Ferrier (born Marguerite-Joséphine Ferrand) (1811–1859). He had numerous liaisons with other women and was known to have fathered at least four children by them:Alexandre Dumas, fils (1824–1895), son of Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay (1794–1868), a dressmaker. He became a successful novelist and playwright.Marie-Alexandrine Dumas (5 March 1831 – 1878), the daughter of Belle Krelsamer (1803–1875).Micaëlla-Clélie-Josepha-Élisabeth Cordier (born 1860), the daughter of Emélie Cordier.Henry Bauer, the son of a woman whose surname was Bauer.
About 1866, Dumas had an affair with Adah Isaacs Menken, a well-known American actress. She had performed her sensational role in Mazeppa in London. In Paris, she had a sold-out run of Les Pirates de la Savanne and was at the peak of her success.
These women were among Dumas' nearly 40 mistresses found by scholar Claude Schopp, in addition to three natural children. Schopp has been researching Dumas for decades, primarily his writings.
At his death in December 1870, Dumas was buried at his birthplace of Villers-Cotterêts in the department of Aisne. His death was overshadowed by the Franco-Prussian War. Changing literary fashions decreased his popularity. In the late twentieth century, scholars such as Reginald Hamel and Claude Schopp have caused a critical reappraisal and new appreciation of his art, as well as finding lost works.
In 1970, the Alexandre Dumas Paris Métro station was named in his honour. His country home outside Paris, the Château de Monte-Cristo, has been restored and is open to the public as a museum.
Researchers have continued to find Dumas works in archives, including the five-act play, The Gold Thieves, found in 2002 by the scholar Réginald Hamel in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It was published in France in 2004 by Honoré-Champion.
Frank Wild Reed (1874–1953), the older brother of Dunedin publisher A. H. Reed, was a busy Whangarei pharmacist who never visited France, yet he amassed the greatest collection of books and manuscripts relating to Dumas outside France. It contains about 3350 volumes, including some 2000 sheets in Dumas' handwriting and dozens of French, Belgian and English first editions. This collection was donated to Auckland Libraries after his death. Reed wrote the most comprehensive bibliography of Dumas.
In 2002, for the bicentennial of Dumas' birth, French President Jacques Chirac had a ceremony honouring the author by having his ashes re-interred at the mausoleum of the Panthéon of Paris, where many French luminaries were buried. The proceedings were televised: the new coffin was draped in a blue velvet cloth and carried on a caisson flanked by four mounted Republican Guards costumed as the four Musketeers. It was transported through Paris to the Panthéon. In his speech, President Chirac said:
"With you, we were D'Artagnan, Monte Cristo, or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles—with you, we dream."
Chirac acknowledged the racism that had existed in France and said that the re-interment in the Pantheon had been a way of correcting that wrong, as Alexandre Dumas was enshrined alongside fellow great authors Victor Hugo and Émile Zola. Chirac noted that although France has produced many great writers, none has been so widely read as Dumas. His novels have been translated into nearly 100 languages. In addition, they have inspired more than 200 motion pictures.
In June 2005, Dumas' last novel, The Knight of Sainte-Hermine, was published in France featuring the Battle of Trafalgar. Dumas described a fictional character killing Lord Nelson (Nelson was shot and killed by an unknown sniper). Writing and publishing the novel serially in 1869, Dumas had nearly finished it before his death. It was the third part of the Sainte-Hermine trilogy.
Claude Schopp, a Dumas scholar, noticed a letter in an archive in 1990 that led him to discover the unfinished work. It took him years to research it, edit the completed portions, and decide how to treat the unfinished part. Schopp finally wrote the final two-and-a-half chapters, based on the author's notes, to complete the story. Published by Éditions Phébus, it sold 60,000 copies, making it a best seller. Translated into English, it was released in 2006 as The Last Cavalier, and has been translated into other languages.
Schopp has since found additional material related to the Saints-Hermine saga. Schopp combined them to publish the sequel Le Salut de l'Empire in 2008.
Alexandre Dumas wrote numerous stories and historical chronicles of high adventure. They included the following:Captain Paul (Le Capitaine Paul, 1838), his first serial novel.Acté of Corinth; or, The convert of St. Paul. a tale of Greece and Rome. (1839), a novel about Rome, Nero, and early Christianity.Othon l'archer (1840)Captain Pamphile (Le Capitaine Pamphile, 1839)The Fencing Master (Le Maître d'armes, 1840)Castle Eppstein; The Specter Mother (Chateau d'Eppstein; Albine, 1843)Georges (1843): The protagonist of this novel is a man of mixed race, a rare allusion to Dumas' own African ancestry.Amaury (1843)The Conspirators (Le chevalier d'Harmental, 1843) later adapted by Paul Ferrier into an opera.The Regent's Daughter (Une Fille du régent, 1845). Sequel to The Conspirators.Louis XIV and His Century (Louis XIV et son siècle, 1844)The Nutcracker (Histoire d'un casse-noisette, 1844): a revision of Hoffmann's story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, later set by composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to music for a ballet also called The Nutcracker.The Corsican Brothers (Les Frères Corses, 1844)The Count of Monte Cristo (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, 1844–1846)The Women's War (La Guerre des Femmes, 1845): follows Baron des Canolles, a naïve Gascon soldier who falls in love with two women.The Pale Lady (1849) A vampire tale about a Polish woman who is adored by two very different brothers.The Black Tulip (La Tulipe noire, 1850)Olympe de Cleves (Olympe de Cleves, 1851-2)Catherine Blum, 1853-4)The Mohicans of Paris (Les Mohicans de Paris, 1854)The Wolf Leader (Le Meneur de loups, 1857). One of the first werewolf novels ever written.The Last Vendee, or the She Wolves of Machecoul (Les louves de Machecoul, 1859). A romance (not about werewolves).La Sanfelice (1864), set in Naples in 1800Pietro Monaco sua moglie Maria Oliverio e i loro complici, 1864)The Count of Moret; The Red Sphinx; or, Richelieu and his rivals (Le Comte de Moret; Le Sphinx Rouge, 1865–1866)The Prince of Thieves (Le Prince des voleurs, 1872, posthumously). About Robin Hood (and the inspiration for the 1948 film The Prince of Thieves).Robin Hood the Outlaw (Robin Hood le proscrit,1873, posthumously). Sequel to Le Prince des voleurs
In addition, Dumas wrote many series of novels:The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires, 1844)Twenty Years After (Vingt ans après, 1845)The Vicomte de Bragelonne, sometimes called "Ten Years Later", (Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, ou Dix ans plus tard, 1847): When published in English, it was usually split into three parts: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man in the Iron Mask, of which the last part is the best known. (A third sequel, The Son of Porthos, 1883 (a.k.a. The Death of Aramis) was published under the name of Alexandre Dumas; however, the real author was Paul Mahalin.)
The Valois were the royal house of France from 1328 to 1589, so, many of Dumas romances cover their reign. Traditionally, the so-called "Valois Romances" are the three that portray the Reign of Queen Marguerite, the last of the Valois:La Reine Margot, also published as Marguerite de Valois (1845)La Dame de Monsoreau (1846) (later adapted as a short story titled, Chicot the Jester)The Forty-Five Guardsmen (1847) (Les Quarante-cinq)
Dumas, however, wrote four more novels that cover this family and portray similar characters, starting with François or Francis I, his son Henry II, and Marguerite and François II, sons of Henry II and Catherine de' Medici.Ascanio (novel) (1843); Written in collaboration with Paul Meurice (1820–1905). Is a Romance of Francis I (1515–1547), but the main character is Italian artist Benvenuto Cellini. Ascanio (opera) was based on this novel.The Two Dianas (Les Deux Diane, 1846), is a novel about Gabriel, comte de Montgomery, who mortally wounded king Henry II; and was lover to his daughter, Diana de Castro.The Page of the Duke of Savoy, (1855) is a sequel to the Two Dianas (1846), and it covers the struggle for supremacy between the Guises and Catherine de Médicis, the Florentine mother of the last three Valois Kings of France (and wife of Henry II). The main character in this novel is Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy.The Horoscope: a romance of the reign of François II (1858), covers François II, who reigned one year (1559–1560) and died at the age of 16.
The Marie Antoinette romances comprise eight novels. The unabridged versions (normally 100 chapters or more) comprise only five books (numbers 1,3,4,7 and 8); the short versions (50 chapters or less) number eight in total:
The Companions of Jehu (Les Compagnons de Jehu, 1857)The Whites and the Blues (Les Blancs et les Bleus, 1867)The Knight of Sainte-Hermine (Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, 1869)
- Joseph Balsamo (Mémoires d'un médecin: Joseph Balsamo, 1846–1848) (a.k.a. Memoirs of a Physician, Cagliostro, Madame Dubarry, The Countess Dubarry, or The Elixir of Life)(Joseph Balsamo is about 1000 pages long, and is usually published in two volumes in English translations: Vol 1. Joseph Balsamo and Vol 2. Memoirs of a Physician.) The long unabridged version includes the contents of book two, Andrée de Taverney; the short abridged versions usually are divided in "Balsamo" and "Andrée de Taverney" as completely different books.
- Andrée de Taverney, or The Mesmerist's Victim
- The Queen's Necklace (Le Collier de la Reine, 1849(–1850)
- Ange Pitou (1853) (a.k.a. Storming the Bastille or Six Years Later). From this book, there are also long unabridged versions which include the contents of book five, but there are many short versions that treat "The Hero of the People" as a separated volume.
- The Hero of the People
- The Royal Life Guard or The Flight of the Royal Family.
- The Countess de Charny (La Comtesse de Charny, 1853–1855). Same situation as with the other books, there are long unabridged versions which include the contents of book six; but many short versions that leave contents in "The Royal Life Guard" as a separated volume.
- Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge (1845) (a.k.a. The Knight of the Red House, or The Knight of Maison-Rouge)
Although best known now as a novelist, Dumas first earned fame as a dramatist. His Henri III et sa cour (1829) was the first of the great Romantic historical dramas produced on the Paris stage, preceding Victor Hugo's more famous Hernani (1830). Produced at the Comédie-Française and starring the famous Mademoiselle Mars, Dumas' play was an enormous success and launched him on his career. It had fifty performances over the next year, extraordinary at the time.
Other hits followed.Antony (1831)-—a drama with a contemporary Byronic hero-—is considered the first non-historical Romantic drama. It starred Mars' great rival Marie Dorval.Charles VII at the Homes of His Great Vassals (Charles VII chez ses grands vassaux, 1831). This drama was adapted by the Russian composer César Cui for his opera The Saracen.La Tour de Nesle (1832), a historical melodramaKean (1836), based on the life of the notable late English actor Edmund Kean. The great French actor Frédérick Lemaître played him in the production.The Gold Thieves (after 1857): an unpublished five-act play. It was discovered in 2002 by the Canadian scholar Reginald Hamel, who was researching in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The play was published in France in 2004 by Honoré-Champion. Hamel said that Dumas was inspired by a novel written in 1857 by his mistress Célèste de Mogador.
Dumas wrote many plays and adapted several of his novels as dramas. In the 1840s, he founded the Théâtre Historique, located on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. The building was used after 1852 by the Opéra National (established by Adolphe Adam in 1847). It was renamed the Théâtre Lyrique in 1851.
Dumas was a prolific writer of nonfiction. He wrote journal articles on politics and culture and books on French history.
His lengthy Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine (Great Dictionary of Cuisine) was published posthumously in 1873. A combination of encyclopedia and cookbook, it reflects Dumas' interests as both a gourmet and an expert cook. An abridged version (the Petit Dictionnaire de cuisine, or Small Dictionary of Cuisine) was published in 1883.
He was also known for his travel writing. These books included:Impressions de voyage: En Suisse (Travel Impressions: In Switzerland, 1834)Une Année à Florence (A Year in Florence, 1841)De Paris à Cadix (From Paris to Cadiz, 1847)The New Troy (Montevideo, ou une nouvelle Troie, 1850), inspired by the Great Siege of MontevideoLe Journal de Madame Giovanni (The Journal of Madame Giovanni, 1856)Travel Impressions in the Kingdom of Napoli/Naples Trilogy:Impressions of Travel in Sicily (Le Speronare (Sicily – 1835), 1842Captain Arena (Le Capitaine Arena (Italy – Aeolian Islands and Calabria – 1835), 1842Impressions of Travel in Naples (Le Corricolo (Rome – Naples – 1833), 1843Travel Impressions in Russia – Le Caucase Original edition: Paris 1859Adventures in Czarist Russia, or From Paris to Astrakhan (Impressions de voyage: En Russie; De Paris à Astrakan: Nouvelles impressions de voyage (1858), 1859–1862Voyage to the Caucasus (Le Caucase: Impressions de voyage; suite de En Russie (1859), 1858–1859
A French historian Alain Decaux founded the "Société des Amis d'Alexandre Dumas" (The Society of Friends of Alexandre Dumas) in 1971. The purpose in creating this society was to preserve the Castle of Monte Cristo where the society is currently located. The other objectives of the Society is to bring together friends of Dumas from all over the world, to proceed cultural activities of the Castle of Monte Cristo, to collect books manuscripts, autographs and other materials on Dumas. The Society is presided over by Claude Schopp.