Prodigious strength and generosity of spirit

Finally, some Frida reading on Friday. Since it is Banned Books week and I’m reading from Miller’s Tropic of Cancer at an event tomorrow, I’m going through that and have found some gems that I was going to remind you of. But I also found this review of what sounds like a great new book about Alexandre Dumas’ father, on whom he based one of my favorite books ever, The Count of Monte Cristo:

For Edmond Dantès, both winner and loser at the novel’s centre, is to a significant extent modelled on no less a figure than General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas – father of the novelist, French Revolutionary hero, Napoleonic warrior, and a slave-born mulatto of amazing physical strength and greatness of heart: heroic, in short, to the marrow of his bones.

Monte Cristo, it turns out, was more than just the little Mediterranean islet of the book title. Looking much further westwards in the atlas, we find it marked as a port on the island of Hispaniola, which nowadays is partitioned into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The future general was born in 1762 in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue, in the western half of the island. He was the son of a black slave, Marie-Cessette, and a renegade Norman aristocrat, Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, who, having paid a high price for Marie-Cessette’s beauty, fathered three more children before selling her off to a merchant from Nantes.

French Enlightenment values meant that young Thomas-Alexandre (known as Alex), brought to France in servitude by his father, was free once he stepped ashore. The pair moved into the smart suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the fifteen-year-old boy found himself addressed as ‘Monsieur le Comte’. He was kitted out by a court tailor and enrolled at the royal fencing academy, where he learned dancing, music, mathematics and philosophy.

On the way home from Egypt, Dumas was captured and imprisoned at Taranto by officers of the Holy Faith Army, a ragtag-and-bobtail force busy massacring republicans, liberals and Jews in the name of King Ferdinand of Naples. Two years of frantic petitioning by Marie-Louise Dumas proved useless and the dungeon door was only unlocked when French forces finally seized control of southern Italy, allowing her husband to totter homewards, wracked with the cancer that would soon kill him. Inevitably his appeals for financial assistance were ignored and, though not cashiered from the army, he was pointedly cold-shouldered by his brother officers. ‘Whatever my sufferings and pains,’ Dumas declared, ‘I will always find enough moral force to fly to the rescue of my country at the first request the government sends me.’ No such summons ever arrived.

Did Napoleon, morally contemptible as he was, effectively kill the general? Dumas’s son, a yet more famous Alexandre, certainly believed so and Reiss presents a plausible case for Edmond Dantès, Monte Cristo‘s wronged hero, as an avatar of the lost father, some of whose prodigious strength and generosity of spirit the novelist inherited. Clearly Dumas cherished memories of the relatively brief time they spent together – a mere four years, cruelly ended by his father’s death – but the devotion went far deeper than orthodox filial piety.

Indeed it did. ‘Best served cold’ in its proper context.