Dumas was born in the Caribbean to a mulatto slave woman and a aristocratic Frenchman, became a clever and brave soldier, a hero of the French Revolution, was incarcerated in a dungeon in Italy for two years, abandoned and betrayed by his fellow officers and on his return to France was rejected by the army, abandoned by his friends and lived in poverty until his death a few years later. His life story might have remained mostly an obscure reference in histories about the French Revolution but instead his son, Alexandre Dumas, used his father’s life and experiences as the basis for many of his finest literary works, thus immortalizing the father he worshipped but knew for only a short time.
Born in the highlands of Santo Domingo to a ne’er do well French aristocrat, Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, (using the false identity of Antoine De l’Ile because he was in hiding from his younger brother,) and his mulatto mistress, Marie Celeste in 1762, Thomas- Alexandre, did not have an auspicious beginning. His father was indolent and never seemed able to make a living and his mother’s status as mulatto slave carried its own heavy legacy. Thomas-Alexandre had three older siblings but they, along with his mother, were sold to another owner and Thomas-Alexandre himself, although known to be his father’s favorite, was sold for 800 livres, with the right of redemption, to a ship captain to finance his father’s return to his family’s French estate in 1775.
By then the Pailleterie estate had passed on to Antoine’s sister and her husband Maulde, since both of his younger brothers had passed away and Antoine, the oldest, had been in hiding. The estate had fallen into debt and ruin by the collapse of the sugar market and the younger brothers’ extravagant lifestyles, but since he took over, Maulde had been making significant progress in restoring the family fortunes, so it must have been quite a shock when the oldest son suddenly reappeared! After negotiations between Maulde and Antoine, an agreement was reached and Antoine took over the estate and his position in French society as the Marquis and sent for his “pawned” son. Listed as “the slave Alexandre” on the ship’s manifest, Alexandre arrived in Le Havre on August 30, 1776 to start his new life. By February of the following year, the Marquis had sold the lands of the estate to a neighboring landowner, secured an annuity from the chateau from a family member and moved to a suburb of Paris. With funding now secured, and having legally recognized his son, now known as Count Alexandre de la Pailleterie, they moved to the suburbs of Paris. And that is just the beginning of Alexandre’s extraordinary life!
Reiss’s does excellent research; from the legal intricacies of slave ownership and the status of the offspring of mixed parentage in France, to the complicated hierarchy of the French military, to the fluid political machinations during the French Revolution and later the French Republic, to the medical knowledge and understandings of illness at the time, Reiss is unstinting in his effort to give us the clearest picture we can of the life and times of Dumas and to bring him to life. Using Dumas’ own letters and the letters of others including Napoleon, whom Dumas greatly disliked Reiss is able to give insights into his character and thoughts about what was happening around him. Reiss’ writing is fluid and descriptive helping us place Dumas in context and in his surroundings whether at home, on a march in the Alps or Egypt or in his prison cell. It is no wonder that this book won the Pulitzer prize for biography in 2013!
His son, Alexandre Dumas, the famous French author would later rely on his father’s life, his ordeal in prison and his betrayal as the basis for his novel The Count of Monte Cristo, By writing that book, Dumas sought both catharsis and revenge against those he saw as the betrayers of his father and in the process proved once again that the pen is mightier than the sword!
Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Stars out of 5)
Recommend this book to: Sharon, Ken and Marian
Book Study Worthy: Yes!
Read in ebook format.