Tom Reiss, an American writer best known for his international bestseller ‘The Orientalist: In Search of a Man Caught Between East and West’, has succeeded yet again in producing this squash-buckling tale of a man so brave, so strong, and filled with such Revolutionary heroics, that he was immortalised in some of the best loved French novels of all time. I am talking of course of General Alexandre Dumas, the real life inspiration behind his son’s novels ‘The Three Musketeer’s and ‘The Conte of Monte Christo’. Dumas’ story is so incredible and so unbelievable that it is hard, at times, to believe it is non-fiction, and that the events that shaped his life really took place.
Alex Dumas’s real name was Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie; he was born in a slave colony in Saint Domingue, to a slave mother and a French aristocratic father. Alex’s father, who was for all intents and purposes a total scoundrel, sold Alex’s mother and their three other children in order to pay for his own passage back to France. Incidentally, he also sold Alex in this way but arranged for his travel to join him once he had raised the funds, and successfully bought his son back out of slavery. This was in 1776. Slavery was illegal in the forward thinking France of this time, so Alex’s colour was no issue in his being educated, or in his decision to join the army.
What was surprising was that Alex chose to shrug off his noble background, which could have secured him a commission and a place in the army as an officer. Instead he enlisted as a common soldier in the Queen’s Dragoons. As well as his social position he also shunned his father’s name, adopting ‘Dumas’, which was the surname of his mother, whom he would never see or hear from again.
This is actually Alex Dumas the writer dressed up as his beloved father, but you get the idea of the strength and power of the heroic Revolutionary. Oil portrait by Olivier Pichat.
No one could have been prepared for Alex’s meteoric rise through the ranks of the French army, something that could only be facilitated by the social and political upheaval thundering through France at the time. Having joined the army at 23, Alex would become General in Chief of the Army of the Alps by his 31st birthday; in command of some 53,000 troops. From the Alps Alex went to Italy, and then joined Napoleon’s ill-fated expedition to conquer Egypt in 1798.
In Egypt, Alex would soon realise he had a much more dangerous enemy than the Bedouin rebels in the unforgiving landscape of the desert. Napoleon himself quickly took a dislike to the handsome and tall, powerfully built and strong leader. It was easy to see why Napoleon felt threatened, when he stood at just over five foot, and Alex was well over six. The Egyptian campaign was an unmitigated disaster, with huge losses for the French and little ground won. Napoleon soon fled the hell-hole of his failures in Egypt and headed back to France in 1801 to take control of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Paris. Alex managed to arrange passage on a boat which proved to be unsound, and was forced to dock at Naples, which was at this time unforgivably anti-French. Alex was captured, thrown in a dungeon, and left there to rot for the best part of three years before his release could be arranged.
Finally returning to France in 1803, after many suffering and trials in lands far away from home, Alex was able to settle down with his adored wife Marie-Louise. They had a son, also called Alexandre, who would become one of France’s most beloved novelists. Alexandre hero worshiped his father, who would become the main inspiration for the characters and events in his stories.
Reiss tells a marvellous tale, with never seen before research that he uncovered by blowing up a safe in Villers-Cotterêts, France. Having heard an interview with him on Radio 4, and learning the tale of such a fantastically rich life, I knew I had to know Alex’s exceptional story. My only, very minor, complaint about this book is the lack of images included. I suppose this is a typical grievance for any Art Historian. Granted, images of Alex are few and far between. Reiss does however mention in a special chapter at the end of the book an old statue of the General in Paris. Sculpted by Alfred de Moncel, it showed Alex standing proud, like a ‘resolute patriot, grasping his long rifle like a walking stick’. Before the statue was destroyed by the Nazis in the winter of 1941-2 (I suppose it is easy to see why the Nazi’s would not want a statue of a strong and heroic black man standing proud) a few photographs were taken, and I would simply have loved to have seen one. Hell, I would have even liked to have seen the blown up safe!
Please do read this book if you love history and adventure. Many thanks to my sister for buying me the book for Christmas.
‘The Black Count- Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Count of Monte Cristo’ by Tom Reiss was published by Harvill Secker, London, in 2012.