GPO Prog02 part3:GPO Prog02 part3 19/05/2011 15:22 Page 73
at one stage, contracted to write 220,000 lines a year for La Presse and Le Constitutionel. He met the obligation by organising a sort of novel factory, known ironically as Dumas & Co – John Ireland said enviously that Britten had only to write something and Boosey would Hawke it – which produced 250 novels bearing his name. Dumas would write a lot of the dialogue, in which he excelled, and the chapter endings, deliberately tantalising his readers to ensure they came back for more; most of the rest he left to hacks, some of whom had gifts beyond those suggested by that label. At the height of his fame, Dumas had 73 assistants, of whom the most celebrated is probably the history teacher August Maquet.
Alexandre Dumas, the younger by Georges Clairin (1843-1919) © Bridgeman Art Library
The novels skilfully blend fiction and fact. They deal with well known historical incidents or rumours, usually from the seventeenth century, like the story of The Man in the Iron Mask, and the characters were often based on historical personages: D’Artagnan was Louis XIV’s trusted chief musketeer, effectively chief of Louis’ personal police. There were musketeers called Aramis and Athos, but their characters and exploits were inventions of Dumas; people think he may have based aspects of the mighty Porthos on his own father, the giant mulatto general. The pace is terrific and the tone racy. Here is a description of hashish tasting from The Count of Monte Cristo:
‘Diable!’ he said, tasting the divine preserve. ‘I don’t know if the effect will be as agreeable as you describe, but the stuff isn’t as palatable as you led me to expect.’ ‘You’ve got to give yourself time to get used to it. Remember the first time you tasted oysters, tea, beer, truffles, and lots of other things you now adore? Did you like them when you first tried them? Have you wondered why the Romans stuffed their pheasants with asafetida, or how the Chinese came to eat swallows’ nests? No? Well it’s the same with hashish; persist for a week and nothing in the world will seem to equal its delicacy of flavour. Yet now you think it flat and disagreeable. Let’s go next door, where you’re staying, and Ali will bring us coffee and pipes.’ Trust Dumas to know that hashish is an acquired taste and that the Romans stuffed their pheasants with asafetida. In the early stages of cooking it fully justifies its name. I remember the first time I used some in a curry. I mentioned the dreadful smell – somewhere between Turkish drains and badger dung – to one of my dinner guests, Brian O’Rorke, who used to run a fine restaurant in Alresford, and whose understatements I liked to collect. ‘Yes,’ he agreed dryly; ‘it does smell most unpromising.’ You have to persevere, even if you fear your cat will never come into the kitchen again: I know people who don’t think it’s worth the bother even if you do. When he wasn’t speculating about how people discovered that coxcombs, sturgeon’s roe and snails were good to eat, Dumas père was developing a reputation as one of history’s great spendthrifts. He married his mistress, Ida Ferrier, but soon separated from her after spending all her money; he built the fantastic Chateau de Monte Cristo at Port Marly, just south of St-Germain-en-Laye. In 1851 he had to flee to Brussels to escape his creditors. He spent four years in Naples as Garibaldi’s ‘Chief of excavations and Keeper of the city museums’. After his return to France his debts continued to increase but this didn’t inhibit his lifestyle. He was known as the King of Paris, though he was too wild and unprincipled to be accepted in respectable circles, and he continued to publish novels and memoirs and to run newspapers, until his death from a stroke at his son’s house near Dieppe in 1870, aged 68. Dumas does not seem to have encountered racial prejudice and did not think of himself, despite his appearance, as anything other than French. Several of the novels treat racism and colonialism, however, and he