17 DECEMBER 1870, Page 10


THE literary career of Alexander Dumas was specially in- teresting to Englishmen for two reasons. He was, so far as we know; the only true quadroon, the only grandchild of a negro, the only man with woolly hair, and deficient calves, and black pigment in the creases of the joints of his fingers, who ever gained a considerable place in the literature of the world. Mr. Ernest de Bunsen's theory that the Jews were half-castes has never been supported by any evidence, though it is difficult to account for their hatred of the Canaanites, except on the sup- position of some visible distinction like colour ; and though quad- roons have commanded armies and governed States, and issued, of course, many proclamations, no other of the race has ever achieved literary eminence. Dumas was the grandson of the Marquis de la Pailleterie and a negro mistress, bore all the marks of his origin, never shrank from avowing it, and avoided visiting the United States, which he had a great desire to see, from fear of the insults to which, as be believed, his connection with the despised people would expose him. We cannot say his genius was of the quadroon type, for there being so few examples of quad- roon genius, we do not know precisely what that type would be ; but we can say it was of the type observers like Mrs. Stowe have always expected the race to produce,—a type in which the pre- dominating feature is the blaze of colour. It was not Oriental exactly—for though that convenient word covers moat diver- gencies from European modes of thought and expression, we do not see why it should cover the specialties of the black as well as of the brown races—but it certainly was tropical. Its defect was rankness, over-luxuriance, splendour of colour without corre- sponding solidity or sweetness, a tendency to profusion without reference to the quality of the supply so abundantly poured out. Flowers or weeds, oaks or trees looking like oaks and rotten as touchwood, every product of Dumas' pen bewildered the spec- tator by the waste of power which it appeared only too truly to indicate. Dumas would crowd into a chapter incidents which might make a novel, and half of which had no bearing on the story ; create characters by the dozen only to kill them off ; ex- haust patience in painting a hero, and still more a heroine, by an infinitude of touches, half of which were repetitions ; while of the remainder many were rather poises with the brush, leaving the idea that he would touch, than actual touches. Without the faintest gleam of spiritual feeling, unless we seek it in the under- tone of " Monte Christo," that Providence is wiser than the wisest man, he had a passion for introducing the supernatural or quasi- supernatural, as a machinery which relieved him at once of the trouble of minutely painting character and of making his inci- dents reasonably probable. That he could create is undeniable,— most of his smaller figures are true creations ; but just try to make out, apart from the machinery, what he took the Cagliostro to be, who under many names is the hero of so many of his tales ; or what, to take a more familiar example, he meant by his delineation of Monte Christo, or of Henry IV., the latter not a character at all, but a mixture of two almost incompatible natures, with no clue to their point of contact. He was tropical, too, in his atmosphere, with its bright lights, and clear outlines, and sense of heat not arising from strain, and gorgeousness which escapes analysis ; tropical in the intensity he gives to his characters, intensity which is some- times force, as in Noirtier, sometimes weakness, as in Edmond Dantes himself, and, as we think, in Joseph Balsam° ; tropical in the scale of his conceptions ; tropical, most of all, in the kind of immorality which pervades his books. They are not immoral often in the sense in which that word is usually applied to French novels. We do not pretend to have read all the forty novels he is said to have given to the world, or half of them ; but in the nine or ten we have read Dumas is not so much immoral, or prurient, or unclean—the latter he did not, we conceive, intend to be,—as indifferent to immutable right and wrong, capable of ac- cepting any kind of law which occurred to him as the one governing that series of situations. His history, for instance, for he meant it to be history, of the relation of Marguerite of Valois to Henry of Navarre is, if tried by any standard recognized in England, an evil, though not an unclean book. It would be impossible to give any description of the plot which would not leave an in- finitely deeper impression of impurity than the novel itself does. Yet the probability is that Dumas thought he was rather carefully avoiding the impure, rejecting strong temptations to- wards the sensational as France understands it ; and it is possible to comprehend why he so imagined. He had caught the tone of the Valois Court, its fundamental idea that there was no law for princes other than to be princely ; that in particular the Sixth and Seventh Commandments were rules highly expedient for the community, but of no meaning whatever for a " Child of France ;" and wrote under those conditions as a historiographer of the Court might have done, with infinitely less intention to injure or debauch anybody than Margaret herself would have displayed. The anec- dotemongers who in the East are called historians write just like that, and so do the poets; and it is curious to find the same temper, the same want of incisiveness of moral vision, the same disposition to accept all acts as acts, having little reference to character, in the great French quadroon. That Margaret was an immoral character never struck him, any more than it would strike a negro, were negroes what we suppose them to be ; she pursued her own way, and in that way met adventures, and he described them, and described them with such art that the reader feels that he is in an atmo- sphere in which somehow truth and falsehood, right and wrong, have scarcely a meaning,—is studying an author who, his atmo- sphere granted, is writing from a point of view decidedly higher than any his puppets would have accepted. A respectable Pagan is writing of Pagans who ought to have been disreputable, but being Princes, were not.

The other point of interest about M. Dumas is that he wrote a book which, with the exception of "Paul and Virginia," is pro- bably the only French novel yet written which will live as an English one. Since the " Arabian Nights" there has been nothing like " Monte Christo ;" no such revel of improbabilities, no such fandango of absurdities, and no book which, to those who can enjoy the "Arabian Nights," who can bear to be released from the laws of the universe, who care nothing about likelihood, and are incurious about character, loving to " see the people " as girls see a review or men a great spectacle, has been so en- chanting as the history of the low Southern sailor who makes of himself gentleman, millionaire, earthly Providence, and goes through the world supporting the right and punishing the wrong by sheer volition ; who, though intent for years on a black scheme of private revenge, is as gentle and holy as an apostle ; who, living in unimaginable luxury, is a self-restrained anchoret ; who, tropi- cal to his toes in habits, beliefs, ways, is through it all the last highest product of the European cultivation. Dumas has taken little pains, or rather none, to make us understand Edmond Dantes in his second phase. He has not troubled himself to account for the middle passage of his career, the period between his rescue from prison and his appearance as the Count, though in the interim he had rescued Haidee and seen all the world. He has not even condescended to be consistent in his account of his machine for performing wonders, the Count's vast wealth, for while he gives him originally some £800,000, he allows him towards the end three letters of unlimited credit from houses like Rothschilds', and makes him perform extravagances to which his very moderate means for our modern society would be totally inadequate. And yet with what eagerness does one read of his rise, his grandeurs, his vengeance, and his repentance as he passes on his way through that ever-varying succession of incidents, and among that host of living people. The secret of the charm is not in the incidents, for apart from their gross improba-

bility, Dumas has depicted many as lively in novels which will almost instantly be consigned to the butterman ; nor in the char- acters, for men and women as real and as original overflow in his stories ; nor in his style, for in many chapters of "Monte Christi) it is not at his best, is occasionally so far from it as to lend colour to the report that even in this, his most characteristic work,. he was assisted by his pupils. It is not a story of passion, save so far as Dantes' hunger for revenge may be called passion, and the only love story it contains is idyllic in its purity, and when told scarcely amounts to more than an incident ; and yet we should like to try with the book some grave hater of novels, or—a far harder trial—some lover of mental analysis. We believe the secret of its success is the deep, full gratification Dumas gives to one of the strongest weak- nesses of human nature, the passion of Aladdinism, the desire to. realize day-dreams by volition. Edmond Dantes acts as men might act were their secret, disjointed, useless fancies executive. He finds the royal road to knowledge for which we all sigh. He gains the social influence of all kinds for which we do not even hope. He acquires at a blow the wealth beyond the dreams of avarice which we all should think so pleasant. He finds the silent, de- voted, yet willing agents of his will, who in the ordinary world can be secured only by Kings and leaders of men ; and he, above all, secures to every incident of his career that dramatic com- pleteness on which men ponder when they give the rein to re- flection on the past. We enjoy that realization of day-dreaming, that world in which obstacles are not, or exist only to enhance the pleasure of their removal, in which there are many Genii of the- Lamp, and one controls them all. Dumas himself, like every man of his race, had this imaginative dreaminess, this love for the concrete unreal in his blood ; he revels and riots in his own ima- ginings, and it is a curious evidence of our view of his character, of the superficiality of the evil in it, that in this book, in which, of all others, he is least restrained by any ties, in which he gives freest rein to his inner self, he rises to his moral best, shakes him- self totally free of uncleanness, conceives the character of the Abbe" Faria, which is worthy to stand by that of Bishop Myriel, gives in the shipowner's family a fine picture of nobleness without inepti- tude, and as it were unconsciously, or in his own despite, graves deep his ultimate moral,—that in seeking revenge, however terrible the provocation, however lawful the means in the spirit of re- venge, man does throughout but strive to be wiser than his God.