Everything about the life and times of Alexandre Dumas was filled with romance. He was big, loud, and likely unscrupulous. His life mirrors or exceeds that of his fictional heroes. Dumas was a best-selling author, a chronic womanizer, and, surprisingly, a master chef.
Dumas grew up a pauper and of mixed race in France. His father, the “Black Knight,” was dashing and became the highest ranking black military officer in French history. But he had a falling out with Napoleon and was imprisoned. He died of stomach cancer when Dumas was just four years old.
Dumas arrived in Paris at age 20, penniless and hungry for success. He saw the theater as an avenue to make cash quickly and he began writing plays. His first success was Henry III. Dumas kept churning out plays.
Soon, Dumas became a literary rock star. He turned his attention to full length novels, then produced in serialized form. He published 12 lengthy novels before 50. He was paid by the word, so wasn’t editing for brevity. He was known to sit at his desk for 14 hours a day.
Dumas’ First Bestseller
Dumas’ first hit was The Three Musketeers in 1844. That same year, he wrote another swashbuckling hit, The Count of Monte Cristo. With Victor Hugo, he became France’s greatest writer.
His writing was a swashbuckling tour de force of pure narrative verve. He made millions and spent millions, especially on his gaudy pleasure chateau outside Paris, dubbed the Chateau de Monte Cristo.
Dumas’ Ghost Writer
Dumas was admittedly assisted in his writing by his ghostwriter, Auguste Maquet, a trained historian. They met when Maquet approached Dumas seeking help for his first novel.
Dumas transformed it, publishing it under his own name with a new title, The Le Chevalier d’Harmental. Some accounts assert that Dumas submitted it with both names, but the publisher removed Maquet’s. Others say Dumas claimed the book as his own at the outset.
The duo were a collaborative team for nearly 20 years. It is generally thought that Maquet researched history, outlined plots, and sketched characters, while Dumas wrote dialogue, filled in dramatic events, and provided riveting text and embellishment.
Dumas built upon the skeletons that Maquet offered him. Dumas got the byline and recognition; Maquet received a share of the royalties. Is it possible that Maquet did more? Is he not just a craftsman, but the greatest author you’ve never heard of? The “fourth Musketeer?”
It’s an unsolved mystery.
The fact that Dumas used assistants to help churn out his potboilers was an accepted practice. Dumas was always honest about it. All Paris knew the “secret” of the Dumas-Maquet relationship. And Dumas had many other writers on retainer besides Maquet. He had a veritable fiction factory at some points.
This practice was similar to famed sculptor Auguste Rodin, who had a large studio of assistants working on and creating his sculptures. Often Rodin did none of the carving, just supervised. Some of his assistance were artists in their own right, like Camille Claudel. Some say that Claudel, much like Maquet, deserved credit for the Gates of Hell.
But Maquet was viewed as a struggling writer. Publishers didn’t want to take a risk on an unknown. It was Dumas who had the acclaim from this plays, established writing chops, and could attract top dollar.
Dumas’ Branding Strategy
Dumas also had a knack for publicity and self branding. He had essentially “branded” his flamboyant novels and created a cult-like following. And perhaps Dumas had earned it with his early 14 hour days, prodigious output, and publicity tours.
Is Maquet Underrated?
However, some historians believe that Maquet is vastly underrated. They hold that he created the plots of Dumas’ novels, did much of the writing, and should be viewed as a co-author. They theorize that Dumas grew lazy and merely embellished Maquet’s work with his characteristic melodrama. Dumas paid Maquet well, but took all the glory.
At some point, Maquet got fed up with the arrangement. In 1858, Maquet sued Dumas several times for past due fees and sought recognition as a co-author. During one court case, an editor at Le Siècle, a newspaper that serialised Dumas’ works, sent a letter backing Maquet. He recounted:
“an episode of the Vicomte de Bragelonne which was due to be published in his paper had gone missing the day it was due to be printed. Dumas was unavailable so Maquet was contacted. By midnight he had rewritten the episode, which was published. When, the following day, the Dumas “rewritten” text was found, only 30 words from 500 lines were not absolutely the same.”
Dumas vs. Maquet
The court still sided with Dumas. Dumas retained sole ownership of their output. Dumas and Maquet divorced, rather publicly.
Expert consensus remains that, while Maquet was useful, the lion’s share of the credit goes to the insouciant genius Dumas. Alain Decaux, a well-known historian and writer compared writing to painting: “Just like the Renaissance painters, someone had to prepare your frescoes … but in the end, the quill is yours.”
Either way, Dumas and Maquet had an “extraordinary alchemy.” They seemed to need each other, symbiotically, to produce truly great work. When Maquet left Dumas, neither did anything revelatory.
The Other Dumas Film
A 2010 film, called The Other Dumas, reignited the literary debate about authorship. Dumas devotees said Maquet was just a drudge. Maquet advocates said that, without Maquet, the erratic and undisciplined Dumas would’ve floundered and never published his sprawling serialized novels.
The director of the film said this of the controversy: “Maquet did not have the genius of Dumas; he could spend hours and hours writing but it didn’t change anything. You can’t learn genius.”
It’s a bit curious to characterize Maquet as a complete drudge. Maquet was no slouch. He was a well-known party boy and rake back in the day. He was a handsome dandy and a regular at Paris society events and salons. He even knew Victor Hugo. He was definitely part of the in crowd.
Dumas’ financial problems sent him fleeing creditors. He was exiled from France. Maquet continued to write. Tellingly, his novels resembled the Dumas novels. But he still slipped off the radar screen. There were no runaway successes.
But perhaps in the end, Maquet had the best revenge. Dumas died bankrupt and ruined. He was a pauper, fleeing creditors and adrift in the world away from his home. And Dumas didn’t write all that much.
In contrast, Maquet was well off and lived comfortably. He enjoyed Paris and thrived. He outlived Dumas by 18 years and died a wealthy family man.
I like to think that Maquet was happy in the end. Despite not having Dumas’ furious fame, he had royalties pouring in and tacit acknowledgment of his talent. Some people need the glare of over the top fame. Others like to live under the radar in quiet contentment.
Count me in the latter category.
Place des Vosges, home to the Victor Hugo Museum
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