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The Black Count
on 17 October 2012
This is a biography of General Alexandre Dumas, father of the novelist and a man who experienced and achieved a great deal in his amazing life. His son was not yet four when he died in 1806, but obviously hero worshipped him and incorporated many of the tales of his life, told by his mother, into his novels. In fact, his fathers life reads very much like a novel and is an astounding account of a man who was born the son of a slave and lived through a revolution and the rise of Napoleon.
The first part of this book looks at the early life of Alexandre Dumas, who was himself the son of a Marquis, a French nobleman in hiding on the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue, and Marie Cessette Dumas, who was a slave. Saint-Domingue was a place where the sons of impoverished noble familes could strike it rich, as sugar was a scarce and luxurious commodity. The Marquis, known then as Antoine Alexandre de I'Isle, had effectively come 'to sponge' off his younger brother, who had married the daughter of a plantation owner. Eventually he had four children with Marie Cessette Dumas, although when he eventually returned to France he took only his youngest child, Alexandre, with him.
Alexandre must have had a difficult time in Paris. Although 'men of colour' lived a free life in France, he still came up against racism at every turn. Eventually, he set up on his own, taking his mothers name, and joining the army as a dragoon. The author recreates the history of that period so well you almost feel you are living through it. We read of Alexandre's great skills as a swordsman, his incredible strength and agility, his renowned good looks and intelligence. These were abilities he used to climb through the ranks of the army as the French Revolution erupted and the army was reformed. When he was billeted with the Labouret family and fell in love with their young daughter Marie-Louise, his father accepted her lovers proposal, but asked that the wedding be postponed until Alexandre became a sergeant. Within a year he was a general, with ten thousand men under his command...
We read of the Revolution, the Committee of Public Safety and the unleasing of the Terror, when everyone was under suspicion and heads rolled. Also, there is much of his fathers life that Dumas the novelist incorporated into his writing. An example of this was when Alexandre Dumas was imprisoned in the fortress of Taranto, which is obviously the basis of the Count of Monte Cristo. This is only one example, but the author deftly ties together stories, both real and exaggerated, which the author weaved into his novels. Overall, this is a fascinating account of a man and a time, incredibly well written and researched. The author obviously had a great deal of respect for the man he was writing about and this is both history and biography at their best.