Mon Père, ce héros
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
By Tom Reiss (Harvill Secker 412pp £20)
'The Will', 'The Telegraph', 'The Suicide', 'Expiation', 'Toxicology' - even the most cursory glance at its chapter titles suggests The Count of Monte Cristo is a novel that has everything. The tale of a hero doomed not to share in the happiness he creates for others, it deals in monumental themes - liberty, injustice, ambition, greed and revenge - while never slackening its grip on the reader as pure entertainment. Its storyline fuses a world of exhausted Romanticism, peopled by Byronic dandies and Greek slave girls, with a newer nineteenth-century one of grasping bankers, resurgent Italian nationalism, railway speculation and the march of science. Alexandre Dumas, meanwhile, lives within his own artefact, for Monte Cristo, besides being his most successful novel, was also his most heartfelt. 'Everybody knows the book well enough, but few people know its author,' he mournfully remarked, 'which is a pity, since the two are so closely linked that the one can only be judged by the other.'
Just how profound this connection was is probed for us by Tom Reiss in The Black Count. For Edmond Dantès, both winner and loser at the novel's centre, is to a significant extent modelled on no less a figure than General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas - father of the novelist, French Revolutionary hero, Napoleonic warrior, and a slave-born mulatto of amazing physical strength and greatness of heart: heroic, in short, to the marrow of his bones.
Monte Cristo, it turns out, was more than just the little Mediterranean islet of the book title. Looking much further westwards in the atlas, we find it marked as a port on the island of Hispaniola, which nowadays is partitioned into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The future general was born in 1762 in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue, in the western half of the island. He was the son of a black slave, Marie-Cessette, and a renegade Norman aristocrat, Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, who, having paid a high price for Marie-Cessette's beauty, fathered three more children before selling her off to a merchant from Nantes.
French Enlightenment values meant that young Thomas-Alexandre (known as Alex), brought to France in servitude by his father, was free once he stepped ashore. The pair moved into the smart suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the fifteen-year-old boy found himself addressed as 'Monsieur le Comte'. He was kitted out by a court tailor and enrolled at the royal fencing academy, where he learned dancing, music, mathematics and philosophy. Within a few months the 'slave Alexandre' had been successfully transformed into what, across the Channel, was called a 'blackamoor dandy'. Parisians preferred the more politely euphemistic term 'American'.
It helped that Alex, a strapping six-footer rumoured to be able, while swinging from a beam, to lift a horse between his muscular thighs, had the physique du rôle to carry off such a reinvention. He enlisted in a dragoon regiment, however, as a private rather than an officer, adopting 'Dumas' as a nom de guerre. Three years later, at the outbreak of the Revolution, he accepted a lieutenant-colonelcy in 'La Légion Américaine', a newly formed all-black unit led by the dashing swordsman and virtuoso violinist Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George.
Valiant, resolute and born to lead, Dumas was swiftly promoted to the rank of general, commanding the Army of the Alps that carried the Revolutionary war against Austria and its Piedmontese allies into Italy itself. 'Brave Dumas is tireless,' reported an admiring fellow officer, after a victorious assault on the Mont Cenis pass; 'everywhere he shows up the slaves are defeated, and soon Italians will be worthy of their ancestors.'
Having found a devoted wife in Marie-Louise Labouret, daughter of a hotelier in the garrison town of Villers-Cotterêts, Dumas followed his new commander-in-chief, Napoleon Bonaparte, on the ill-starred 1798 expedition to Egypt. The First Consul was scarcely a friend to persons of colour, as the hapless Haitian rebel leader Toussaint L'Ouverture would soon discover, but for the time being Dumas's fearless impetuosity served its purpose. Nemesis struck when the black paladin, in a face-off between the two men over mismanagement of the campaign, showed himself ready to place duty to France above abject submission to the Man of Destiny. 'Blind is he who does not believe in my fortune,' snarled Napoleon, implicitly pronouncing the general's doom.
On the way home from Egypt, Dumas was captured and imprisoned at Taranto by officers of the Holy Faith Army, a ragtag-and-bobtail force busy massacring republicans, liberals and Jews in the name of King Ferdinand of Naples. Two years of frantic petitioning by Marie-Louise Dumas proved useless and the dungeon door was only unlocked when French forces finally seized control of southern Italy, allowing her husband to totter homewards, wracked with the cancer that would soon kill him. Inevitably his appeals for financial assistance were ignored and, though not cashiered from the army, he was pointedly cold-shouldered by his brother officers. 'Whatever my sufferings and pains,' Dumas declared, 'I will always find enough moral force to fly to the rescue of my country at the first request the government sends me.' No such summons ever arrived.
Did Napoleon, morally contemptible as he was, effectively kill the general? Dumas's son, a yet more famous Alexandre, certainly believed so and Reiss presents a plausible case for Edmond Dantès, Monte Cristo's wronged hero, as an avatar of the lost father, some of whose prodigious strength and generosity of spirit the novelist inherited. Clearly Dumas cherished memories of the relatively brief time they spent together - a mere four years, cruelly ended by his father's death - but the devotion went far deeper than orthodox filial piety. 'If this child has no accidents,' wrote the general to a friend, two days after the boy's birth on 24 July 1802, 'he will not be a pygmy by the age of twenty-five'. The pair became inseparable companions, little Alexandre struggling to lift his father's sabre, listening spellbound to his tales of alligators in Haitian swamps or watching him, as he rescued a servant from drowning, 'smile an almost unearthly smile, as a man may who has accomplished a godlike act'.
The novel thus becomes a conscious act of retribution for ancient wrongdoing and is all the better for being fuelled with this kind of noble animus. The Black Count has its own moving narrative thread, made compelling by Reiss's impassioned absorption with the general's fate. He has walked the same ground, from Haiti to the Pyramids, he has penetrated the fateful prison cell at Taranto, and he has even blown open a safe at Villers-Cotterêts to get at the Dumas papers. 'I forbid you ever to speak to me of that man!' cried Napoleon to one of his officers, foolhardy enough to plead on the poor general's behalf. Thank goodness Tom Reiss has snapped his fingers in the face of the Corsican ogre.
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Jonathan Keates's most recent book, The Siege of Venice, is published by Chatto & Windus.