The Life of Alexandre Dumas, Classic Adventure Writer

Portrait of Alexandre Dumas
Portrait of Alexandre Dumas, 1855. The Manfred Heiting Collection, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. https://www.mfah.org/art/detail/57974.

French author Alexandre Dumas (born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie; July 24, 1802 – December 5, 1870) wrote novels that came to epitomize the adventure genre. In works such as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas eschewed historical accuracy and literary elegance to craft stories that delivered non-stop action. 

Early Years

Born in France in 1802, Dumas was the son of famed general Thomas-Alexandre Davy de La Pailleterie and the grandson of Marie Césette Dumas, an enslaved woman of African descent.

His last name, Dumas, was adopted from his grandmother. Although the family enjoyed some rank and connection due to General Dumas’ lineage and fame, they were not at all wealthy, and their situation worsened in 1806, when General Dumas died of cancer. 

Without much money for an education, Dumas managed to educate himself and take advantage of family connections. When the French monarchy was restored after Napoleon’s final defeat, Dumas made his way to Paris in 1822 to make a living, intending initially to work as a lawyer. He found work in the household of the Duke of Orleans, a future king of France.

A Revolutionary Playwright 

Dumas was not satisfied with his new position in the household of the Duke of Orleans. He almost immediately began writing plays, collaborating with the actor François-Joseph Talma. His plays were instant hits, written in a raucous, energetic style filled with violence and dramatic plot twists.

Dumas made enough money from the plays and articles he published in magazines that he was able to become a full-time writer by 1830.

When a second revolution seized France, Dumas took up arms. He fought in the streets to dethrone Charles X in favor of his former employer, the Duke of Orleans, who became King Louis-Phillippe.

Novelist and Collaborator

Dumas began working in the novel format in the late 1830s. Noting that newspapers were publishing serial novels, he reworked one of his existing plays into a novel, Le Capitaine Paul. He soon founded a studio and hired writers to work on ideas and outlines that he generated, thus inventing a business model still followed by some writers today. 

Historians disagree about the extent of his collaborators' contributions, but there is no doubt that Dumas energetically increased his output by relying on other writers to flesh out ideas and sometimes write large portions of his books. This process allowed him to maximize his income and become incredibly prolific as a writer. (The fact that Dumas was frequently paid by the word or line is reflected in the surfeit of dialog in his books.)

During the 1840s, Dumas’ major novels were written and published. Those works, which include The Fencing Master, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Three Musketeers, exemplify Dumas’ style: explosive opening action, endless excitement, no-frills writing, and a serial format. The plots are not strictly formed; instead, they meander, resisting typical narrative structures. The characters are defined by their actions, rather than an internal monologue or other psychological factors.

In all, Dumas published a remarkable amount of material: more than 100,000 pages of novels, plays, articles, travelogues, and other writings.

Personal Life

Dumas married Ida Ferrier in 1840, but historians believe that he had nearly 40 mistresses and fathered anywhere from four to seven children in his lifetime. Dumas only acknowledged one son, also named Alexandre Dumas, who became a celebrated author in his own right.

Dumas spent exorbitantly during his lifetime, at one point building a chateau that cost 500,000 gold francs. (At the time, the average laborer earned about 2-3 francs per day.) As a result of his lifestyle, Dumas ran out of money in later life, despite his many successes. He wrote several poorly-received novels in an effort to drum up more income. 

Death and Legacy

Dumas died after suffering from a stroke in 1870.

It is believed that he may have contracted syphilis at some point in his life, and that the disease may have contributed to his death.

Prolific and energetic, Dumas produced historical adventure stories that have endured long after loftier works have faded into obscurity. His focus on action, his disdain for psychological exploration, and his sheer fluidity with language have made several of his novels all-time classics that are still read, taught, and adapted today. 

Alexandre Dumas Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie
  • Known As: Alexandre Dumas 
  • Occupation: Writer
  • Born: July 24, 1802, Soissons, France
  • Died: December 5, 1870, Dieppe, France
  • Major WorksThe Count of Monte CristoThe Three MusketeersThe Corsican Brothers
  • Key Accomplishments: Wrote adventure novels that came to define the genre. Developed the writer's studio business model still in use by some authors today. 
  • Literary Movements: Historical fiction, Romanticism 
  • Spouse Name: Ida Ferrier
  • Children's Names: Between four and seven.
  • Famous Quote: "All human wisdom is summed up in these two words,—'Wait and hope.'" (The Count of Monte Cristo)

Sources and Further Reading