Relatively few details of the private life of Alexandre Dumas, fils, are known. Typical of the discretion that he maintained in later life is the stipulation in his will prohibiting the publication of his correspondence. Most of what is known of Dumas’s youth comes from his admittedly autobiographical works, particularly The Clemenceau Case, which recalls the author’s pubescent years fairly accurately.
Perhaps the most significant event in Dumas’s life was his birth, for the questions of parentage and the importance of the family became constant if not strident themes of his later work. Alexandre Dumas, père, while working as a clerk for the Duc d’Orléans in Paris, met a young seamstress, Marie Catherine Lebay, living in his apartment building. In 1824, she bore him a son. Although Dumas, père, would later become his son’s most ardent supporter and most lovingly biased critic, it is some indication of the elder author’s preoccupations during these early years that he did not “recognize” his son until 1831, well after his financial success had been assured with the play Henri III et sa cour (pr., pb. 1829; Henry III and His Court, 1832). At this time, Dumas, père, attempted to bring his son into his home, but Mlle Lebay (Dumas never married her), a devoted mother, refused to relinquish her son. A lawsuit followed, and, as was the custom of the time, the father received custody of the son. The younger Dumas later related to friends that he had to be forcibly removed from under his bed when his father came to get him.
Many of the details of these early years are recounted in the novel The Clemenceau Case. The primary character is an illegitimate son, Pierre Clemenceau, who suffers a painful existence as a youth, constantly persecuted by his peers at school because of the circumstances of his birth. (Unlike Dumas, however, Pierre later becomes a successful artist, only to have his happiness shattered by his wife’s infidelity, which he ultimately avenges by killing her.) The childhood traumas associated with his illegitimacy no doubt provided a firm base for Dumas’s later social crusades. When he attacked the laws preventing illegitimate children from learning their paternity and the laws that discriminated against unwed mothers, Dumas spoke most passionately, for he spoke from personal experience.
As a result of these early experiences, Dumas’s youth seemed to him inordinately painful. He spent six miserable years in school at the Pension Saint-Victor, a rigorous institution where Jules de Goncourt was also educated. Here his peers reveled in ridiculing his illegitimate birth. Dumas’s formal education ended at the age of seventeen after two years at the Collège Bourbon, from which he was never graduated. At this time, he went to live with the elder Dumas, adopting many of his father’s worst habits; by the age of twenty-four, he confessed to being fifty thousand francs in debt. Without any strong parental guidance, enchanted by his newfound freedom, and, as a result of his father’s reputation, surrounded by all manner of glittering luminaries, the young Dumas plunged headlong into the treacherous currents of Parisian bohemian life. The cafés, the dancing halls, the nightlife of the grand boulevards where wealthy young men moved freely among the most famous courtesans of the day—this was Dumas’s world, a world he came to know largely to the exclusion of all others and which provided primary source material for almost all his later work. It was Dumas, fils, who coined the term demi-monde to describe this world, where licentious decadence took on a certain respectability.
Amid this demi-monde , Dumas met his first love, Marie Duplessis (née Alphonsine Plessis). This encounter was of paramount importance for French drama, for Marie would become, in 1848, “the lady of the camellias,” Marguerite Gautier, lover of Armand Duval. Although much has been made of this real-life affair, evidence now indicates that it...
(The entire section is 1,557 words.)