The Three Dumases : Alexandre Dumas – “The Two Dianas”

Much is made of Auguste Maquet’s collaborations with Alexandre Dumas.

ABOVE: Auguste Maquet, the unsung musketeer.

Hard-core fans know Maquet was essential to Dumas’ astoundingly prolific period of the late 1840s. Some have gone on a pro-Maquet campaign that reminds us that of the “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare” fanatics. The “anti-Shakespeare” gang has apparently decided  everybody alive in the 1500s wrote Shakespeare’s plays EXCEPT Shakespeare, and has produced overheated conspiracy pamphlets like “Anonymous”. By comparison, the moderate pro-Maquet camp admits that Dumas was the genius, but claims Maquet gave his work solid structures he lacked elsewhere. (I agree). A nice, little speculative movie was made of the fractious friendship between the two a few years back. “The Other Dumas” is an overdue if fantastical homage to the forgotten Maquet. (The movie stars Gerard Depardieu as Dumas, as if you even had to wonder.)

ABOVE: “It’s not pronounced Dumb-ass, I keep telling you! You’re fired!”

To its credit, the movie doesn’t try to detract from Dumas’ work. The general consensus is that Maquet did the research, outlines and grunt work; Dumas provided the plot, the wit and panache. Maquet’s own novels are noticeably less engaging – although, and it does bear stressing, hardly terrible. I’ve read a couple and while the uninterested have no need to laboriously seek them out, (they’re only available in French as far as I know), they do have charms. I also strongly believe Maquet is authorially responsible for the character of Chicot in the Valois trilogy: when Maquet went solo after their parting, he took Chicot with him into the novel “The Belle Gabrielle,” under symbolic incognito. (Notice he didn’t try any of that with D’Artagnan or Montecristo, both of which had solid basis in Dumas’ theatrical work and early novels of the ’30s.)

Understandably most of the reviews of “The Other Dumas” lacked familiarity with any of Dumas’ work beyond “The Count of Montecristo” and “The Three Musketeers.” Take this typical article prompted by “The Other Dumas”:

The article mentions little of Dumas’ work beyond the two perennials. It says that “for nearly 20 years the two worked closely together.” Not quite.  It’s true that the date of the first meeting between Dumas and Maquet (1839, when Gerard de Nerval introduced them and Maquet showed Dumas the play that would become “Harmental”) and the date of Maquet’s lawsuit against Dumas (1858) would signal “nearly twenty years of closely working together.” But the real partnership between Dumas and Maquet went from 1842 (starting with the publication of “The Chevalier d’Harmental”) until 1850 (the ending of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne.”) That’s eight years, not nearly twenty. Moreover, the “closely together” part of that partnership actually involved the astoundingly prolific FOUR years period between 1844 and 1848 that produced the Count, the Musketeers Trilogy, the Valois Trilogy and the first three Marie Antoinette novels, among others.

Later that same article claims that after the two parted ways, “Dumas wrote nothing else of worth, while Maquet went on to write a lot.” Huh? Dumas went on to write a lot as well and plenty of worth. There were, after all, 22 years after their break, which included newspapers / plays / histories / essays / an epic multi-volume memoir / his classic “Dictionary of Cuisine”  AND at least one (more typically two or three) novels a year, including some big hits like “The Companions of Jehu,” “Emma Lyonna” and “The Mohicans of Paris.” What the writer means to say is that Dumas was ruined after throwing away several fortunes in his lavish lifestyle, while the wiser Maquet saved his pennies and died rich.

ABOVE: Paul Meurice, the other OTHER Dumas?

Anyway, the Dumas- Maquet partnership can only be fully understood in the context of   Dumas’ writer-factory process, which went back to his years as a young theater lion, when plays were co-scripted and passed around. Think of Dumas as the show runner, (the Joss Whedon or Vince Gilligan of his time.) Among Dumas’ other collaborators and ghost-writers were De Nerval, the Countess Dash, and the three Pauls: Paul Bocage, Paul Lacroix, and Paul Meurice. Meurice is more known for his close friendship with Victor Hugo, but he collaborated with Dumas in “Ascanio”

And “The Two Dianas,” which is the book prompting these thoughts.

ABOVE: Wow, someone decided that a drawing of a guy opening a book was an exciting cover for a historical romance!

Quick: It takes place in 1557 and picks up historically more or less directly after “Ascanio”. Gabriel de Montogomery has a problem. He’s in love with Diana de Castro, the illegitimate daughter of Diane de Poitiers and… either Jacques de Montgomery (Gabe’s father) or King Henry II. To complicate maters, Henry II put Jacques away to an indeterminate fate. So Diana de Castro is either Gabriel’s sister … or the daughter of the man who destroyed his father’s life. Dealbreakers everywhere Gabriel turns, so he runs off to sort things out at the Siege of St. Quentin. Nostradamus, Mary Stuart and Ambroise Pare are among the historical figures that parade through the pages.

Some scholarship suggests “The Two Dianas” may very well be entirely of Paul Meurice’s making. There exits a letter in which Dumas seems to give Meurice full authorship of the novel after Meurice asked for permission to prepare a stage version, but the phrasing is ambiguous enough that scholars are still uncertain. The letter could merely be an official business gesture and blessing (as in, “the novel is now yours to do with it as you will”). It’s a great “Dumas” anyway, and fits seamlessly into the canon. Furthermore, some fictional characters from here reappear on “The Page of the Duke of Savoy,” which works as a sequel.

ABOVE: A scene from “Martin Guerre.” They were very musical in 1500s France.

Talking about doubles and twos, “The Two Dianas” features Martin Guerre as Gabriel’s doubled Sancho Panza. Martin Guerre is one of the most famous cases of imposture in the historical record. Guerre was a French peasant who abruptly abandoned his home town in 1548, was thought dead, and reappeared eight years later, in 1556, to return to his wife and family. Except, PLOT TWIST, then the REAL Martin Guerre returned, and the man who had been passing as him for a while was revealed to be a stranger named Arnaud Du Thil. Du Thil was hanged for the fraud, but the oddities of the case – the wife who never said anything! – made a mark. Dumas popularized the Martin Guerre case before, in his massive “The Celebrated Crimes,” but here he uses it to great theatrical effect, (happily shouting out Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and Plautus’ “The Menaechmi”.) Mild-mannered Martin Guerre is puzzled by the more daring double of himself who creates mischief everywhere he goes. Dostoevsky’s “The Double”– WITH THE EXACT SAME CONCEIT – was published the same year as “The Two Dianas,” by the way.


Yes, totally. I just like saying “COINCIDENCE?” and raising my eyebrows significantly as I do it. Also I’m reading “The Double” as well so it casts its magic and makes you see doppelgangers everywhere. The “Martin Guerre” case inspired “Sommersby”, a Civil War-set drama starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, as well as a not-too-successful musical adaptation by Boublil and Schomberg, the makers of “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.” I am a fan of that show in its several attempted incarnations, but I fully accept its flaws, which include some laughably inane English-language lyrics.



#Yesallwomeninthe1600s : Theophile Gautier – “Captain Fracasse”

The Internet may have discovered sexual harassment last month, (and may abandon itself to some new wave of outrage next month) but women have been subject to pretty odious, relentless persecution throughout the sad, sexist annals of human history. Theophile Gautier’s “Captain Fracasse” is set in the France of Louis XIII (1601-1643, a. k. a. “Musketeer time”) and yet it works hard to answer a question that has plagued the female of the species from times immemorial: What are you supposed to do when some deluded dude just won’t take “no” for an answer?

According to Gautier, you get ANOTHER big, strong guy to stab the perv in the lung. It’s not the best feminist answer, but who can argue with results?

ABOVE: No means no!

In the 1820s, most of the literary luminaries of French Romanticism managed to cram themselves into Victor Hugo’s drawing room, in what was known as the Cenacle: Dumas, Musset, Balzac, Sainte-Beuve, Prosper Merimee…  Theophile Gautier was there, but he was wild enough to spin off the circle into his own satellite. The Petit Cenacle was termed thusly half in affection, half in acknowledgment that its irreverent, borderline Bohemian members (Nerval, Petrus Borel)  would not achieve quite the same level of glory as the parent congregation. Gautier had many achievements as poet and critic, though, including his popularization of the “Art for Art Sake’s” doctrine; he wrote an early vampire story in “La Morte Amoureuse,” and what may be the first big tale about mummies, “Le Roman de la Momie.”

ABOVE: With a pretty mustache like that? Of course Gautier knew about sexual harassment!

But Gautier’s most lasting success has been “Captain Fracasse,” a cloak-and-dagger romance that had several film adaptations last century, (one directed by Abel Gance in much the same style as “The Tower of Nesle.”)

ABOVE: I will defend the honor of this golden vagina!

The young Baron de Sigognac is living on reduced means in his dilapidated mansion when a band of traveling players shows up looking for shelter. It takes little more than a pleasant dinner to convince Sigognac to join the colorful thespians in their journey, and soon he adopts the stage name of Captain Fracasse. That’s a pun worth explaining: “fracasser” means to smash things, to break down ; a “fracasse” would be a fray, a big mess of a fight; it also implies a debacle, a failure. Captain Disaster would be an appropriate translation.

Sigognac has fallen in love, (a proper, respectful, requited love), with Isabelle, the ingenue of the crew. Isabelle is modest, sweet, perfect and boring in every way, and it takes only the briefest mention of her absent parents to suggest to us that she must have noble blood and may well turn out to be Louis XIII’s hidden daughter by the novel’s conclusion. She has eyes for no one but Sigognac, but has attracted the unwanted attention of the Duke of Vallombreuse. Vallombreuse is a despicable cad who one imagines carrying a pouch of roofies under his cloak, getting pumped up for his date rape by listening to whatever was the 1600s version of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” ( probably Bach’s “Tocatta in A Minor – Molto Molestoso.” )

ABOVE: “I know you want it… Must wanna get nasty… But you’re a good girl…. heyheyhey!”

Vallombreuse can’t quite believe Isabelle isn’t giving it up, even after he’s basically hurled diamonds at her face, so he does what any sensible gentleman in the 17th century would do: he contracts brigands to murder Captain Fracasse, and then abducts Isabelle. I know what you’re thinking: Surely Isabelle is seduced by this earnest display of affection? After all, few suitors are willing to go that extra-mile that involves killing and kidnapping!

But the unappreciative Isabelle is inexplicably angered by Vallombreuse’s maneuvers. Vallombreuse is of course too noble to actually reduce himself to the role of rapist, (or else Gautier is too shy to go there). The duke simply locks the actress in a room and waits for her mood to be more favorable.

This isn’t “Clarissa,” not entirely, but the situation will be familiar to readers of Samuel Richardson. It’s something to reflect on that, at one point in time, being abducted and brow-beaten into sex wasn’t a freak criminal situation but a relatable trope, something to contend with and prepare for: since women were more or less sequestered in the patriarchal home waiting for marriages in which they had limited say, both unwanted abductions and desirable elopements functioned through similar mechanisms.

Meanwhile, Captain Fracasse shows his would-be killers his fancy fencing moves, wins the fight, and goes to the rescue of Isabelle. The modern reader may dismiss Isabelle as a damsel in distress, in that she doesn’t save herself from the situation – but isn’t that yet another form of victim blaming? (“Why wasn’t she strong and empowered? It’s like she was asking for it!”) It doesn’t matter if she isn’t strong and empowered; most PEOPLE, men or women, aren’t particularly strong or empowered outside of our psycho-therapeutic parlance. It’s irrelevant: weakness doesn’t justify abuse.

So what matters is that Fracasse arrives and puts his sword through the Duke of Vallombreuse’s left lung.

Up to this point, “Captain Fracasse” has been a fine romance. The characters are stock, (literally, in the case of the theater troupe.) The history is non-existent, (notice I can’t tell you where exactly in the 40 years of Louis XIII’s reign it takes place, and I doubt Gautier could either.) It lacks the wit or drama of a Dumas, the mad over-plotting of a Zevaco, or the relatively fleshed out personalities of a Feval, but  it has charm and heart, specially whenever Gautier details the family life of the theater people.

ABOVE: Fracasse and the troupe

… But after the sword fight between Vallombreuse and Fracasse the whole set-up crumbles. It’s the worst sort of crumbling, the slow-motion, brick-by-brick un-mantling of the facade that has you looking at your watch wondering how long it can possibly take for a building to collapse. It’s not even crumbling, really; it’s deterioration.


Most stories wrap-up after the villain is eliminated and the lovers reunited. “Captain Fracasse” does too, but the wrapping is done very, very slowly by arthritic hands. After Vallombreuse is defeated, his father shows up, to reveal that Isabelle is actually Vallombreuse’s sister and therefore the near rape was 100 times creepier. That means Isabel and Captain Fracasse can marry, since she’s now nobility and no longer a paint-faced, hell-bound theater leper. Then we’re forced to watch with a profound lack of interest while Vallombreuse struggles between life and death (with Isabelle and Fracasse watching tenderly over him!) It’s not exactly Little Nell’s death, let me tell you; the reader will more likely feel alarmed by the possibility that the mustache-twirling douche might LIVE.

Which he does, and what follows is beyond absurd. Let me condense:

VALLOMBREUSE: “Oooh, that sword in the lung has changed my outlook in life. I woke up from my coma respecting women and their right to sexual autonomy!”

FRACASSE: “And also my right to not be murdered?”

VALLOMBREUSE: “Of course, you big lug! You’re family now!”

ISABELLE: “OOOH! I love you, brother! You are the best brother a sister could ever have! Give me a big hug!”

*they hug*

ISABELLE: “Oooh. That’s a tight hug. Ok, brother, you can stop hugging now. Let go. Stop. Stop now. STOP!!!”

VALLOMBREUSE: “Pardon moi, sister! Garcons will be garcons!”

FRACASSE: “Ay ay ay. Thanksgivings are gonna be awkward!”

*The three of men chortle merrily.*


ABOVE: DUDE. She ain’t even conscious. That ain’t right.

RATING : COOL! for the early sections, SHRUG for the denouement.