Like a character in one of his novels, Alexandre Dumas was born to a great noble family, now fallen into poverty. Dumas’ grandfather was the Marquis Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a noble in pre-revolutionary France who had defied the conventions of the era and married a French-Haitian slave - Marie Louise Césette Dumas. Considered 'a Creole', Dumas would suffer racism his entire life. His father was a general in Napoleon’s army who had married the daughter of an innkeeper. Before Dumas was born his father had fallen out of favour with the Emperor and was denied a pension. When Alexandre was born in 1802, the family were virtually penniless.
As his father died when he was four years old, Dumas’ mother had no way of financing an education for her son. She had to rely on the assistance of friends and well-wishers; and on the calibre of her noble name and husband’s reputation. Growing up in a small village in Villers-Cotterêts, Picardy, Dumas read every book he could lay his hands on and vowed to make a career from writing.
When the Bourbon monarchy was restored following the final defeat of Napoleon, Dumas moved to Paris, using his noble connections, in 1822 he began working as a clerk for the Duke of Orleans at the Palais Royal. In 1824 he had a son with dressmaker Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay also called Alexandre. Although the couple never married his son took the name Dumas and would become a successful author in his own right – writing the story on which Verdi’s La Traviata was based.
In his 20s Dumas began writing journalism and plays for the Paris stage. These were well received and his popularity as a playwright meant that in 1829, following the success of his play Christine, he was able to turn to writing full time. In 1830 his former employer the Duke of Orleans was proclaimed King and Dumas' star had never shined brighter - with an end to the censorship of previous eras and a cosy relationship with the new regime, Dumas was able to attract more work and celebrity.
With the serialisation of novels becoming increasingly popular and lucrative in France, Dumas set about forming a small cottage industry for the creation of stories. Under his personal direction, assistants would develop storylines for serialised novels, essays, articles whilst Dumas would contribute dialogue, approve the overall direction and always write the last chapters of a novel. His most trusted and successful collaborator was Auguste Maquet, credited with the majority of the plots for Dumas’ work. His most popular series of novels were the D’Artagnan Romances – The Three Musketeers (1844), Twenty Years After (1845), The Vicomte de Bragelonne (1847), still among the most read French novels of all time, and the hugely successful tale of revenge The Count of Monte Cristo. As a result of this system the output of Alexandre Dumas books considerably outstripped contemporary writers and he was able to become enormously wealthy. However, his penchant for extravagant living, elaborately entertaining guests and women meant that he was permanently in debt.
Despite his many affairs Dumas finally married in 1840, to actress Ida Ferrier. Though they had no offspring, he fathered three further illegitimate children with various lovers. Despite this, their marriage appeared to have been a happy one.
Paris in the early 19th century was an unstable place with revolts and rioting happening as common occurrences. After the deposition of Louis-Philippe, Dumas found himself on the wrong side of the new administration. He fled to Brussels in 1851 due to the increasingly dangerous political situation, though also to escape his creditors. As an internationally famous writer he was welcome everywhere, so he began a tour of the Royal courts of Europe. Going first to Russia for two years where he was a guest of the Tsar, in 1861 he travelled to Italy, where he became embroiled in the struggle for unification – ‘The Risorgimento’. After founding an Italian pro-independence newspaper and staying in the country for three years he returned triumphantly to Paris in 1864.
Despite being the most successful living French novelist he was unable to escape debt and left precious little inheritance for his family when he died in 1870. He was buried in a cheap grave in his home village of Villers-Cotterêts.
His immediate financial legacy may have been slight, but Dumas left to the French nation an enormous wealth of literature. Alexandre Dumas' books have remained consistently popular for over 100 years, so much so that in 2002 the French President Jacques Chirac ordered the exhumation of his body to be reburied in the Pantheon in Paris – the resting place for such great French authors as Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.