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Alexandre Dumas, père, by Nadar

Alexandre Dumas, père,
by Félix Nadar*

Félix Nadar* was the pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1 April 1820, Paris – 23 March 1910), a very famous photographer.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Mendelssohn, Lieder ohne Worte, Op.53 – No. 1. Andante con moto in A flat  (Daniel Barenboim) (please click on the title to hear the music)

From Alexandre Dumas père to Marguerite de Valois

As I mentioned in my post on John James Audubon (16 April 1785 – 27 January 1851), there is kinship between the artist-ornithologist and Alexandre Dumas père. John James Audubon was born in Saint-Domingue, the current Haiti, to a French father and a Creole woman. As for Alexandre Dumas père, he was born in Villers-Cotterêts on 24 July 1802 and died near Dieppe, on 5 December 1870.  But there is a Saint-Domingue connection.

Indeed, Dumas père’s father was the son of the “Marquis Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a French nobleman and Général commissaire in the Artillery in the colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and Marie-Cesette Dumas, an Afro-Caribbean Creole of mixed French and African ancestry.” (Wikipedia)  Therefore, Alexandre was métissé.  Let me quote what he said to a person who found fault with his lineage:

My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.

Moreover, both were extremely productive.  They were in fact passionate about what they did.

Imagine the hours Dumas spent at his desk writing The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and several other historical novels one of which is La Reine Margot, whose story is linked with the growth of absolutism and the related persecution of the Huguenots or French Calvinist Protestants.  You may remember that Marguerite did not want to marry Henri IV, king of Navarre and a protestant who became Henri IV of France after he converted to Catholicism.

Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615)

Dumas’s La Reine Margot (1845)

  • In La Reine Margot (Queen Margot), Dumas focusses on Marguerite’s wedding to Henri IV, kin of Navarre, which took place on 18 August 1572, five days before the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  Again you may remember that her marriage to Henri IV was an arranged marriage and that, because he was a Huguenot, Henri IV stood outside Notre-Dame de Paris while he was wedded.  It appears she had a liaison with Henri, duc de Guise, a leader among Catholics.
  • By extension, Dumas also focusses on the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which took place in the early morning hours of 24 August 1572, six days after Marguerite was unwillingly wedded to Henri IV.  Huguenots had come to Paris for the wedding, which meant they were trapped.  So not only was the marriage an arranged marriage, but Catherine de’ Medici took advantage of favorable circumstances to manipulate her son Charles IX into ordering the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  Although she had been compelled to marry Henri IV, king of Navarre, Marguerite protected him.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dumas focusses on Marguerite’s subsequent affair with Count Joseph Boniface de La Môle (c. 1526 – 30 April 1574), a nobleman who had befriended François d’Alençon, a prince of the blood and brother to Charles IX, Henri III (duc d’Anjou).  La Môle was accused of having participated in the Malcontent’s conspiracy of 1574 and, specifically, of having tried to murder king Charles IX.  Despite Marguerite’s pleas, La Môle was tortured and beheaded, place de Grève, in Paris.

Such a story was of course perfect fodder for a novelist and fabulous material for filmmaker Patrice Chéreau whose treatment of the subject was tactful. Chéreau’s Reine Margot, 1994, starring Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Virna Lisi and Vincent Perez was both an artistic and a box office success.

Conclusion

However, I am reflecting that, although she lived a dissolute life, going from lover to lover and plotting, Marguerite de Valois was Marguerite de France and, the last of the Valois line.  She ended a dynasty.  Had it not been for the Salic law, commissioned by the first king of all the Franks, Clovis I (c. 466–511), she would have been queen of France after her brother Henri III died.  Instead, the man she married unwillingly and who would not have anything to do with her, became king of France and king of Navarre.  But she refused to have their marriage annulled while his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, was alive.

Marguerite was forced into a marriage.  She was a helpless witness to the torture and decapitation of La Môle and, in 1586, her brother Henri III banished her for eighteen years to the inaccessible castle of Usson, in Auvergne.

Yes, Marguerite lived a rather dissolute life, but she was an exceptionally well-educated woman whose Mémoires, written in comfy detention, thanks to Guise, have literary merit.  Moreover, when she was free to return to Paris, in 1605, she had a castle built where she was a hostess to writers, artists, intellectuals and, perhaps, lovers.  I was taught that she was a “nymphomanic.”

However, she continued to write not only her Mémoires, published in 1658, but also poetry.  As the French would say, “elle avait des lettres” or she was well-educated.

After her release, she cultivated a friendly relationship with her former husband, Marie de’ Medici, his wife, and their children.

I am not about to attempt a rehabilitation of Marguerite de Valois, but let’s just say that, somehow, I understand.

The Young Marguerite de Valois, by François Clouet

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“Margaret Of Valois.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/364625/Margaret-of-Valois>.

© Micheline Walker
March 12, 2012
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