Review 1587: Captain Paul

Quite a few years ago now, I bought the collected works of several 19th century writers in ebook form from Delphi Classics and resolved to read them all, starting from the earliest works. I didn’t get very far—read one or two novels by each—before life got in the way of my project and I forgot it. But recently, I thought I would occasionally interject one of those novels into my regular reading, and the first one is Captain Paul by Alexandre Dumas, his second novel.

Now, this novel is quiet peculiar, for Dumas was inspired for it by James Fennimore Cooper’s The Pilot, which is about John Paul Jones. I haven’t read The Pilot, but it seems that Dumas has taken some liberties with Jones’s life if not with Cooper’s book. In particular, while naming his character Paul Jones, as Cooper apparently does in his book, and using some actual episodes from John Paul Jones’s life, he makes him a Frenchman (he was, of course, Scottish-American), and he gives him an entirely fictional but romantic lineage as the illegitimate son of a French count (although JPJ was born on an estate, the son of a gardener, so maybe Dumas was making some sort of assertion about his birth).

In the novel, Captain Paul, unaccountably donning two disguises in the first few pages, takes onboard his ship a prisoner of France that he is supposed to deliver to the prison island of Cayenne. The crew is not supposed to speak to the prisoner, but his conduct during a battle with an English ship leads Captain Paul to ask for the story of the prisoner, Hector de Lusignan.

Six months later, Captain Paul visits Count Emmanuel d’Auray, who originally delivered Lusignan to the ship, to tell him he knows he imprisoned Lusignan unlawfully. Lusignan’s crime was to fall in love, without fortune, with d’Auray’s sister, Marguerite, and have a child with her. While d’Auray got rid of Lusignan, his mother, the Marchioness, removed Marguerite’s child. Now, they are trying to force her to marry a fop who has promised d’Auray a commission. Captain Paul announces his intention to get Lusignan a pardon and remove Marguerite’s child from wherever it is hidden. But when he learns Marguerite still loves Lusignan, he decides to help the lovers.

There are more secrets to come, including Captain Paul’s own identity.

This is a short, fast-moving novel once you get over your bemusement about poor John Paul Jones. It is entertaining, but after all the action is over, Dumas couldn’t resist adding an Epilogue, which tells us how everyone ended up and also contains more of Jones’s real (maybe) exploits. The Epilogue, therefore, is about as long as two or three of the chapters, and everything bogs down tremendously. This is the addition of an inexperienced writer, and we all know he improved.

By the way, I believe that the figure depicted on the cover above (which is not the edition I read) is actually supposed to be Alexandre Dumas’s father, who was a famous general.

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Day 935: Acté

acteActé was Alexandre Dumas’ first novel and a partial inspiration for Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. As with most of Dumas’ work, it is based on actual historical characters. That being said, my research tells me that it is unlikely that Acté was a Christian convert.

This novel begins in Corinth in the year 57 A.D. Corinth is preparing to hold a competition of wrestling, chariot racing, and singing. Acté, a beautiful Greek girl, is on shore when a bireme arrives containing one of the competitors. Acté falls in love with this man, Lucius, at first sight, and he appears to fall in love with her.

Lucius wins all three competitions but in a manner that seems to fill the audience with dread. He also behaves in an oddly commanding way. To the reader, things don’t look good for Acté, but she heedlessly runs off with Lucius, leaving her home and father behind.

It is not until their arrival in Naples that Acté learns with horror her lover’s true identity. He is the Emperor Nero. Acté is further horrified at the behavior of his court, especially the dissoluteness shown during feasts.

Nero’s formidable mother, Agrippina, actually approves of Acté and hopes that by her innocence, she will discourage Nero from his excesses. But in shock one night at the behavior during a feast, Acté runs to Agrippina for shelter. Unfortunately, that is the same night that Nero has decided to have his mother murdered by sinking her ship with her on it. Agrippina and Acté are almost drowned, but they get away, and Acté is rescued on the shore by the Apostle Paul. Agrippina, although briefly rescued by Acté, ends up dying.

There are lots of descriptions of races and fights and battles in this novel, but its focus is on the fall of Nero and the role Acté played. Acté herself is just a cardboard figure prone to fainting, which is interesting since she is strong enough to swim to shore from the middle of the Bay of Naples, supporting Agrippina, and is described in terms of an athlete and Diana the huntress.

Delphi Press editionIn addition, the many pages wherein St. Paul describes his conversion and in doing so recounts most of the life of Christ, are deadly dull and unnecessary. If his words are meant as the inspiration to convert Acté, I believe they would be more likely to put her to sleep.

All in all, this novel is interesting as the start of Dumas’ career but is not in itself the most compelling of historical novels. It is based on the most damaging of the accounts of the life of Nero, who has been rehabilitated to some extent in more recent scholarship.

Note that the cover at the top is for a French-language version. The only English-language version I could find had just a black cover. My own version is a Kindle collection of complete Dumas works, published by Delphi Classics, shown just above.

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Day 558: La Reine Margot

Cover for La Reine MargotIf you’ve been following my reviews of Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series about medieval France, you’ve probably seen me use the phrase “nest of vipers.” La Reine Margot, set a couple of centuries later, is just as full of intrigues, infidelities, betrayals, and even poisonings.

It is 1572, and the French court is celebrating the inexplicable marriage of Marguerite of Valois (Margot) to Henry of Navarre. France is at the height of the wars between Catholic and Huguenot, and Charles IX has proposed the union between his sister and the leader of the Huguenots purportedly to further peace.

Soon, though, we find out that the wedding is a trap for the leading Huguenots planned by Charles and his evil mother Catherine de Medicis. (Note that throughout I spell names as they were in the book.) For that evening of St. Bartholomew’s Day, troops are sent out all over Paris to massacre the Huguenots, who are in town for the wedding.

Thinking to rid himself of an enemy in Henry of Navarre, Charles has not considered his sister. Even though she and Henry are not romantically attached, the two have sworn to support each other. When Henry is trapped in the Louvre with the royal family, a combination of Margot’s support and his recanting saves his life. Margot has also rescued a young wounded Huguenot, La Mole, from the slaughter, providing a romantic subplot for the novel.

So begins the novel about how Henry of Navarre, aided by Margot, survives the machinations of the Valois family. The rumor is that Catherine recently murdered Henry’s mother by poisoning her, and Catherine also works in charms and horoscopes. Charles IX is unstable, first mistrusting Henry and then treating him like a brother. Henry d’Anjou, Charles’ brother, detests Henry of Navarre and thinks he is a threat to d’Anjou’s own right to the throne after his brother. François d’Alençon, the other brother, wavers in his decision to ally with Navarre.

Dumas was a writer of the Romantic movement, which de-emphasized rationality and emphasized emotion. The romantic plot involves the love affair between Margot and the naive and gallant La Mole, who is drawn into danger because of his love and religion.

My Oxford World Classics edition was fortified with copious notes, including information about which events were true and which were invented. Dumas is prone to using real people in his historical romances, and it was just a little off-putting to discover, for example, that the real La Mole was not a gallant Huguenot but a fundamentalist Catholic who was responsible for many murders during the massacre. Still, I found the real stories as fascinating as the novel.

If you like a fast-moving adventure that also involves political maneuvering, this is a good book for you. I was more interested in the nerve and political agility of Navarre than I was in the romance, but I still enjoyed the novel.

One caution—an abbreviated version of this novel is available as Marguerite of Valois. I have not read it, but if you want the more complete novel, look for La Reine Margot. (Yes, it is in English but also in French, so be careful if you order it online.)

Just a side note. I have written much about Dorothy Dunnett’s excellent historical novels. One of her Crawford of Lymond novels, Queen’s Play, is also partially concerned with the massacre.

Day 484: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

Cover for The Black CountTom Reiss, previously the author of the fascinating biography The Orientalist, seems to be drawn to unusual figures who were famous in their own time but have become virtually unknown. Such is the case with Thomas-Alexandre Dumas—the father of the famous author of The Count of Monte Cristo, among other classics—who reached the heights of his fame as a great soldier and general of revolutionary France.

Dumas, who went by Alex rather than Alexandre or Thomas, had a colorful past. He was born on the island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), the son of a black slave and a French marquis, Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie. His father was a wastrel and a scoundrel who, although he apparently did not raise his son in slavery, sold him in order to raise the passage money for his own return to France after his family had thought him dead for years. After claiming his right to his title and property (which his relatives had been maintaining and improving for years at their own expense), Pailleterie redeemed his teenage son and brought him up in privilege.

However, shortly after entering manhood, Alex broke with his father, took his mother’s name, and proceeded to make his own way as a soldier. He was the first person of color to become a general-in-chief of the French army and was the highest ranking black officer in the western world of his time.

This book is an account of Dumas’ fascinating life, in which his physical courage, ability, and principled behavior won him acclaim. Unfortunately, he was not as gifted politically and inadvertently made an enemy of Napoleon Bonaparte, who perceived him as a rival and really comes off here as a jealous and power-hungry opportunist. Bonaparte’s resentment, in combination with an abrupt change in policy of the French government to remove the rights previously granted subjects of color, ended in the loss of his career and a death in neglect and poverty.

The book is written in an energetic and informal style for the general public, although it is copiously documented in the back. The Black Count is an engrossing story of an event-filled life.

Day 111: The Black Tulip

Cover for The Black TulipThe Black Tulip does not feature the swashbuckling we have come to expect from the historical novels of Alexandre Dumas. Even though it begins with two innocent men being torn limb from limb by a mob, it is actually a romantic comedy about the mania for tulips in the 17th Century.

The two men are the uncles of an obsessed tulip grower, Cornelius van Baerle. Just before their deaths, they send him a message telling him to destroy some papers they’ve left with him, but he is too occupied with cultivating his black tulip bulbs to read it.

These bulbs are worth a lot of money, as the Horticultural Society is offering a huge prize for a black tulip. Cornelius himself is not interested in the money as much as the achievement of growing the tulip. However, a neighbor who covets the prize, Isaac Boxtel, betrays him to the authorities hoping to get a chance to steal his tulip when he is arrested.

Cornelius bequeathes his tulip to Rosa, the jailer’s daughter, when he thinks he will be executed. Although completely innocent of treason, he is sentenced to life in prison. The story continues with the attempts of Boxtel to steal his tulip, which Cornelius and Rosa are trying to grow in jail so that it can be delivered to the Horticultural Society. At the same time it is about the love that grows between Cornelius and Rosa.

The novel is funny, romantic, and well written. Although some historians currently believe that reports of tulip mania are exaggerated, this novel seems to accurately reflect what was earlier reported of this odd period of history. If you are interested in another look, try reading Deborah Moggach’s historical novel Tulip Fever or the Wikipedia entry on “tulip mania.” For a nonfiction account reflecting current ideas, try Anne Goldgar’s Tulipmania: Money, Knowledge, and Honor in the Dutch Golden Age, which I have not read, but is cited in the Wikipedia article.