February 22, 2018

Dumas, Musketeer-Style

On this day in 1825 twenty-three-year-old Alexandre Dumas (Sr.) embarked on his self-proclaimed "career as a romantic" by fighting his first duel, and having his pants fall down. Dumas's memoirs are about as reliable as his historical-fiction, but they tell the pants story in glorious, comedy-of-errors detail. He had issued his challenge after quarreling with a soldier over billiards two days earlier. He confidently assured his seconds that he was adept with a pistol, only to find that swords had been chosen. Less confidently, he attended the appointed place and hour, and then a second hour, only to have his still-sleeping opponent postpone for a day. Despite the cold weather, Dumas agreed to remove his cloak and upper clothing, only to have his brace-less trousers fall down and the bystanders laugh. Angered and confused, Dumas finally made his first pass, only to see his opponent jump back, trip on a root, and somersault into a snow-bank. Feeling cheated, Dumas yelled, "I barely touched him!" -- and received in return his shirtless foe's explanation that he had been shocked at the touch of such a cold blade.

The memoirs tell of other such misadventures. Another duel was postponed for a day because his opponent had caught a cold while skating on the canal; a third had to be canceled altogether because his opponent lost two fingers in his previous duel. One quarrel with a politician resulted in a strategy that seemed sure to avoid misfiring: both sides agreed to draw lots, the loser pledging to shoot himself. Dumas lost and withdrew to another room, closing the door behind him. Long moments followed on both sides. Hearing a shot at last, the crowd rushed in to find Dumas unhurt and holding a smoking gun: "Gentlemen, a most regrettable thing has happened. I missed."

Dumas shared not only Falstaff's fondness for discretion over valor but also his tendency to hyperbole and high living. His 250 books played fast and loose with history and with the idea of authorship -- he had a staff of some seventy "assistants" churning out copy for his first drafts, and there was no rule against borrowing passages from earlier writers. But he was hugely popular in his day, his readers either not caring about such trifles or happily granting Romantic license to one who, like his heroes, carried his sword and his flair with a smile. In any case, the readers were forewarned: when we meet D'Artagnan in chapter one of The Three Musketeers, the first of the series, we are told to imagine Don Quixote at eighteen, "clothed in a woolen doublet, the blue color of which had faded into a nameless shade between lees of wine and a heavenly azure." In his first attempt at dueling, D'Artagnan too is humiliated: the big-city peasants beat him to the point of fainting, break his father's sword in half and tell him to ride his funny horse back from whence he came.

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