By Patti Lecron
“Ah! Monte-Cristo is one of the most delicious follies ever made. It is the most royal bonbonniere that exists!” wrote Honore Balzac, describing the dazzling chateau his flamboyant literary rival Alexandre Dumas had just built. “One could become madly in love with this monument, like one loves the moon when one is young,” journalist and novelist Leon Gozlan wrote.
Dumas, who had already swept the public off its feet with his theatrical successes, had become immensely popular with his novels published in the newspapers in serial form. Never before had an author earned as much money from literary works. Enriched with the fortune he made from the swirling adventures of d’Artagnan and his friends in The Three Musketeers, and the somber intrigues of The Count of Monte-Cristo, Dumas built an opulent chateau and park that would become, for a time, his heaven on earth.
One day in 1844 while walking through the quiet hamlet of Port-Marly, Dumas fell in love with a wooded hill overlooking the Seine River valley between Versailles and Saint-Germain-en-Laye. He bought up the parcels of land and sent for a brilliant architect, Hippolyte Durand. At the site Durand would learn that the legendary extravagance of this literary lion had no bounds:
Monsieur Durand, here you are going to design an English garden, in the middle of which I want a Renaissance chateau, facing a Gothic pavillon surrounded by water. . .there are natural springs, use them to make cascades.
But Monsieur Dumas, the bottom soil is clay. Your buildings will slide!
Monsieur Durand, you will dig to the bedrock and build two levels of basements and arcades.
But that will cost several hundred thousand francs!
I certainly hope so ! Dumas exclaimed, brushing off the architect’s objections.
The result was elegant. Built over the course of two years, the irresistable and intimate white-stone chateau stands today like a precious jewel box that one hesitates at first to open, then does. And opened it once was, again and again, to a steady stream of guests that Dumas, who was generous to a fault, lavishly received.
Of charming proportions and a gem of neo-Renaissance architecture, the small chateau is flanked by two turrets with cupulas each bearing a graceful AD monogram. The facades are profusely sculpted with intricate motifs that Dumas himself selected : angels, flowers, musical instruments, griffons and arms. Portraits of great writers sculpted in medaillons decorate the frieze that wraps around the building, a personal pantheon Dumas created with effigies of Virgil, Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Chateaubriand, Sophocles, Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Racine, Byron, Goethe, Victor Hugo, Corneille and Moliere. When Gozlan noticed that an effigy of Dumas was not among them he asked, ” And you, my good friend, you are not there ? ”
“Me, I will be inside,” he replied. Dumas later corrected the omission, and gave himself the place of honor above the front entrance so that his smiling face carved in stone would greet those arriving at his doorstep. Because his father was the natural son of a black slave and a French aristocrat, Dumas had the coat of arms of the Davy de la Pailleterie family sculpted on the lintel. He completed it with his own motto, J’aime qui m’aime (I love who loves me), a line spoken by Maguerite in Queen Margot.
Dumas designed his park to reflect the romantic ideal of the imaginative and the personal with winding alleys, cascades and hidden grottos. When talking with Dumas about what was going to be planted, Gozlan realized that the land was not as vast as his friend imagined :
But where will your park be? he asked.
I have told my gardener, and you have just heard it; it will be here. Dumas replied.
Where we are?
It will be very small, Gozlan told him. It will hardly be larger than the foyer of the Comedie Francaise.
It will be small, that is true, but it will be a very literary one.
And what is that, my dear Dumas?
I mean that I will give to each alley the name of one of my works. There will be the Lorenzino Alley, and the Antony alley.
I understand ; but it will not give much shade to the wanderers.
What do you expect? Glory first, then shade.
A monument to 19th century romanticism, an artistic and intellectual movement that stressed all that was emotional, imaginative, individual, spontaneous and irrational in opposition to classical and social correctness, the entire domain is indeed very literary. Even the weather vanes express exalted emotions: Au vent la flamme! (To the wind the flame!) and Au Seigneur l’ ame! (To the Lord the soul!). Paradoxically, locals were the ones to christen the domain the Chateau de Monte-Cristo, much to the delight of Dumas, who then dubbed the second structure the Chateau d’If. Named for the sinister prison in The Count of Monte-Cristo, it has nothing more in common with that hell hole than its name. Built on a small moated island, it is a masterpiece of picturesque architecture, a romantic fantasy. The tiny two-story pavillon with only one room on each floor, is troubadour style, a liberal and eclectic interpretation of Gothic architecture then in vogue across Europe, a blend of diverse architectural elements: Gothic ogives, rosaces and moldings, Swiss-chalet style decorative wood banding, and rustic Normandy half-timbering. The facades read like a Dumas bibliography. Titles of 88 of his works are engraved in stones interspersed with bas-reliefs: Edmond Dantes discovering his treasure, the monk Gorenflot riding a donkey from The Lady of Monsoreau, and a sitting Duke of Guise from Henri III and his Court. A foot-bridge that crosses the shallow moat and a stone sculpture of a dog in a doghouse with the Latin inscription cave canem (beware of dog) heighten the resemblance of the minature bastion to a stage decor.
Dumas, who needed peace and tranquilty to work, installed his writing studio in the pavillon, away from his bustling and gay household that was always crowded with friends and strangers taking advantage of his hospitality. (Dumas, an animal lover whose menagerie of exotic pets also included a pack of neighborhood dogs wrote, ‘People, like animals could come and go as they pleased at Monte-Cristo.” ) On the ground floor he set up a simple writing table with his quill pens, favorite inks and paper: pale blue for novels, pink for articles and yellow for theatre. He had a tremendous capacity to work long hours; usually twelve a day. Rapid, lucid and never at a loss for words, he wrote at a hallucinating pace. Dumas estimated that on good and bad days alike, he averaged 15 minutes to write a 40-line page. Poet Alphonse de la Martine called him “superhuman;” historian Jules Michelet qualified him as “one of the forces of Nature.”
The days of heaven on earth are never long. Sumptuous parties, feminine conquests and unbridled spending took their toll. By the time of the 1847 inaugurations of both his chateau and his Theatre Historique, which he had built in Paris, Dumas was deeply in debt. Not only had he squandered money living like a nabob, a new tax imposed on journals publishing serial novels affected his revenues. And he had heavily invested in his theatre. Although the theatre receipts had been phenomenal at first, they slackened as interest in historical dramatic art declined. People had become more concerned about the future than the past. In 1848 he was forced to sell his furniture; in March 1849 his entire domain was sold at auction for a mere 31,000 francs, one-seventh of its cost. After his theatre failed, Dumas fled to Belgium to avoid his creditors, staying from 1851 to 1853.
Through the years Monte-Cristo passed from hand to hand until 1969, in an extreme state of disrepair, it was threatened with demolition by housing developers. A small group of determined modern-day musketeers, along with three local communes, Marly-le-Roi, Port-Marly and le Pecq-sur-Seine, came to its rescue. A halt was put to the housing project; the Association of Friends of Alexandre Dumas formed, and the three towns united to buy and preserve the domain. After more than three decades of tenacious efforts and restoration, Monte-Cristo once again has its 19th-century sheen.
Dumas had been so much involved in the design and artistic choices of Monte-Cristo that Gozlan described it as ” the adorable mold of a dreaming and passionate soul. ” If his mark is so apparent on its facades, little of its original interior decor remains. An exception is the beautiful and authentique Moorish salon inspired by the exquisite interiors Dumas had admired on a trip to North Africa. In 1985 King Hassan II of Morocco, a devoted Dumas fan, graciously restored the room using his own architect and artisans.
Classified as a historic monument and open to visitors, the iconography of the Monte-Cristo museum traces the greatest Dumas adventure of all, his own life. Born not only during the romantic period in July 24, 1802 in Villers-Cotterets, a small provincial town, Dumas was born to be a romantic. He lost his father when he was only three. An illustrious general and mulatto, Thomas Alexandre Dumas de Davy de la Pailleterie had colossal strength and bravery that were legendary in the military barracks, but because of his Republican principles he fell out of favor with imperialist-minded Napoleon during the Egyptian campaign. After he suffered imprisonment and torture in enemy hands, Napoleon deprived him of his back pay and pension, and he died a broken man. Stories about the general fueled the imagination of the talkative little Dumas and would later be the inspiration of strong heros, such as Porthos, throughout his work.
His mother who had difficulty making ends meet, was both charmed and exasperated by young Dumas, who preferred tagging along with local hunters and poachers in the forest than attending to his school work. At fourteen he was obliged to become an apprentice to a clerk in the office of a notaire, a lowly position that he had trouble keeping. (Later in life Dumas would say, “It is almost as difficult to keep a first-class person in a fourth-class job, as it is to keep a fourth-class person in a first-class job.”)
A young artistocrat visiting from Paris, Adolphe de Leuven, introduced Dumas to modern poetry, causing him to dream of becoming worldly and cultivated one day. At 21 he struck out for Paris. Thanks to his fine penmanship and with help from a family connection, he was able to get a job as a copiest in the offices of the Duke d’Orleans. An avid reader and auto-didact, Dumas devoured and analyzed great works. Hoping for theatrical success, he wrote vaudeville pieces with de Leuven and frequented artistic and literary circles that would eventually include the young and impertinent romantics of the day.
His breakthrough came in 1829 with the triumph of Henri III and his Court, the first great drama of the French romantic movement. Dumas had not only revolutionized French theatre by writing in natural prose rather than verse, he had created a scandal by introducing physical passion and violence onto the stage. The crowds cheered and it was an overwhelming success. Subsequent plays would be, too; Anthony would become one of the greatest French romantic dramas of all time.
Dumas threw himself into his work writing historical novels, dramas, essays, and travel accounts. Master scenarist before his time (more than 200 films have been adapted from his works), his captivating serial novels were an important economic phenomena that augmented the sales and democratization of newspapers. With historian Auguste Maquet he developed a fruitful colloboration; The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte-Cristo were their most successful endeavors. Brilliant conversationalist and talk of the town, the blue-eyed, bronze-skinned ladiesÃ??Ã?Â¢?? man and bon vivant who had participated in both political and literary revolutions, seemed larger than life. His output was so tremendous that a jealous clique accused him of not authoring his own works. While Dumas hired a number of collaborators to develop plots and ideas, his writing was his own; the proof is in his inimitable style. As a matter of fact, his greatest collaborator, Maquet, had never been capable of producing soley a successful work.
Happiest when writing, he overcame the melancoly of having lost Monte-Cristo and his fortune by setting himself back to work. He continued to be a prolific novelist, created periodicals and developed a modern style of journalism, traveled across Europe, and participated with Garibaldi to unify Italy. And, he continued to live like a bird on a branch; his money disappeared as rapidly as he earned it.
Dumas was also one of the finest gourmets of his century. Some say that if he had not been a great writer, he would have been a great chef. A few months before his death he finished a cooking dictionary for which he had accumulated more than 3,000 recipes and anecdotes throughout his life.
Dumas had a complex relationship with his illegitimate son whose name was also Alexandre. He, too, was a successful writer and was known as Alexandre Dumas, fils (son). He is best known today for a single work, Lady of the Camelias on which Verdi’s La Traviata is based. In 1870 his father, with only two gold pieces to his name, arrived at his door in the small seacoast town of Puys, near Dieppe, to spend his final days. He quietly died December 5, leaving behind him more than 600 works peopled with more than 37,000 characters.
How to get to the Chateau de Monte-Cristo:
From Paris SNCF Saint-Lazare train station take a train in the direction of Saint Nom-la-Breteche, get off at Marly-le-Roi and take CGEA bus line 10 in the direction of Saint Germain-en-Laye to the Square Monte-Cristo, then follow pedestrian itinerary.
From Paris regional train RER line A , take train to Saint Germain-en-Laye, then take CGEA bus line 10, following the same instructions above.
By car from Autoroute 13, take Saint Germain-en-Laye exit and follow N186 , taking access road to the Clinique de l’Europe, then follow signs to the parking lot of the chateau.
The chateau is 20 km from Paris, 5 km from Versailles and 3 km from Saint-Germain-en Laye.
Open from April 1 thru Nov 1 : Tuesdays thru Fridays from 10 a.m. to 12 :30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. ; Saturdays & Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Open from November 2 thru March 31 : Sundays only from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Guided visits in the afternoons ; guided visits in English available upon reservation.
Information and Reservations : (33) + 1 30 61 61 35