Category Archives: Dumas Alexandre

The Corsican Brothers: Alexander Dumas

“In a quarrel, the origin is not of any consequence.”

I’ve seen a couple of versions of The Corsican Brothers: The Douglas Fairbanks Jr. swashbuckler version

Corsican brothers

and the crude, hilarious Cheech and Chong version:

Also the Corsican Brothers

And that brings me to the source material: the novella from Alexander Dumas.

It’s 1841. The story begins with our narrator, a Frenchman who is journeying through Corsica, explaining the custom of claiming a night’s free board and lodging just by picking the “most commodious house,” and explaining you’re a traveller. The narrator (Alexander) explains this is seen by the owner of the house, as a honour, since you’ve picked his house out of the entire village.

Sounds like a bit of scam to me. Imagine trying to pull that these days.

Anyway, Alexander travels to Sullacaro, and notices that all of the houses seem fortified. In some of the houses, the windows are bricked up, or “guarded by thick planks , provided with openings large enough to pass a gun through.” The narrator selects the house that looks the finest but oddly enough is the only house that is not fortified. This is the home of the widow Savilia de Franchi, a woman about 40 years old, the mother of 21-year-old twin boys: Lucien and Louis.

Fortunately for the reader, the narrator is the sort of person who is interested in his surroundings. He’s given the room which belongs to the absent son, Louis, who resides in Paris, training to be a lawyer. It’s obvious from the room’s contents that Louis is a great admirer of all things French, and then the narrator meets Lucien, his brother’s opposite. In childhood, it was impossible to tell them apart, but now Louis wears French clothing, reads French books, while Lucien is deeply Corsican.

While Louis’ room is full of French books, Lucien, now an arbiter between warring factions, is more into weaponry. He  has an impressive arsenal which includes a dagger owned by the legendary Sampiero.

The narrator spends a day with Lucien who negotiates a truce to end a vendetta between two families–a vendetta which started over a chicken.

A hen escaped from the yard of the Orlandi, and flew over into that of the Colonna. The Orlandi went over to claim their hen, but the Colonna refused to give it up, claiming it as their own; the Orlandi then threatened to take them to a justice of the peace. The old mother Colonna, who kept the hen in her hands, then twisted its neck, and threw it in her neighbor’s face saying, ‘Well then, if she belongs to you, eat her.’ One of the Orlandi then picked up the hen, and was going to strike the offender with it; but at that moment, one of the Colonna, who, unfortunately, had a loaded gun in his had, took aim at him, and shot him dead on the spot.

And how many lives have now been paid for this scuffle?

There have been nine persons killed altogether.

And that for a wretched hen worth only twelve sous.

No doubt the hen was the cause; but as I have told you already, it is not the cause, but the result you must look at 

Over the course of his stay, the narrator learns that the two young men, Louis and Lucien are deeply bonded, and when one falls ill or is distressed, the other twin feels it, hundreds of miles away. Then the narrator returns to Paris and meets Louis. We see scores settled, and the way two cultures settle those scores:

not after the Corsican fashion, from behind a hedge, or over a wall. No, no, but after the French manner, with white gloves, a shirt frill and ruffles.

Once the stage is set, a fairly predictable course of events take place, and since this is an action-based vendetta story, there wasn’t any room for character development. Still I enjoyed the story for its strong Corsican bent, and the idea that twins possess an unearthly bond.

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Celebrated Crimes: The Countess de Saint-Geran by Dumas

“Possibly a more obstinate legal contest was never waged, on both sides, but especially by those who lost it.”

The Countess de Saint-Geran is one of Alexandre Dumas Celebrated Crimes series–18 essays in all, of varied length and now out of print but available used, POD, and also, as it happens, on my Kindle. A few months ago I read The Marquise de Brinvilliers and enjoyed it for its good sense of time and place through the details of trials and sicko torture. I suppose I’d expected the same sort of thing in The Countess de Saint-Geran which I selected at random from the Celebrated Crimes (written between 1839-1841). I knew nothing about the Countess de Saint-Geran before I started reading, and now after reading the story, I feel as though I only know slightly more.

Here’s the gist of the story:

The Countess of Saint-Geran and her husband had long given up the idea of ever producing an heir, and so, given the greed that overcomes people when faced with wills, inheritances, heirs and what-have-you, the Count’s sister, the Marchioness de Bouille– more-or-less expects to get the entire bundle when her brother and sister-in-law die, presumably childless. The Marchioness was originally married off to a man old enough to be her grandfather, but:

“The Marchioness de Bouille quarrelled with her old husband, the Marquis, separated from him after a scandalous divorce, and came to live at the château of Saint-Geran, quite at ease as to her brother’s marriage, seeing that in default of heirs all his property would revert to her.”

 So this is a woman with expectations.

“Such is the state of affairs when the Marquis of Saint-Maixent arrived at the château. He was young, handsome, very cunning, and very successful with women.” The Marquis of Saint-Maixent is a wastrel relative of the Count’s. He’s also a fugitive (more of that later), whose “own fortune is much impaired by his extravagance and by the exactions of the law, or rather in plain words, he had lost it all.”  He arrives at the castle and gets cosy with the Marchioness de Bouille, seeing, of course, the possibilities of a rich, single woman who will inherit everything. But the plans go down the toilet when it’s announced that the Countess, after years of marriage, is finally pregnant. At this point Saint-Maixent employs a shady midwife to dispose of the baby at birth.

So that’s the basic information. The Countess de Saint-Geran morphs into the criminal case about the abducted baby, the contested will, and the various claimants to the fortune.

Unfortunately The Countess de Saint-Geran lacks the clarity of the The Marquise de Brinvilliers, and this is due to several problems. In The Marquise de Brinvilliers, Dumas gave us a sense of exactly who this woman was, her appeal, her social dilemmas, and also her uncanny ability to control and manipulate people. This level of characterisation is missing from The Countess de Saint-Geran, and the main characters–wicked people acting  against the innocent, remain two-dimensional. There’s little detail beyond their names and the facts and figures of the case. We are told, for example, that the Marchioness was married off to a 70-year-old, but that the marriage ended in a scandalous divorce. A divorce in the early 17th century must have been a rare event, and that means that the Marchioness must have been a rare woman. There’s no information about who got the divorce or why. Was the Marchioness the plaintive or was her husband? I wanted to know these details as a little more information about the Marchioness would have added considerable interest to the story.  Was the Marchioness a woman who married her elderly husband with expectations that he’s die and leave her free and wealthy? If so what went wrong with that plan? Did he outlive her patience? When the Marchioness moved back to the Saint-Gerans’  chateau and expected to inherit a fortune from her brother and sister-in-law was there resentment against them that she’d be married off to some old git? Was this a woman who spent her life waiting for others to die so she’d inherit wealth and become, in essence, ‘free’?  Dumas tells us only that the Marchioness was:

married to a man who, it was said, gave her great cause for complaint, the greatest being his threescore years and ten.”

Another huge problem with The Countess de Saint Geran is that the story begins in 1639 with the “young nobleman”   the Marquis de Saint-Maixent a “consummate rascal”  arrested for a series of crimes. A large contingent of armed guards along with their innocent looking prisoner stop for the night to rest at an inn. Here the crafty Marquis pays for enough wine to get everyone drunk, manipulates an innkeeper’s daughter to help him escape, and then the Marquis dashes to the Bourbonnais castle of his relative the Count of Saint-Geran t0 seek sanctuary. Of course once there he begins scheming to get his hands on the fortune.

This earlier story of the Marquis of Saint-Maixent is never solved, never explored and yet here’s a man who is:

“accused, and indeed convicted, of coining and magic.”

“convicted of incest.”

“convicted of having strangled his wife to marry another, whose husband he had first stabbed.”

No small list of crimes, and since he was convicted there must have been a trial. No details are given here–instead Dumas gives us the Marquis in action as he escapes and heads for his unsuspecting relatives,  the Count and the Countess de Saint-Geran. The Marquis’ backstory is of considerable interest, and as it turns out is much more interesting that the Saint-Geran story, but it’s never explored even though Dumas structures his story with the initial focus on the wickedness of Saint-Maixant.

There were some additional problems in the story regarding the birth of the baby. How could a woman give birth and then be told she imagined it? Wouldn’t there be some virulent arguments there?

Much of the story bogs down in the details of the various court cases that evolve over the years. While it’s perfectly understandable why such a story would capture the imagination, it’s ultimately unsatisfying.  In spite of the occasional tendency to wander into grandstanding through the dramatic turns in events that rival the most tawdry soap opera, the story lacks life–although it was interesting to note that the lower-classes involved in the plot were assigned to torture while the upper-class instigators were handled quite differently.

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Celebrated Crimes: Marquise de Brinvilliers by Alexandre Dumas

“She accused herself of incendiarism.”

Well I discovered what it means to ‘put someone to the question.’ Now I’m ready for a career in Guantanamo or in some other exotic location.

The torture in the book Celebrated Crimes: The Marquise de Brinvilliers takes place in the 17th Century, the time of these particular crimes committed by this cold-blooded aristocratic serial killer. I’d intended to read the Celebrated Crime series (18 essays in 8 volumes) by Dumas for some time. They are currently out-of-print, but they are available used, through Project Gutenberg and print-on-demand. I read my version on my Kindle (free).

Reading Celebrated Crimes: The Marquise de Brinvilliers reminds me once again what a damn entertaining writer Dumas is. Here he takes the facts of the mysterious Brinvilliers case and brings to life this tale of adultery, greed, and murder. The book reads with the gusto and zest of a tabloid tale, and yet this is all fact. Dumas dug into the court documents (and the detailed observations of the torture) when writing this tale, and then added his own sometimes flamboyant elaborations. Consequently this reads like fiction, but it isn’t.

The book begins in the year 1665 with the arrest of the young, dashing Chevalier Gaudin de Sainte-Croix. Carried off to the Bastille, Sainte-Croix’s murky background includes various tales of his origins, but at the time of his arrest he was Captain of the Tracy regiment. About 5 years earlier, Sainte-Croix met the Marquis de Brinvilliers, the maitre-de-camp of the Normandy Regiment:

“Their age was much the same, and so was their manner of life: their virtues and their vices were similar, and thus it happened that a mere acquaintance grew into a friendship, and on his return from the field the marquis introduced Sainte-Croix to his wife, and he became an intimate of the house.”

This, as it turns out, was a big mistake….

When Sainte-Croix became the lover of Madame de Brinvilliers, she was 28 years old. The Marquise, whose name was Marie-Madeleine, was a wealthy woman and she had expectations of becoming even wealthier. Her father was M. de Dreux d’Aubray, civil lieutenant at the Chatelet de Paris, and the Marquise also had a sister (a nun) and two brothers. Here’s a rather colourful slightly dramatic passage from Dumas describing the Marquise:

“At the age of twenty-eight the Marquise was at the height of her beauty; her figure was small but perfectly proportioned; her rounded face was charmingly pretty; her features, so regular that no emotion seemed to alter their beauty suggested the lines of a statue miraculously endowed with life; it was easy enough to mistake for the repose of a happy conscience the cold, cruel calm which served as a mask to cover remorse.”

The Marquise soon left her husband and began consorting publicly with Sainte-Croix. Her behaviour was ignored by her husband who “merrily pursued the road to ruin,” but her father “procured a warrant for the arrest of Sainte-Croix” (I’m not sure on what grounds). And it’s at this point that Sainte-Croix was carted off to the Bastille and thrown into the same cell as “the Italian Exili.” Dumas relates this ominous meeting with a strong sense of drama. Sainte-Croix howls “like the roaring of a wild beast,” and he first sees Exili as some sort of “supernatural being.” But hyperbole aside, Exili, according to the text, had been kicked out of Rome “charged with many poisonings.” I can’t help but wonder who Exili really was. The name Exili, is that a real name or could it be a derivative of Exile?

Exili is an “artist in poisons, comparable to the Medici or the Borgias. For him murder was a fine art, and he had reduced it to fixed and rigid rule.” A great cellmate in other words for the lover of a married woman. The next thing you know both Sainte-Croix and Exili are free and running around Paris with undetectable poisons.

This really is a great tale, and I had to keep reminding myself that this stuff was true. Basically Sainte-Croix and the Marquise de Brinvilliers start bumping people off with an assortment of poison potions. Of course, not everything is smooth sailing. The murderous lovers have to experiment and how better to experiment than with the sick and impoverished. The Marquise, playing the Lady Bountiful role, visits the ill….

Dumas doesn’t spare details here while at times he also seems to wallow in the histrionics, the sheer deviousness and cackling evil of this murderous pair. The contents of the closet of Sainte-Croix are listed with meticulous detail, for example, as are experiments with poisons on animals, details of the trial and torture of the valet Lachausee and the torture of the Marquise de Brinvilliers.

Given the facts behind the case of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, it’s not too surprising that she became the subject of a number of books. I’ve been curious to read a bit more for some time, and then recently she appeared offstage in the Hoffman novella Mademoiselle de Scuderi. I have a soft spot for Dumas after discovering just what an entertaining writer he is some years ago, and in Celebrated Crimes, he applies his talent for creating historical adventures towards this case of  the 17th century murderess. The author’s imagination runs a little wild at times when it comes to the concept of evil, and he compares Madame de Brinvilliers to Locusta and Messalina at one point while stressing that her face offered no clue to the evil within.

The story takes a dramatic and even more fascinating turn when the Marquise is finally arrested. Dumas had access to the Marquise’s confession, and indeed this document becomes a seminal part of her trial–whether or not her confession–intended to be read upon her death–could be admissible as evidence. Legal precedents are included in the trial. Dumas details quite a bit of the legalities here and I found it all quite fascinating. It’s peculiar how the 17th century court fussed and agonized over admitting the confession as evidence when they had no ethical or legal problem torturing those associated with the case to get confessions.

There’s also some fascinating up-close glimpses of the Marquise following the trial and the torture. And here we get a look at some of her patterns of thought. While some officials are so moved by their own arguments that they break down, Madame de Brinvilliers stays calm and collected. Acting with grace and dignity, nonetheless shards of her innermost thoughts appear with some interestingly twisted logic.

What I particular enjoyed so much is the 19th century perspective of Dumas. If this were written today for example, we’d probably have the story written with an emphasis on the crimes as the result of the Marquise being a female with limited rights. I assume she had an arranged marriage, and then again her father did try to squash her relationship with Sainte-Croix. Dumas, firmly in the 19th century, does not see the Marquise de Brinvilliers as a victim of her sex, and he portrays her as a fascinating yet evil woman. With an absence of the normal moral restrictions that govern behaviour, she doesn’t hesitate to commit the most heinous crimes without an ounce of pity for the agony of her victims:

“The Marquise had often said that there are means to get rid of people one dislikes, and they can easily be put an end to in a bowl of soup.”

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