Behind the Iron Mask
Long before the days of mass-produced paperbacks, Alexandre Dumas achieved sales of over one million for his Musketeers trilogy: The Three Musketeers (1844), Twenty Years After (1845) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1850). In an obituary notice published in 1870 after his death, aged sixty-eight, an American newspaper placed Dumas second only to Napoleon Bonaparte as the most famous man of the century. Yet the great French playwright and author, having set the Musketeers firmly on the road to immortality, had been compelled through circumstance to obfuscate their origins, until they came to be regarded as entirely fictional characters, when they were really based on flesh and blood. In doing so he also unwittingly distanced himself from clues to the true identity of the secret prisoner in the mask, a tale more extraordinary and terrible than even Dumas could devise.
In the late 1840s, when Dumas was at the height of his fame, accusations that he was a shameless plagiarist were gathering pace. The drama critic, Granier de Cassagnac compellingly demonstrated that the substance of two of Dumas’ plays, Henri III and his Court (1829) and Christine (1830), came straight from the pages of Schiller. Jean-Baptiste Jacquot, an ambitious writer whose services had been spurned by Dumas, produced a pamphlet alleging that Dumas’ ‘Novel Factory’ had spawned a whole series of works in his name though written by his many assistants and all based on stolen ideas. The story going the rounds was of Dumas meeting his son, also called Alexandre, and asking him, ‘Have you read my latest novel?’ to which Alexandre replies: ‘No, have you?’
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