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The Black Count

Cover of The Black Count

The Black Count

Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
by Tom Reiss
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By the author of the internationally bestselling biography The Orientalist, The Black Count brings to life one of history's great forgotten heroes: a man almost unknown today yet with a personal story...More
By the author of the internationally bestselling biography The Orientalist, The Black Count brings to life one of history's great forgotten heroes: a man almost unknown today yet with a personal story...More
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  • By the author of the internationally bestselling biography The Orientalist, The Black Count brings to life one of history's great forgotten heroes: a man almost unknown today yet with a personal story that is strikingly familiar. His swashbuckling exploits appear in The Three Musketeers, and his triumphs and ultimate tragic fate inspired The Count of Monte Cristo. His name is Alex Dumas. Father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas, Alex has become, through his son's books, the model for a captivating modern protagonist: the wronged man in search of justice.

    Born to a black slave mother and a fugitive white French nobleman in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), Alex Dumas was briefly sold into bondage but then made his way to Paris where he was schooled as a sword-fighting member of the French aristocracy.

    He was only 32 when he was given command of 53,000 men, the reward for series of triumphs that many regarded as impossible, and then topped his previous feats by leading a raid up a frozen cliff face that secured the Alps for France. It was after his subsequent heroic service as Napoleon's cavalry commander that Dumas was captured and cast into a dungeon--and a harrowing ordeal commenced that inspired one of the world's classic works of fiction.

    The Black Count is simultaneously a riveting adventure story, a lushly textured evocation of 18th-century France, and a window into the modern world's first multi-racial society. But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son. Drawing on hitherto unknown documents, letters, battlefield reports and Dumas' handwritten prison diary, The Black Count is a groundbreaking masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.
    Tom Reiss is the author of the celebrated international bestseller The Orientalist. His biographical pieces have appeared The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications.

 
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    1

    the sugar factory

    Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie--father of the future Alex Dumas--was born on February 26, 1714, in the Norman province of Caux, a region of rolling dairy farms that hung above great chalk cliffs on the northwest coast of France. A scrawled scrap of paper from the time states that he was baptized "without ceremony, at home, because of the peril of death," suggesting he was too sickly to risk bringing in to the local church. He was the firstborn son of an old family that possessed a castle, a scarcity of cash, and an abundance of conniving members, though Antoine would one day outdo them all.

    The boy survived, but the following year his sovereign, King Louis XIV, the Sun King, died after seventy-two years on the throne. As he lay dying, the old king counseled his heir, his five-year-old great-grandson: "I loved war too much, do not imitate me in this, nor in my excessive spending habits." The five-year-old presumably nodded earnestly. His reign, as Louis XV, would be marked by a cycle of spending and wars so extravagantly wasteful and unproductive that they would bring shame not only on his person but on the institution of the French monarchy itself.

    But the profligate, war-driven habits of its kings could not hold France back. In fact the "Great Nation" was about to unleash the age of the philosophes, the Enlightenment, and all that would follow from it. Frenchmen were about to shake the world into the modern age. Before they could do that, they would need money. Big money.

    Big money was not to be found in Normandy, and certainly not around the Pailleterie château. The family's coat of arms--three golden eagles holding a golden ring on an azure background--looked impressive but meant little. The Davy de la Pailleteries were provincial aristocrats from a region more abounding in old glories than in current accounts. Their fortune was not enough to sustain grandeur without work--or not for more than one generation.

    Still, a title was a title, and as the oldest son, Antoine would eventually claim the title of "marquis" and the ancestral estate of Bielleville that went with it. Next in succession after Antoine were his two younger brothers--Charles Anne Edouard (Charles), born in 1716, and Louis François Thérèse (Louis), born in 1718.

    Faced with their limited prospects in Normandy, all three Pailleterie brothers sought their fortunes in the army, which then accepted nobles as young as twelve into its commissioned ranks. Antoine received a commission in the Corps Royal de l'Artillerie, an up-and-coming branch of the service, as a second lieutenant at sixteen. His brothers soon followed him as teenage junior officers. The Pailleterie brothers were kept busy by His Majesty's plunge, in 1734, into the War of the Polish Succession, one of a series of dynastic conflicts that regularly provided excuses for the gory quaintness of eighteenth-century European combat. The big-power rivals behind this little war were the traditional competitors for European land domination, the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs, France and Austria. (England would soon play a bigger role, especially on the high seas and in the New World, but that was still one or two wars in the future.)

    In addition to his commission in the artillery, Antoine served at the front as gentleman in the entourage of the Prince de Conti, the king's dashing, fabulously rich cousin. Antoine saw his main action at the Siege of Philipsburg, in 1734--later written into the military annals by Karl von Clausewitz, in On War, as the "perfect example of how not to site a fortress. Its location was that of an idiot standing with his...

About the Author-
  • TOM REISS is the author of the celebrated international bestseller The Orientalist. His biographical pieces have appeared The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications. He makes his home in New York City.

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Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
Tom Reiss
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