10 November 2011

Alexandre Dumas in Le Port-Marly, Yvelines (78), France: Literary Île-de-France #17

Following his great success with The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires) and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, Alexandre Dumas was rich and at the height of his fame in 1844. At the time he lived in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, but returning from Versailles on foot on one occasion, he decided to build a country house on the hills of Le Port-Marly. On consulting architect Hyppolyte Durand about it, Durand told him the earth was clayey and unsuited for building on. Dumas told him to dig down to the rock, Durand told him it would cost him hundreds of thousands of francs, and Dumas replied: 'I should hope so!'.

And so, at a cost of 200,000 francs, the Renaissance castle was ready in 1847, with 600 there to see the result. But it didn't have a name, which is said to have come from Madame Mélingue, an actor visiting Dumas who took a carriage from Saint-Germain-en-Laye and was trying to explain to the coach driver where she wanted to go: 'Monsieur Dumas, Monte-Cristo!' And so, Dumas decided, the Château de Monte-Cristo it would be.

And overlooking the château — on an analogy with a place of the same name just off the coast of Marseilles — Dumas's gothic work studio became Le Château d'If ('if' incidentally being the French for yew tree.)

And surrounding all this is an English park with rocks, a lawn, and grottos.

The dragon well. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the château itself, whose most visually impressive room is the Moorish 'Salon Mauresque'. A great traveler ('Traveling is living in the fullest sense of the word'), in 1846 Dumas was in Tunis and recruited two artists — France Younis and his son Mohammed — to build a room in his château similar to the splendors he'd seen in the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, the Alcazar in Seville, and the Palais de Bey in Tunis. In 1985, King Hassan II of Morocco restored the room to its original magnificence.

Back to the Château d'If, which, as Dumas required, is surrounded by water.

Around the walls are inscribed the names of 88 of Dumas's works, and some of his characters.

And a bonus here is that, although it's not possible to enter, at least the public can see through the glass entrance.

And what is seen is a reconstruction of Dumas's writing desk.

Dumas's stay here was very short: he was excessively generous, had to support not only his family but also his mistresses, traveled a great deal, etc. The upshot was that he had to sell his furniture as early as 1848, and the estate itself the following year. Various owners followed, but the château gradually fell into decay.

The property here was scheduled for demolition in 1969 and a huge housing operation planned. Fortunately, the joint communes of Marly le Roi, Pecq and Le Port-Marly would have no such obscene vandalism, and L'Association des amis d'Alexandre Dumas, much aided by Alain Decaux, restored the property and after a number of years of hard work it opened its doors in 1994.

Quite by chance, I was lucky enough to run into a woman living nearby who'd worked on the restoration of the roof, and she was only too pleased to talk about it.

Sifting through material for this post also reminds me that, in St-Germain-en-Laye, I ran into June and Ross Norsworthy from Florida, and they were on their way to Versailles. June wrote me the details of the Musée National de la Photographie in Bièvres, which she described as a 'must see'. And which I still didn't find time for. Which is a good excuse, as if it were needed, to come this way again soon — I also missed Émile Zola's house at Médan, and Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon's house at Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines, and...
And here's an odd sculpture I can't resist posting — Claude Debussy was born in St-Germain-en-Laye.

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