RIHA Journal 0145 | 15 January 2017

Performing Dumas. Architecture and Mise en Scène at the Château de Monte-Cristo

Jesús Ángel Sánchez-García
Art History Senior Lecturer at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

When Alexandre Dumas père was at the peak of his success and popularity, he was personally involved in the design and construction of the Château de Monte-Cristo (Port-Marly, France, 1847). The architectural and ornamental features of this lavish abode can be interpreted as a reflection of Dumas’ literary ambition, as a complex aesthetic portrait. Dumas’ mise en scène of his whole life as artwork prompted him to create an elaborate display of visual rhetoric, an interplay of images and words developed through a physical and allegorical relationship with a place now appropriated by and absorbed into his persona. It is essential, therefore, that information on Dumas’ life and literary career may be combined with an iconographic analysis as a means of decoding the meanings bound up in the spectacle buildings at the Château de Monte-Cristo.

Finally, we find ourselves before the château of Alexandre Dumas, a Monte Cristo no less famous than the novel to which it owes its name.1
Pitre-Chevalier, "Promenades aux environs de Paris. Marly-Le-Roy”, in: Musée des familles. Lectures du soir 11 (August 1847), 335.

[1] The most productive period of Alexandre Dumas’ literary career, spanning the years 1843 to 1847, was undoubtedly the peak of his success and popularity. It was at this time that Dumas also promoted and became personally involved in the design of two buildings envisaged as stages upon which his dreams could be acted out: the Théâtre-Historique on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, and the Château de Monte-Cristo, in nearby Port-Marly, Yvelines, both of which were completed in 1847. Though built for different purposes, they were both conceived as spectacle buildings, the former a manifestation of Dumas’ commitment to the revival of French theatre and the latter proclaiming the foundations and hallmarks of his own literary glory. Having reached the pinnacle of his career, Dumas decided to use stone as an alternative means of communication to pen and paper, his purpose in doing so to astonish the audience with new works of art designed to reflect and project his personality.

[2] Dumas’ literary success and the financial security it brought him gave him the means to pursue his unusual interest in architecture, as a developer and even a co-designer. Material wealth presented the writer with an opportunity to derive pleasure from buildings he could feel were his own, something previously of no concern to him. Especially prominent in this new pursuit was the Château de Monte-Cristo, which in its capacity as his new place of private residence was inevitably more closely identified with its owner than the theatre space. In fact, as a means of projecting his subjective self, this luxurious and eclectic abode may be regarded in its near-indexical relationship to Dumas’ persona as a discursive tool for analysing strategies of expression and remembrance, an approach pursued by Harald Hendrix in his study of houses designed by writers who then lived in them.2 In accordance with Hendrix’s line of argument, the architectural and ornamental features designed for the Château de Monte-Cristo can be primarily interpreted as a reflection of Dumas’ literary ambition, as a complex aesthetic portrait. Although other narratives may be detected here, ranging from the self-regarding material expression of his individuality and uniqueness, to the desire to construct a creative haven, or the nostalgia-tinged evocation of his forebears, his entire contribution is underpinned by a manifest and ambitious desire to explore and draw on new and alternative means of expression to complement his literary work.

[3] Viewed as a whole, Dumas’ involvement in the design and construction of the Château de Monte-Cristo can be seen as a response to an inner desire to explain certain key characteristics of his personality, particularly those most closely linked to his creative work as an artist. It is for that reason that the building should be interpreted as a portrait, one that is undoubtedly narcissistic in nature, as its outward appearance is noticeably bound to the folds of the various historic and artistic adornments that support it. At a time of personal success and security, Dumas’ interpretation of his whole life as art prompted him to create an elaborate display of visual rhetoric, an interplay of images and words developed through a physical and allegorical relationship with a place now appropriated by and absorbed into his persona. It is essential, therefore, that information on Dumas’ life and literary career may be combined with an iconographic analysis as a means of decoding the meanings bound up in this extraordinary abode,3 a place destined to pass into posterity as an interface for presenting himself to his public, just as the author had intended.


[4] Both the origins and the design of the Château de Monte-Cristo are inextricably linked to the resounding success Dumas enjoyed with his serialised feuilletons in 1844, starting with Les Trois Mousquetaires, which first appeared in series form in Le Siécle on 14 March, and then with Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, published in the Journal des Débats from 28 August onwards. Overcome by the frantic pace of his work and his hectic social life, at the end of May that very same year Dumas beat a retreat from Paris to the nearby village of Saint-Germain-en-Laye,4 his idea being to rest for a short period of time. He stayed initially at the Pavillon Henri IV and befriended the chef Jean-Louis-François Collinet, who ran the hotel and restaurant there and who would help him rent the Villa Médicis two months later. It was during his stay at the Pavillon Henri IV, on the afternoon of 16 June to be precise, that the idea of building a house for himself first took root. Returning from a walk to Versailles, his eyes lighted on a small wooded hill overlooking the Seine at Port-Marly, a spot known as Montferrands and a propitious location for a country house.5

[5] Acting on Collinet’s advice, Dumas discussed his nascent plans with the developer and master builder Barthélémy Planté, who was living in Saint-Germain-en-Laye at the time.6 Working together on an initial draft for a one-storey house comprising an entrance hall, a living room, a study and two ensuite bedrooms, with the kitchen and wine cellars situated in the basement, Planté and Dumas drew up extended new plans.7 The addition of a main floor on which the writer could shut himself away revealed his desire to make the house more comfortable. However, his inclination for the mundane does not seem to have manifested itself in his initial plans, Dumas instead prioritising the creation of a place where he could take refuge and concentrate on his work.

[6] With typical determination and vigour, he began acquiring the first plots of land that summer, investing in them the huge sums of money generated by his successful feuilletons. Such were the possibilities offered by the location that plans were extended even as the property began to take shape, the little country house he had originally intended to build eventually growing in size to become the Château de Monte-Cristo. It comprised two separate buildings – one in which to live and another in which to work (figs. 1 and 2) – and a park à l’anglaise for his beloved menagerie, where he sought to recreate a sort of Paradise.8

1 P.B., Château de Monte-Cristo, Port-Marly. Engraving from: L’Illustration, 26 February 1848, 408

2 P.B., Châtelet or Château d’If, Port-Marly. Engraving from: L’Illustration, 26 February 1848, 409

[7] During its construction, Dumas was comfortably installed at the Villa Médicis, located on Rue de Boulingrin in Saint-Germain. His sojourn there may well have influenced his change of plans, as it allowed him to contemplate the beneficial effect that a house with a garden might have on his work.9 In fact, the aforementioned division of the property at Port-Marly into two separate buildings can be viewed as an enhanced replica of the layout of the Villa Médicis, which possessed a small pavilion or summer house, a favoured spot for writing in summertime: "All I need is my little stained-glass pavilion, against the wall of which I have placed a table, and which I use as a study in summer."10 It is likely that the satisfaction he derived from taking refuge in such a space revived in Dumas some fond memories, such as recollections of the remote study to which his relative Jean-Michel Deviolaine would often retreat, or of Charles Nodier’s apartment in the Arsenal Library, the setting for many famous soirées attended by Dumas and the emerging generation of Romantic writers.11

[8] Dumas was undoubtedly familiar with the topic of literary ermitages, an established tradition that dated back to the 18th century, at which time it was mainly associated with prestigious French writers.12 However, in projecting his recently acquired status as a successful writer, he chose to imitate other models of greater artistic ambition, ranging from Sir Walter Scott’s manor house at Abbotsford13 to the excessive and near scandalous luxury of the Parisian houses owned by the dandy Eugène Sue, who by that time had come to embody the most successful romancier-feuilletoniste.14 That said, Dumas’ approximation of a château, which is the title he decided to give his Monte-Cristo residence, possessed a certain sense of irony. As opposed to the great mansion Scott chose to build, Dumas opted for two buildings that were relatively small in size but which offered a clear contrast in terms of style: a main residence that was Renaissance in inspiration, and a modest pavilion to which he would retire to write and which was Gothic in influence. Despite this difference, each building is known as a château, a term deeply ingrained in Dumas’ childhood memories and redolent of literary allusions.15 The explanation for this functional split lies in Dumas’ desire to combine, without one interfering with the other, two different aspects of his lifestyle: his life as a writer, for which he needed a refuge where he could shut himself away; and his life as a bon vivant, for which he required a place for throwing parties and hosting banquets for his friends.

[9] The decision to build a château would appear to tie in with the Gothic revival in France. The increasing popularity Gothic art had enjoyed since the Bourbon Restoration was preceded and ushered in by the so-called troubadour style, a nostalgia-tinged development that grew out of the literature of the 1780s and spread from 1800 onwards into the visual arts, with subject matter and characters appearing in settings ranging from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.16 However, in the case of Dumas, the revival of the château theme suggests a more obvious debt to the picturesque aesthetic and the garden as a scenery, given that Gothic-inspired buildings designed as garden adornments or follies began cropping up throughout Europe in the early years of the 19th century.17 It is here that the first of several influences can be detected in the process that led to Dumas building his place of refuge and literary creation, presented more as a garden pavilion than as a genuine château. Staying faithful to this picturesque approach, which, as we shall see at a later stage, also extended to the eclecticism of the residential building, Dumas divested the Château de Monte-Cristo of all political connotations by avoiding styles and types of architecture that could be associated in some way with the manifestation of power. In doing so he distanced it from the buildings that had been constructed in France from 1815, which reflected the conservative morals associated with the restoration of the monarchy, and then from 1830, erected to encapsulate the legitimist aspirations and feudal yearnings of nobles who had retired to the country during the reign of Louis-Philippe.18

[10] Putting political meanings to one side, Dumas’ devotion to the English Gothic novel, from which he took some of his most recurring themes, such as the haunted castle, seem to have played a more significant part in this decision. Although the future Château de Monte-Cristo should be regarded as a welcoming castle, it also has fictional connotations due to its location in the middle of a wood, to its being hidden away in a remote and largely inaccessible place shrouded in mystery, an impression that is merely heightened by the dazzling way in which it presents itself to visitors.19 With regard to these literary motifs, it is interesting to note that Dumas deployed the selfsame typological and functional duality of a main fortified dwelling and a garden pavilion in one of his earliest novels, Pauline (1838). Here the eponymous protagonist finds a "pavillon isolé" amid an oak wood in a park belonging to the gloomy, imposing Château de Burcy, which sits in ruins on the Normandy coast. She later turns the pavilion into her "cabinet de travail".20 Dumas used the Gothic pavilion at Port-Marly for the same purpose, as a place of retreat in which he can work. Erected a little higher up than the Renaissance castle, which would become the main residence of the Château de Monte-Cristo (fig. 1), this châtelet would later be known as the Château d’If (fig. 2), taking its name from the fortress that sits on a small island in the Bay of Marseille and which also appears in the novel Le comte de Monte-Cristo.

Act I: Performing Dumas

[11] Such was the increasing complexity and scale of Dumas’ plans for Port-Marly – which reflected to some extent the unpredictable plots of the author’s serialised novels – that he decided to hire an architect, perhaps after suspecting Planté’s artistic shortcomings. The man he chose was Hippolyte-Louis Durand (1801-1882), a disciple of Louis-Hippolyte Lebas and Léon Vaudoyer at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts, where he had trained.21 Though accounts of the first meeting between Dumas and Durand on the hill of Montferrands vary slightly, the very first version was presented in much the same style as a well-known exchange between Louis XIV and the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, in which the king gave instructions for the construction of what was originally intended as a petit ermitage but which would later become the royal residence at Marly-le-Roi:

On passing by one fine day, just as Louis XIV had done at Marly-le-Chastel, Mr Dumas was struck by the position of the hill. He bought it immediately, summoned Mr Durand, his architect, and said to him, while busy with the task of writing his serialised novels: ‘You are going to build a Renaissance château and a Gothic châtelet for me here, with two pavilions at the entrance and a park in the English style around them.’ – ‘Monsieur’, retorted the modern-day Mansard, ‘the ground is a bed of clay that will barely support the foundations’. – Mr Dumas was no more taken aback than Louis XIV had been. ‘Then dig down to the tuff’, he replied, ‘and make two series of caves’. – ‘It will cost you more than two hundred thousand francs, sir.’ – ‘When the cost reaches four hundred thousand, keep going.’22

[12] The architectural style of Dumas’ eye-catching buildings may be considered in the same light of the prevailing architectures painted in stage sets at the time, a link to which no commentator has previously drawn attention. The combination of Gothic and Renaissance thus mirrored the close relationship between sets and architecture that Louis Hautecoeur had referred to in attempting to explain the French Renaissance style that gained ascendency over the Neo-Gothic from 1835-1840.23 Set design and stage painting provide excellent means for exploring the relationship between stage art and architecture, another clear example of the fusion of art forms during the Romantic age.24 It should be remembered that due to the very complexities its use presented and the fact that its sheer scale could overwhelm developers, architecture was perhaps the medium least suited to the specific demands posed by Dumas’ quest for self-aestheticisation. In view of his proven experience in staging several of his works, it is understandable therefore that in seeking to overcome the potential pitfalls of using architecture to project his cult of genius, Dumas should draw inspiration from painting – a field with which he was better acquainted – and from stage painting in particular. This was perhaps the most suitable medium for addressing the style and appearance of his buildings at Port-Marly, thanks to its themes, scale and visual impact.

[13] With regard to the development of the painting of theatre sets and its landmarks, it should be noted that Dumas recognised the debt he and all Romantic stage painters owed to the pioneering role played by Pierre Luc Charles Ciceri (1782-1868) in the transformation of French stage art:

Father Ciceri. All of you bow down before the old man, who remains gay and young at heart despite his 70 years. Bow down to him, all of you: Séchan, Diéterle, Despléchin, Thierry, Cambon, Devoir and Moynet, the kings, viceroys and princes of modern stage design: It is Father Ciceri who painted the cloister for Robert le Diable.25

Here, Dumas makes an explicit reference to the acclaimed cloister backdrop Ciceri painted for the opera Robert le Diable (1831), regarded as the highpoint of décor troubadour. As research by Catherine Join-Diéterle has shown, it was during the July Monarchy that the troubadour style started to give way to architectural representations that were more coherent with the desire for historical truth in stage design, both in terms of form and decorative details, which were copied from existing monuments, with Renaissance models being introduced.26 Carefully crafted backdrops and expressive lighting effects were overshadowed by the sheer spectacle offered by sets, to which Dumas had himself contributed in some of his early plays – Henri III et sa cour (1828), Christine (1830), Antony (1831). It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Dumas attempted to recreate the spectacular and eye-catching effect of theatre sets in presenting his buildings at the Château de Monte-Cristo.

[14] Due to Durand’s initial misgivings about Dumas’ whimsical demands, the writer also had good reason to seek assistance from his circle of artist friends.27 This would explain the arrival on the scene of the painter Théodore-Henri Mansson (Rouen 1811 - Paris 1850),28 responsible for a number of drawings of medieval monuments, in the region of Normandy in particular, who may have been introduced to Dumas by some of his friends, such as the stage painter Charles Séchan (1803-1874). Séchan was an old friend of Dumas’ and gave him valuable assistance with his Théâtre-Historique and Château de Monte-Cristo projects.29 Dumas may also have met Mansson on his many visits to Rouen, one of which was made in March 1846. Given the fact that he specialised in the painting of landscapes and medieval monuments, Mansson’s collaboration would be especially timely in the design of the Gothic pavilion (fig. 3), as stated by an anonymous source in L’Illustration in February 1848: "Mansson, the delightful painter of all types of architecture, was consulted. He made an adorable model of a little Norman house, cut like lace and polished like a jewel."30

3 Châtelet or Château d’If, northeastern facade; part of Alexandre Dumas‘ Château de Monte-Cristo, Port-Marly, France, 1847 (photograph provided by the author)

[15] Mansson contributed a sketch of a picturesque Norman house, a type of urban construction that he, Mansson, would have been very familiar with due to his family roots. The building would ultimately represent a move away from the rustic or cottage style more commonly seen in small garden constructions in the 19th century. It is noteworthy that this medieval typology reflected some of the architectural styles most widely used in theatre sets of the time, in which the urban landscape also played an important role. Sketches for these sets show several such houses with their trademark timber frames or pans de bois, jettied upper storeys and pitched roofs with dormer windows, such as the sketch that the aforementioned Séchan in collaboration with Feuchère, Diéterle and Despléchin drew for Constance Square, a setting in the first act of the opera La Juive (1834) by F. Halévy (fig. 4).31

4 Charles Séchan, Un carrefour de la ville de Constance en 1414, part of the colour lithograph showing the backdrop for the opera La Juive, 1834 (reprod. from: Join-Diéterle, Les décors de scène, 37)

[16] The stone-carved decorative elements adorning the windows of the main facades of the Château d’If are also medieval in inspiration. This particular repertoire borrows from French Flamboyant Gothic and, more specifically, from the motifs of civil and religious architecture, which Mansson was very well acquainted with thanks to his field trips and which he captured in his drawings and engravings.32 This could explain the shape of the ogee arches and gables and the flame-like tracery, which is inspired by Rouen churches such as Saint-Ouen and Saint-Maclou or the churches of Evreux, Louviers and Saint Riquier. Similar inspirations can be found in the festoons of the double window on the main facade, which are copied from the gallery of the church of Sainte-Madeleine in Troyes, and the rose window in the balcony and ledge of that same window, which are very similar to the rose windows found in the Palais de Justice of Rouen.33 The synthesis proposed by Mansson would have been to the liking of Dumas, who, instead of a replica of a historical building, sought a striking and original design that would surprise his guests and recreate a fragment of the Middle Ages, not unlike the scenes depicted on the theatre sets of the time. As regards the features that could perhaps point to the origin of the medieval appearance of the châtelet, Dumas was not only familiar with the Gothic architecture of Rouen, which he had visited several times – on a trip he made to Trouville in 1831, for instance – but held it in great esteem.34 Moreover, in drawing on this source of inspiration, the author can be seen as paying homage to the Norman origin of his ancestors, the Davy de la Pailleterie family, which settled in Bielleville-en-Caux, Haute-Normandie, in the 15th century.

[17] This means of combining a tribute to one’s ancestry with an admiration for medieval heritage has some significant precedents in the emergence of Romanticism on France’s cultural landscape during the early decades of the 19th century. Although Dumas would not have visited the visionary Musée des Monuments, which was put together by Alexandre Lenoir and which closed in 1816, by evoking medieval architecture he pursued the selfsame type of approximation – one more imaginative and sentimental than rigorous in nature – in rescuing elements from the past.35 While Lenoir had no compunction in resorting to invention when original items did not suffice – as in his recreation of the tomb of Éloïse and Abélard using other remains – the châtelet Dumas commissioned clearly demonstrates how elements copied from real buildings are inserted into a contradictory construction, with cultured traits being combined with aspects of popular architecture, resulting in a building that is small in size but striking all the same because of its sheer range of viewpoints and the combination of whimsical decorative motifs. All this points to it being a folly, a type of building that marks a departure from the trend towards historical accuracy and stylistic unity, which had emerged in French historicist architecture of the 1830s and 1840s, a time when knowledge of medieval art grew thanks to the first archaeological societies and the appearance of publications devoted to historical monuments.36 In this respect, the blend of originality and surprise that Dumas sought to impose as a hallmark of his Port-Marly residence proved more appealing to him than historical accuracy.

[18] Once excavations and earthmoving were underway in 1845, the confirmation of the existence of springs at the site opened up an altogether unexpected but rather attractive possibility of a water-filled moat reinforcing the isolation of this picturesque Gothic châtelet.37 This would be a way for the owner to impose man’s control over nature, a facet of his discussion with Durand, a tour de force in which Dumas once more followed the example set by Louis XIV. Moreover, the fact that building work coincided with the publication of Le comte de Monte-Cristo also influenced Dumas’ decision to locate the châtelet on an island. The shelter and refuge that Dumas often dreamed of emerged as a replica of the Château d’If, which appeared in the aforementioned novel and from which the replica borrowed both its name and its signification as a "prison" in which he could go about his everyday work.38 According to initial accounts, the interior design of the châtelet reinforced these images of confinement. Pointing out the contrast with Dumas’ hectic Parisian life, Pitre-Chevalier likened the place to an oratory:

The interior of the châtelet will be decorated in the same way as the oratories of the queens of yesteryear: a high fireplace adorned with carvings of fruit and flowers, oak panelling with gold leaf mouldings, the leaves on the frieze being natural in colour, a sky-blue ceiling with countless gold stars […]. In the eastern turret Mr Dumas has set up a little study, where he will stay with nothing but a table, a pen and an inkwell for company […]. Next to the table, a gold button pushes – or so it is said – a steel spring that raises and lowers the island’s drawbridge […]. If a friend arrives, the portcullis comes up. If the visitor is unwanted, it stays down.39

[19] These first accounts detailing the fusion between architecture, theatre, painting and literature in the design of the spectacle buildings at the Château de Monte-Cristo also provide confirmation of the crossover between literature and the visual arts, a process that had been unfolding in France since the 1820s. In his early conversations with Durand, Dumas had already envisaged fusing the buildings with his own literary universe. This idea developed into a far more ambitious plan, namely the use of both constructions at Port-Marly as the supporting pillars of an elaborate iconographic programme centred on his self-glorification as a writer.40 Through what is nothing short of a monument to his ego, Dumas sought to project his expansive personality by invoking his ancestors and patrons while also documenting, in a somewhat arrogant manner, the works that had brought him glory. Thus, and under his careful supervision at all times, the messages contained on the facades of the châtelet spread to the outer walls of the Château de Monte-Cristo, the setting for his epiphany as a writer through his rendering as an effigy accompanied by portraits of his literary role models. The sequence begins at the Château d’If (fig. 5), where the porch at the main entrance houses a sculpture of Dumas’ dog Mylord, a warning that continues a tradition initiated by the Romans.

5 Château d’If, northwestern entrance and sculpted details; part of Alexandre Dumas‘ Château de Monte-Cristo, Port-Marly, France, 1847 (photograph provided by the author)

[20] In the same porch can be seen the title Le comte de Monte-Cristo, which is inscribed at eye level so that visitors cannot fail to see it. This first reference to one of his most outstanding literary successes is complemented by the titles of some eighty other works engraved on windows, door frames and ashlars, and which stand out on the reddish background of the facades and the tower of the châtelet. No pattern seems to have been followed in the distribution of these titles, which were engraved more or less as Dumas completed the works in question. These inscriptions lent the building another striking dimension, that of a work in progress, designed to be completed as its owner channelled his creative energy into the various literary genres that attracted his interest. The attempt to organise his works according to genres, which manifests itself in the inscription "ROMANS HISTORIQUES" above the windows on the western facade, failed on the other facades. The only groupings that seem to follow a pattern are the proliferation of novels and historical works flanking the entrance and the theatrical texts on the east turret.

[21] The use of all these titles turned Dumas’ refuge and workplace into a showcase, the recording in stone of his literary output. Such inscriptions cannot be considered an entirely new development. Sixteenth-century French humanists showed their predilection for emblems and mottos by placing them in prominent areas of their houses, as Louis de Ronsard did on the facade of his family’s house in La Possonnière (Dépt. Maine-et-Loire), and Michel de Montaigne did on the beams of the library at the Château de Montaigne in Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne (Dépt. Dordogne).41 However, it is the outer walls of the Library of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris that must have inspired Dumas to create a record of his output. The decoration of the library’s exterior, planned by Henri Labrouste following the start of construction work in 1843, involved the etching of the names of 810 writers on the main facades. These names were arranged in columns beneath the windows of the main floor, the aim being to use the most distinguished writers in the history of world literature as both ornamentation and an indication of the building’s function, while also establishing a physical correspondence with the volumes housed on the same floor, on the walls of the inner reading room.42 In the case of the châtelet, the etching of the title of each of Dumas’s works on a block of stone revealed their value as a financial support for the author and his whims, and gave concrete form to the suggestive and poetic metaphor of these works as a construction material for the building of his retreat – a creative haven built upon literary stories, books as the cornerstones of a castle of letters, as it were. These visual metaphors, based on the combination of words and images, are hardly surprising given Dumas’ career as a dramatic author who lavished as much care on the staging of his works as on the texts themselves, establishing a link with the aesthetic proposals of other Romantic writers, such as Victor Hugo, in affirming that the basis of language lay in images.43

[22] Thanks to the combination of literary quotations with yet another level of figurative representation, namely the bas-reliefs of characters and scenes from his literary creations, the Château d’If also served to illustrate certain passages from Dumas’ works, as though it were itself a theatrical adaptation. The use of theatrical staging techniques reveals a desire to create a spectacular effect and thereby attract the attention of his readers and audiences. A further comparison with Sir Walter Scott can be made here, for if the house at Abbotsford (Scottish Borders) was interpreted in a figurative sense by a number of commentators as "the Waverley novels in stone",44 Dumas’ chosen residence made his intentions very clear also, in that he transferred his works to stone, combining texts and images as a means of symbolising and incorporating literary meanings.45 The very first literary scene can be found on the ogee arch sheltering the entrance of the châtelet. The relief on the projecting keystone depicts the moment when Edmond Dantès uses a pick to ease aside the slab providing access to the cave where the treasure of the island of Monte-Cristo is hidden (fig. 5). This scene would seem to be an entirely fitting one, as it highlights the aforementioned connection between his highly acclaimed novel and the location of the châtelet.

[23] Another novel by Dumas, La dame de Monsoreau, serialised in Le Siècle throughout 1846, inspired a second scene on the lintel of the lower window of the northeastern facade (fig. 6). In it the fat friar Gorenflot is depicted riding an ass and raising his arms as if giving thanks. Flanking the scene is a transcription of the cheery song he habitually sings at the prospect of a good meal, creating a whole that represents a celebration of the enjoyment derived from good food and is very much in keeping with Dumas’ hedonistic character.46

6 Château d’If, window in the northeastern facade; part of Alexandre Dumas‘ Château de Monte-Cristo, Port-Marly, France, 1847 (photograph provided by the author)

The intrados of the keystone, adorned with a relief of a hooded character, may well be another representation of Gorenflot, although the slim figure may more easily be associated with Diane de Méridor, rendered unconscious after falling from her horse, as she is portrayed in the third novel of the series, Les Quarante-cinq (1847-1848). The false ledge under this window superimposes an anchor – traditionally regarded as a symbol of hope – on the Flamboyant traceries. Beneath the anchor can be seen Cicero’s hope-filled maxim "Dum spiro spero", which Dumas used in the novel Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge (1846).47

[24] There are further references to Dumas’ work in the east corner tower, though here they are combined with expressive motifs referring to his ancestors and some of the most influential people in his life and artistic career. The titles of his works, in this case his favourite dramas – "HENRI III", "CHRISTINE", "NAPOLEON", "ANTONI" and "CHARLES VII" – thus remain present. These are engraved on the ashlar stones inserted in the upper part of each face of the tower and run eastwards in chronological order (fig. 7).

7 Château d’If, east corner tower; part of Alexandre Dumas‘ Château de Monte-Cristo, Port-Marly, France, 1847 (photograph provided by the author)

[25] Several capital letters are inserted above these titles, on the frieze beneath the eaves and amid the motifs of flora and fauna that provide it with its lavish decoration. Read in the same direction, they appear as "A", "D", "EA", "L" and "P". Far from being literary references, these could be allusions to people who played a decisive role in Dumas’ life through the friendship or support they showed to the author at various times. They are placed, as a result, as high up the tower as possible, level with the roof. The people referred to are either Augustine Deviolaine or Adèle Dalvin, one of his first female companions (A and D);48 his friend Étienne Arago ("EA" superimposed), who a few years earlier gave favourable reviews to one of Dumas’ first publications, the Nouvelles contemporaines;49 and finally King Louis-Philippe d’Orléans (L and P), his former employer and patron, who, in his capacity as the Duc d'Orléans, had earlier honoured Dumas by attending the premiere of Henri III et sa cour.50

[26] Although two other plays are featured on the main floor of the tower – "ANGÈLE" and "RICHARD DARLINGTON" – this level owes its prominence to a series of heraldic engravings devoted to the writer’s father, General Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, namely three (pseudo-)coats of arms situated on the keystones of the pointed arches of each window. Moving from west to east, the first of these coats of arms features a band surrounded by acanthus leaves, set in a field of gules,charged with three horses’ heads and accompanied by a pyramid and a palm tree. This composition was probably created by Dumas in tribute to his father; in it he combines figures alluding to the latter’s campaigns in Egypt, which included the Battle of the Pyramids, and to the three horses his father was forced to use during the Battle of Mantua.51 The leaves surrounding the second coat of arms bear the motto "DEUS/DEDIT/DEUS/DABIT", which was adopted by his father, while the arms themselves are of the Davy de la Pailleterie lineage – azure in colour, with three eaglets shown circling an annulet – as described by Dumas himself in Mes mémoires.52 His father’s motto appears again around the third coat of arms, in which the mast of a boat rises from an azure field. This can be interpreted as a version of the surname Dumas or Du Mas – based on the presence of the French homophone "mât" [engl. mast] – but also as an allusion to the ship that brought his father back from Egypt.53 These coats of arms can therefore be seen as an attempt by Dumas to show his father’s noble lineage and narrate the high point and subsequent decline of the latter’s military career.54

[27] The remaining escutcheons carved above other windows of the châtelet feature the arms of several family alliances established by the Davy de la Pailleterie, a triumphant proclamation of Dumas’ entire lineage and complying so well with heraldic rules and guidelines that it can be safely assumed that the writer received advice on their design. There are three pairs of coats of arms, conjoined in fess. In terms of kinship they seem to be arranged in order of seniority. On the northeastern facade, above the window in the circular, turret-like section flanking the entrance, appears a blank coat of arms that was left uncarved. It is accompanied by one bearing the arms of the Pardieu family – gules, a saltire cantoned with four eagles.55 To the right of the main entrance on the western corner can be seen a first coat of arms, that of the Monginot – gules, a gold chevron between a lion and two stones, in place of argent mullets, and a bell between trefoils on a chief argent. On a second can be found the arms of the Du Bellay family – argent, a bend of fusils gules with six fleur-de-lis.56 Finally, above the lower window opening onto the lateral facade on the northwestern side appears a variant of the Cross of the Order of Malta – gules, a cross argent – and the coat of arms of the Davy de la Pailleterie once again, bringing to a close the series of heraldic symbols adorning the building.57

[28] The lower windows of the corner tower provide further embodiments of Dumas’ literary output, namely a series of figures in typical 16th-century attire. Seen in conjunction with the philosophical mottos surrounding them, their portrayal and the postures they assume allow them to be identified with characters from the series of plays Dumas devoted to the Valois (fig. 8).