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concerning Gabriel Lambert

     While Alexandre Dumas was turning out his famous historical romances during the 1840's, he also wrote a series of lesser known contemporary novels, including Georges, Amaury, Fernande, and Gabriel Lambert. Gabriel Lambert is unquestionably the work of Dumas, and it is written with all of his characteristic dash and verve. Though Dumas was writing about a character he despised, he perhaps put more of himself into the novel than he intended.
     The novel opens with Dumas writing the play Paul Jones in Toulon in 1835. He encounters a squad of convicts, condemned "to the galleys for life." Much to his surprise, one of the convicts looks familiar. The convict identifies himself as the "Viscount Henri de Faverne." The name permits Dumas to recall the circumstances of their meeting. Four years previously, the Dumas had stood as second in a duel between the Viscount and a friend of Dumas, which ended with the Viscount being run through with a sword. The Viscount had appeared frightened, fought badly, and did not behave, in Dumas' opinion, as an aristocrat should.
     On returning to Paris, Dumas looks up Dr. Fabien, who cared for the wounded Viscount. Fabien hands Dumas a sheaf of medical memoirs, which device permits Dr. Fabien to take up the narrative. The wounded Viscount, it transpired, was very rich, and attempting to marry into an aristocratic family. However, upon investigation, his purported background (son of a wealthy planter on Guadeloupe) turns out to be fictitious. The Viscount recovers, but subsequently calls upon Dr. Fabien to help in his moral distress. His former mistress Marie and illegitimate child have turned up in Paris looking for him. Can Dr. Fabien persuade the woman to go home?
     Dr. Fabien interviews Marie, which device permits Marie to take up the narrative. The Viscount's real name is Gabriel Lambert, and he was a peasant in Normandy, filled with grandiose ambitions, with but a single talent: copying illustrations, artworks, and handwriting. Gabriel promises to marry Marie, impregnates her, and then goes to Paris and disappears.
     Dr. Fabien is attempting to persuade Gabriel to give up marrying the aristocrat's daughter, when a historical character shows up: Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1857), head of the Paris Surété. Vidocq arrests Gabriel for forgery. Gabriel, it appears, has made his fortune by forging banknotes. Gabriel is sentenced to death, but his terror of death is so moving that Dr. Fabien uses his influence (he is the King's physician) to persuade the King to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment in the galleys. Gabriel is grateful, but Gabriel's father renounces Gabriel as a coward.
     The end of the novel is drawn in the form of a letter to Dumas from "Picklock," the thief Gabriel is chained to on the galleys. Gabriel is depressed and wants to commit suicide. After a considerable comedy (Picklock insists that Gabriel write an exculpatory letter, and Picklock must pretend to be asleep), Gabriel hangs himself.
     One of the interesting features of the novel is the contempt that all of the narrators feel for Gabriel, which presumably the reader is intended to share. However, Dumas himself was a faux aristocrat, adopting the title of "Marquis Davy de la Pailleterie" as a young man to cover his rural upbringing, and obtaining employment through his superb penmanship. Dumas also fathered a child out of wedlock before he became famous, and abandoned the mother, Catherine Labay.
     There is no indication that Dumas himself was neither a physical nor a moral coward (he engaged in several duels, fought in the July revolution, and showed conspicuous courage on several occasions), but he was obviously highly imaginative, and one might suspect that there may be as much of Dumas in Gabriel Lambert as there is in the improbable ice-water-veined duelists that fill the rest of the Dumas canon.


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