On 22 February 1848 there was a revolt in Paris occasioned by an economic slump, food shortages, and attempts to clamp down on dissent by Louis-Philippe’s government. Two days later the king threw in the towel and abdicated, initially in favor of his grandson, the Comte de Paris, but that attempted compromise fell through, and the Second Republic was immediately proclaimed under the temporary presidency of the aging poet and pillar of the Romantic Movement, Alphonse de Lamartine. Several other high-profile writers associated with the Romantic Movement accepted government posts, and the Republic adopted a new national anthem with words by Alexandre Dumas, “Le Chant des Girondins,” appropriated from the dramatic version of his novel Le Chevalier de Maison Rouge (book 1846; play 1847). The music for the play was supplied by Alphonse Varney, one of Dumas’s regular collaborators, although the song’s chorus is adapted from a work by Rouget de Lisle, the composer of “La Marseillaise.”
Unfortunately, Romantic ideals did not prove immediately effective in remedying the capital’s food shortages or the nation’s economic problems, which inevitably got suddenly worse in a climate of extreme uncertainty. Elections were held for a new National Assembly, which met for the first time on 4 May. Ten days later, however, there was a Communist uprising in Paris; the workers overturned the new government and set up their own provisional administration. On June 23, the tables were turned again; the workers fell victim to a backlash that led to their rapid suppression by military force. On 24 September, when a second round of elections for the restored National Assembly were held, the exiled Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected to it and returned from London to take his seat. When the subsequent presidential election was held in December, he won a landslide victory; Lamartine came last of the five candidates, reflecting the deep mistrust of the electorate in “intellectuals,” especially those of a romantic stripe.
The Parisian daily newspaper, Le Constitutionnel, then owned by Louis Véron—previously the founder of the key Romantic periodical La Revue de Paris—and coedited by Adolphe Thiers, had played a leading role in campaigning for the election of Louis-Napoléon. In the spring of 1849 the paper concluded an episodic series of serials on the theme of the seven deadly sins, which had been running, somewhat discontinuously, for more than a year. Véron might well have been looking round for something vaguely similar, and on 1 May he published an announcement in the front-page feuilleton slot under the title Les Mille et un fantômes, which began:
We have just received from our collaborator Alexandre Dumas two volumes entitled Les Mille et un fantômes. They are impossible stories but have no need to be credible to be read between eleven o’clock and midnight. We give today the letter that was addressed to us; we will begin publication of the Mille et un fantômes tomorrow.
In the letter that follows, headed “Mon chère Véron,” Dumas says by way of preamble that the editor has often complimented him on being a modern Scheherazade and worthy successor to Charles Nodier before moving on to say that
You have written to me today that while awaiting a long novel—one of those interminable novels of the kind I write, in which I put an entire century on stage—you would like a few tales—two, four, or six volumes at the most, poor flowers from my garden that you count on throwing into the midst of the political preoccupations of the moment....
Alas, my friend, the times are not cheerful, and my tales, I warn you, are not cheerful either. But you will permit that, weary of what I see happening every day in the world of the real, I go in search of my stories in the imaginary world. Alas, I am very much afraid that all somewhat elevated, poetic and meditative minds are, at the moment, where mine is, which is to say, in search of the ideal, the sole refuge that God had left us from reality.
The letter goes on to elaborate the author’s reasons for finding the present political circumstances direly disruptive of his normal working practices and preoccupations, and why, in sum, he is sending him instead “in accordance with your desire” the first two volumes of Les Mille et un fantômes, a potentially extendable exercise in timely escapism, setting up a frame in which an indefinite number of fantastic tales might be placed: a kind of supernatural Decameron.
In all probability, Dumas really had delivered to Véron the two volumes of the incomplete project that were subsequently published by A. Cadot, and he continued to deliver further tales when those ran out, including all those eventually published by Cadot in a five-volume set titled for the longest of them, Les Mariages du Père Olifus, as if it were a separate work, the initial frame narrative having been long forgotten and the series having evidently run into difficulties, illustrated by the frequent interruption of its daily serialization in Le Constitutionnel. Some of the reasons for those difficulties were, in fact, explained in interjections into the serial, which were then preserved, rather eccentrically, in the Cadot reprint and which transformed the extant version of Les Mariages du Père Olifus—subsequently isolated for reprinting as a single volume—into a very peculiar work indeed.
It is not obvious exactly how and why that transformation occurred. Les Mariages du Père Olifus started to run as a serial in the 10 July issue of Le Constitutionnel, but the first three episodes—the first three chapters of the story—have little to do with Père Olifus and look suspiciously like a deliberate procrastination. The “intercalation” subsequently inserted into the middle of the text was definitely written while the serialization was continuing because it reacts to an event occurring on 26 July; Père Olifus’s story was suspended completely for five days after 27 July, the three episodes of the intercalation appearing on 2–4 August; Père Olifus’s story itself did not resume until the 21 August issue of the newspaper and was interrupted briefly again before finally concluding on 30 August. As to the reasons for those pauses, especially the longest one, we can draw some inferences from the text itself, but there is also some other testimony available.
An illustrated edition of Les Mariages du Père Olifus was published in 1856 by Maresq in a volume that also contains Les Medicis; it is presumably a reprint of that version, issued by Calmann-Lévy, that is reproduced by the Bibliothèque Nationale’s web site, gallica. The Calmann-Lévy version is, however, abridged, omitting the first three chapters of the version published in Le Constitutionnel and included in the Cadot set. The full version was subsequently reprinted as a single volume in a uniform set of Dumas’s works issued by Michael Lévy frères, initially in 1861, and reprinted in 1873 and 1882. A version of the story translated into English as “The Nuptials of Father Polypus” began serialization in New York in The Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule, and Oddfellows’ Family Companion in September 1849 but that version, which is available for inspection on Google Books, does not seem to have been continued after its first episode, consisting of the third and fourth chapters of the Cadot text. The full version was translated into English by Alfred Allinson in 1907, in a volume entitled Tales of Strange Adventure, but that text was very scarce until it was reproduced in an e-book omnibus of Dumas’s works issued in 2013.
Although the purely autobiographical chapters of the novel—the first three chapters and the intercalation—are obviously written by Dumas himself, the story allegedly told to Dumas by Père Olifus was farmed out to another writer, Dumas having planned to function more as an editor than an author in compiling the initially envisaged compendium. That work is credited by various secondary sources to Paul Lacroix (who signed most of his work “P. L. Jacob le Bibliophile”) and Paul Auguste Touchez (as “Paul Bocage”).
It is difficult to be certain, but important evidence regarding the composition and authorship of the narrative can be derived from the account of the collaboration given by Lacroix to his biographer “Eugène de Mirecourt” (Charles Jacquot), as reported in Le Bibliophile Jacob (Paul Lacroix) (1867). Lacroix told Mirecourt that he agreed to furnish Dumas with the “elements” of the “great collection” entitled Les Mille et un fantômes, that he sent Dumas his written notes every morning and went to his house in the evening to hear his oral comments. He claimed that all went well until the series reached the Père Olifus episode, when, according to Lacroix, Dumas “wearied.” Lacroix told Mirecourt that he had supplied a “scenario” of fifty pages, along with some reference books on the various countries of the Far East to assist Dumas to revise it for the serial version, but that Dumas then came back to him and asked that the work be “more completely done.”
Lacroix apparently did the work requested—he asserted, according to Mirecourt, that not only almost the whole of the Olifus story but the entirety of “La Femme au collier de velours” (tr. as “The Woman in the Velvet Collar”), the last and second-longest story in the series, was his work, and that the inscription in the copy of the printed proofs that Dumas sent him, which read cui pars magna fuit [a large part of which was], was an understatement—but whether it was delays in his delivery, delays in Dumas’s reprocessing of what he delivered, or some other reason that caused the interruptions of the serial remains a matter for conjecture. Everything Lacroix told him, according to Mirecourt, was of the “utmost exactitude,” but it is worth noting that Mirecourt was not an unbiased observer. In 1845 he had published an “exposé” of Dumas’s extensive use of collaborators, entitled Fabrique de romans: Maison Alexandre Dumas et cie [The Novel Factory: Alexandre Dumas & Co.] which had annoyed Dumas greatly and instituted a naked hostility between the two men that lasted for decades. There might, therefore, be some reason to doubt the “utmost exactitude,” of Mirecourt’s reportage.
At any rate, it certainly seems from an inspection of the text that the first three chapters of the published version of the novel, the two chapters of the intercalation, and the final pages are all Dumas’s work, while, if Lacroix’s word can be trusted, the rest is his. What also seems certain is that Dumas had initially commissioned Lacroix to provide a novelette of much the same length as the items collected in the first two volumes of Le Mille et un fantômes, but that he changed his mind at some point and decided to stretch the story far beyond the original plan, at which point he not only asked Lacroix to provide a much fuller text, but started padding out what he already had.
Perhaps Dumas made that request, as Lacroix suggested, simply because he “wearied”—and he was certainly very busy with other matters in late July 1849, as the intercalation makes clear—but it is also possible that the editor of Le Constitutionnel requested the inflation for some reason or that the difficulties Cadot must have been experiencing caused Dumas to rethink the strategy of the series. The decision to issue Les Mariages du Père Olifus in the five-volume set titled for it along with other materials produced for the aborted Mille et un fantômes might have been Cadot’s idea rather than Dumas’s, and there might have been an interval when Dumas thought that the story needed to be inflated to novel length in order that it would be able to stand alone, if necessary, for separate publication.
It is difficult to know what to make of Paul Bocage’s claim to have made a contribution to the work since Lacroix did not mention his involvement at all, but it seems probable that Bocage’s claim referred to other stories in the five-volume set—only one of which Lacroix claimed to have had a hand in—rather than specifically to the story of Père Olifus. That is the assumption behind the crediting of the new Black Coat Press translation of the novel, as The Man Who Married a Mermaid, to Dumas and Lacroix.
Assuming that the above account of the novel’s troubled genesis is approximately true, it helps enormously to explain the peculiar patchwork quality of the final text, which must initially have been planned and executed as a supernatural short story, before being twice padded out. The expansion of the short story converted the greater part of it into a curious adventure story of the “imaginary travelogue” variety, which was beginning to enjoy some popularity at the end of the 1840s before it reached a heyday during the latter days of the Second Empire, especially in the work of Dumas’s protégé, Jules Verne, and then degenerated after 1870 into tedious repetition in the work of Verne’s many imitators. That fantasy-cum-adventure story was further supplemented before the serialization even began and again during its interruption by the addition of the autobiographical frame and the intercalation and eventually by the conclusion of the frame narrative. That ultimate closure is of a kind that subsequently became clichéd, but it had not yet been done to death in 1849 and is excusable in that context.
The first three chapters of the novel describe how Dumas received a fan letter dated 22 February 1848—the day the Revolution broke out, as he dutifully points out—from William, Prince of Orange, and how that kind gesture inspired him with the idea of going to see that prince’s coronation when he succeeded to the Dutch throne, for which purpose he left Paris on 9 May 1849, traveling in the company of the painter, François-Auguste Biard. In Brussels the two of them visit a house that contains a bizarre “museum” of “crucified” crows, and they make further anecdotal observation in the course of their journey, interrupted by Dumas’s recollections of how he first met the hosts who are to accommodate them in Holland. In chapter three they pay a flying visit to the museum in The Hague where Dumas is particularly fascinated by the display of a mermaid and where the curator tells him that if he wants further information about such creatures, he ought to visit a man named Père Olifus in Monnikendam. Dumas resolves to do so as soon as the coronation is over. The chapter contains a rapid summary of mermaid lore, some of it culled from reference books but much of it simply invented.
At the end of chapter four Dumas meets Père Olifus, the Monnikendam boatman, and his four sons, in whose presence Olifus dare not tell his story. Once Dumas and Biard are safely ensconced in the inn run by Olifus’s daughter, Marguerite, however, the old man slips into their room armed with three bottles of hard liquor and agrees to tell them the story of how he fished up and married a mermaid—although, admittedly, a mermaid with legs, whose true nature therefore remains a trifle dubious.
The story moves at a fast pace as it describes how Olifus’s marriage to “La Buchold” (a dialect term allegedly meaning “daughter of the sea”) does not live up to his hopes, first because his wife, dumb prior to the marriage, begins to talk as soon as they are wed and has a lot to say for herself, and second because she inflicts a series of escalating punishments on him every time she discovers—by supernatural means—that he has taken advantage of one of his frequent boat trips to see one of his former mistresses. Olifus explains that after she tried to drown him, after causing him to fall through the ice of a frozen lake, they came to violent blows, as a result of which (in the seventh chapter), he left her unconscious on the floor and fled in order to take passage for the Far East.
Olifus’s flight is troubled by visitations aboard ship from La Buchold, whom no one else can see, and he is put ashore in Madagascar after collapsing. From there he makes his way in uneasy stages—described with considerable local color and anecdotal insertions—to Ceylon where he works as a pearl-fisher and then to Goa where he witnesses an anachronistic auto-da-fé. In both locations he finds what seem to him to be opportunities to marry the kind of meek and submissive wife he wants, but both his wedding nights go disastrously wrong, and he ends up sleeping instead with La Buchold, who has arrived by supernatural means. On the first occasion she tells him that she has given birth to his son, a mere seven months after the marriage, and on the second that she has given birth to a second son, allegedly conceived on the occasion of her previous visit, thus setting a pattern ripe for continuation.
It is at this point, however, that the serial version was suspended and only resumed with an “intercalation” extending over three feuilleton sections but reduced to two chapters (the thirteenth and fourteenth) in the book version where they constitute an irrelevant but not uninteresting interruption, which begins:
I have told my readers that the book I am publishing at this moment is very personal; in addition to my memories, it includes certain quotidian events that will be memories in their turn, and I am distributing in my story not merely the sum of talent that God had been kind enough to grant me, but also a portion of my heart, my life, and my individuality.
That is why, today, I shall talk about something other than Père Olifus, and I shall leave our worthy seeker of adventures sailing over the dark and mysterious Indian Ocean, in order to follow the soul in flight of a friend sailing at this moment over the far more somber and far more mysterious ocean of eternity.
I had spent the evening at the premiere performance of the drama, Harmental. It was the fortieth time, I believe, that that proof of the struggle of mind against matter, of isolation against the multitude, had been imposed on me: a terrible gamble that has cured me of any other kind of gambling, for I wager there, not only a sum of money that the boldest of gamblers cannot wager, but also the portion of renown conquered during twenty years on the vast literary plain where so many men glean but where so few harvest.
The drama Le Chevalier d’Harmental, credited to Dumas and Auguste Maquet with music by Alphonse Varney, had its première at the Théâtre Historique on 26 July 1849. After a long complaint about the strain of premières and the particular nature of their audiences, Dumas explains that he arrived home, exhausted and deflated, to be told that his old friend James Rousseau had just died. The remainder of the intercalation explains in great and wistful detail how Dumas first met Rousseau—which requires him first to explain how he met Adophe de Leuven, who prompted his literary vocation and with whom he wrote his first vaudeville, for whose revision Rousseau was recruited as a more experienced collaborator and who succeeded in getting the play produced. The memoir then explains in an angrily lachrymose fashion how Rousseau fell on hard times once he had a family to support, inadequately supported by his meager salary as editor of the Gazette des Tribuneaux, and ultimately arrived on the brink of starvation during the shortages and turmoil of 1849—which, of course, he did not survive.
After that heartfelt eulogy, the story of Père Olifus resumes—immediately in the book, of course, although it had not done so in the serial version, having been subjected to a delay of nearly three weeks. The pace of the narrative slows down its travelogue element, and its associated anecdotes become more elaborate. Olifus witnesses a suttee on the Indian mainland and then starts a plantation to grow cardamom, which his ingenious agricultural innovations enable to produce a spectacular crop, which is fortunately loaded into a boat and ready for transport when his fourth wedding night goes the same way as its two predecessors with La Buchold replacing the intended wife and announcing the birth of yet another child.
Olifus flees eastward yet again, but his adventures become more varied as he encounters a drifting junk that had fallen victim to pirates, and he travels with it to Manila in the Philippines where he takes part in an eventful hunting expedition which culminates in his valiant rescue of a girl abducted by an orangutan, which turns out, once he has killed it, to be the custodian of an immensely valuable bezoar (the story becomes wildly fantastic at the point and not just because there are no orangutans in the Philippines). There he goes into the cigar-manufacturing business, armed with his usual commercial acumen, and increases his fortune even further.
His fifth attempt at marriage, inevitably, goes spectacularly awry, but the corollary encounter with La Buchold finds her in a bad way—she claims to be exhausted by her continual trips halfway round the world—and he decides to head home. By the time he arrives, however, his wife is dead and buried, and the five children she has left behind (the last two being twins) have all been abandoned by the various “godfathers” who were keeping La Buchold company at the time of their birth. Convinced, in spite of the seeming improbability, that they really are his children, Olifus takes responsibility for them all, and all of them are thriving adults by the time he tells his story to Dumas.
An argument could certainly be made out for the contention that the story might have worked considerably better as the relatively compact weird tale that Dumas and Lacroix had initially planned to incorporate into the continuing Mille et un fantômes and the decision to inflate it into a novel, especially as it was executed in such in a stumbling ad hoc fashion, merely succeeded in spoiling it and rendering it in narrative terms somewhat monstrous. Indeed, the project of “restoring” that lost original might be an intriguing one. It cannot be doubted, however, that for all its eccentric untidiness, the inflated version is certainly not without interest, especially as a significant early contribution to the subgenre of popular “travelogue fiction.”
As might be expected, we can see with the hindsight of modern geography and history that the details of Olifus’s journey to the East are almost all preposterous, but their ludicrous aspects do include several themes that were later to become staples of feuilleton fiction—including the admittedly crude use of the myth of orangutans stealing and raping human women, which became the basis of a whole subgenre of French fiction in which lurid sensationalism sometimes overlaps and mingles with serious philosophical speculations about the nature of the evolutionary relationship between orangutans and humans.
The anachronistic Goanese auto-da-fé was already a frequently repeated motif of popular adventure fiction, but the blackly comic account of the suttee, paraphrased and elaborated from a much more recent source, was more original. Significantly, a similar incident became a key episode in Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (1873; tr. as Around the World in Eighty Days) and it is by no means beyond possibility that Verne had Père Olifus in the back of his mind when the planned to write the story of Phileas Fogg, whose very name might contain a distant echo of Dumas’s story.
It is true that the travelogue romance is not comfortably juxtaposed with the supernatural element of La Buchold’s haunting of Olifus or with the relatively broad comedy of the sequence of his marital disasters. Other works of a vaguely similar kind that Dumas signed, most notably L’Ile de feu, ou Le Médecin de Java [The Island of Fire; or, The Doctor of Java] (1859), written in collaboration with his friend, Joseph Méry, already a significant pioneer of travelogue fiction, are much more unified stylistically and thematically as well as free from the frame and interruption that add so markedly to the grotesquerie of Les Mariages du Père Olifus. Even so, the strange nature of the resultant novel can be regarded as one more source of fascination.
Although the ambiguous ending attached to the published version of the story is a distinctly modern one, frequently invoked since as an apology for fantastic stories told in an era where belief in the supernatural supposedly is no longer licensed, it is worth noting that even the original story must have carried an implicit ambiguity of a similar kind, as almost all tales of mermaids and sirens are inevitably afflicted with the particular uncertainty attached to the whole series of mermaid and siren sightings reported by seamen.
As Dumas notes in the early chapters, that mythology is particularly tenacious in the Low Countries, not merely because of their rich seafaring traditions but also because they were once a center for the manufacture of fake mermaids that often ended up in Cabinets of Curiosities and sometimes in museums like the one in The Hague and were popularly known as “Jenny Hanivers,” the city of Antwerp being thought to be particularly prolific in their manufacture. Literary mermaids have always had a particular character of dubiousness, which must have been reflected in the oral anecdote of which even the short version of Père Olifus’s story might well have been an adaptation (as some other stories in the series certainly were, including “La Femme au collier de velours”).
The addition of the autobiographical chapters to the original text might seem to some readers to be a ridiculous artifice, and such readers might well criticize the abridged version of the novel on the ground that it did not remove the intercalation as well as the introductory chapters. Perhaps the abridged version is preferable and would be even more so without the intercalation, although the omission of the author’s visit to the mermaid in the museum in The Hague is detrimental to some extent. All the chapters in question do have a definite value, however, in providing a powerful reminder and illustration of the circumstances in which the contained work was produced: the confused interval between the collapse of Louis-Philippe’s monarchy and the advent of Louis Napoléon’s Empire while the Second Republic battled unavailingly with adverse circumstance and many of the authors in Paris suffered difficulties, including real privations, as their opportunities shrank alarmingly and many projects collapsed.
A particular irony is added to the circumstances of the novel’s composition by the fact that Louis Véron’s Le Constitutionnel, which had campaigned so hard for Louis-Napoléon’s election as president, was effectively shut down by the Emperor’s censors after his coup-d’état when Véron was forced to sell the title. Both Dumas and Victor Hugo were exiled along with other key adherents of the Romantic Movement. Dumas took advantage of the amnesty subsequently offered to them, as Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who became Jules Verne’s publisher, also did although Hugo famously refused. The newspaper’s title survived under very different editorial control, but it was no longer the organ that had under Véron’s editorship played host not merely to Dumas but also to Honoré de Balzac, George Sand, and Eugène Sue. Véron’s coeditor, Adolphe Thiers, did get a partial revenge when the Second Empire collapsed and he became the president of the Third Republic, but he was a shadow of his former radical self by then, and he conspicuously failed to cover himself or his Republic in glory as he supervised the ruthless suppression of the Commune and annihilation of its leaders while trying hard to negotiate a restoration of the monarchy.
At first glance, there might appear to be little connection between the social environment in which it was produced and the content of the story, especially the original element, which is, in essence, a wry fable of supernaturally punished infidelity as cavalierly misanthropic as it is slyly misogynistic. It was, however, in the unremittingly hostile domestic climate of the day that escapist tales of the Far East and the economic possibilities of colonial enterprise gained a firm foothold in French popular culture, and the account of Père Olifus’s various profiteering endeavors, especially the sarcastic quasi-picaresque spirit in which it is rendered, can be easily linked to the pressures and temptations of life in Paris under the Second Republic.
Those chapters also help to illustrate and highlight the curiously ambiguous situation of Dumas himself during the Second Republic when he seemed a sufficiently dangerous Republican to be exiled and then to have his work carefully monitored by the censors when the amnesty allowed him to return to Paris, and yet he was simultaneously a hate figure for the communist revolutionaries who considered him “a friend of princes”—as, of course, he was proud and delighted to be, being a fervent snob as well as an enthusiastic Republican.
Although the result of the inflation of Les Mariages du Père Olifus into a quasi-novel can hardly be reckoned esthetically satisfactory it is certainly not without interest, and if the ultimate product is a chimera, might that not be reckoned an apt fate for a story which is itself a celebration and reexamination of a species of chimera? Although the novel was raised somewhat uncertainly from the ruins of what Les Mille et un fantômes was originally supposed to become, the manner of its peculiar genesis is not entirely out of keeping with the deliberately confused and inherently ambivalent spirit of the original.
Modern lovers of fantastic fiction are certainly obliged to regret that the compendium as originally envisaged was aborted and that its chances of market success were wrecked by the dire economic circumstance in which it had to be issued. Had it made its debut in a kinder epoch and extended successfully through ten, twenty, or fifty volumes, it could have provided a highly significant benchmark and exemplar for the development of fantastic fiction in France and in Europe as a whole—but the original letter from Dumas to Véron is probably not deceptive in its suggestion that had the socioeconomic circumstances been calm and untroubled, the escapist impetus underlying the project would have been missing, and it would never have been imagined at all. At any rate, the endeavor became a casualty of the hard times, and the parts of it that survive only do so in fragmentary and disfigured form.
What remained of Les Mille et un fantômes in 1849 faded into insignificance for a long period although the early fragments at least—especially the vampire story not separately titled in the original but usually known in English translation as “The Pale Lady”—have now acquired a kind of classic status among the aficionados of the relevant genre. Les Mariages du Père Olifus has mostly been excluded from that belated celebrity among English-language scholars partly because the 1907 translation was so very hard to locate and partly because it is a trifle unwieldy, but it is certainly one of the most fascinating items to survive the catastrophe. Even though it probably needs to be read with certain advantages of hindsight in order to get the best out of it, it nevertheless has rewards to offer the contemporary reader that make it entertaining as well as intriguing, and it deserves to be reckoned one of the flawed classics of its subgenre as well as an interesting case-study in the sociology of literature.
Brian Stableford lives in The Republic of Dreams.