Among the French authors covered in this study Alexandre Dumas fils is alone in having enjoyed anything like a continuing reputation after his death. Even in his case he is often confused with his more famous father, also Alexandre, the author of the Trois Mousquetaires and the Comte de Monte Cristo. In his own lifetime Alexandre Dumas fils, as author of La Dame aux Camélias, one of the bestselling novels of the mid-nineteenth century, and even more successful as a play, probably equalled his father's renown. Yet today this work is far more widely known through Verdi's opera La Traviata (1853) than in its original form. Dumas was born in 1824, and on account of his illegitimacy was only later able to be formally recognized by Alexandre. This heritage caused him to grow up with an equivocal attitude — he was simultaneously an agitator on behalf of those who were thus marginalized, but also a considerable misanthrope and misogynist. While he began with the novel and the short story, he became most famous writing for the stage, and it was in this capacity that James found him most impressive, although he did also read Dumas's prose fiction. As he progressed and became more famous (arguably the pre-eminent French playwright of the middle and later nineteenth century) Dumas developed a form known as the thesis play, which addresses a contemporary social issue in dramatic form. With long self-explanatory (and self-justifying) prefaces these plays seem outmoded today, although in the nineteenth century they acted as an important precursor for George Bernard Shaw. However the social subjects which Dumas chooses are far removed from Shaw's more predictably radical themes. He appears a conventional radical when supporting the agitation for divorce law reform, but he also appears a tendentious determinist-positivist when arguing that the femme fatale is a threat to the fabric of society. In terms of James's work Dumas may be said to exert an influence both directly and indirectly. The direct influence comes from James's reading — from his adolescence onwards — of Dumas's fiction in journals and in book form, and later from his experience of Dumas in the theatre. As indicated in Chapter 1, La Dame aux Camélias had been considered inappropriate viewing for a child of Jame's age (early teens), during the James family's residence in France in the 1850s, although his older cousins had been permitted to attend what was the most sensational and influential French play of the mid-nineteenth century. It might, of course, be argued (as James seems to be suggesting in A Small Boy and Others) that not being allowed to watch it in the theatre simply enhanced its allure and symbolic status all the more.

There was a difference meanwhile for such puzzlements before the porticos of the theatres; all questions melted for me there into the single depths of envy — envy of the equal, the beatific command of the evening hour, in the régime of Honorine's young train, who were fresh for the early sparrow and the chiffonier even after shedding buckets of tears the night before, and not so much as for the first or the second time, over the beautiful story of La Dame aux Camélias. There indeed was another humiliation, but by weakness of position much more than of nature: whatever doing of "everything" might have been revealed to me as a means to the end, I would certainly have done it for a sight of Madame Doche and Fechter in Dumas's triumphant idyll — now enjoying the fullest honours of innocuous classicism; with which, as with the merits of its interpreters, Honorine's happy charges had become perfectly and if not quite serenely, at least ever so responsively and feelingly, familiar. 1

James later reviewed Dumas fils in The Nation back in the USA in 1868 in a notice of L'Affaire Cléenceau, 2 The novel which Viola Dunbar identified as a source for Roderick Hudson. 3 James's comments in his correspondence, with friends such as Thomas Perry, W. D. Howells, and with William James or the rest of his family over this decade are equivocal, sometimes full of admiration of Dumas's craft and elsewhere disdaining Dumas's moral hypocrisy. In a footnote in A Life in Letters Philip Home quotes an undated and unpublished letter from James to W. E. Henley in which he mixes praise and criticism:

I'm sorry you dislike Dumas fils so much — or rather so exclusively. In one way — as a "moralist" — he is detestable & a childish charlatan: but as a dramatist, I think he understands the business like none of the others. 4

By the time he arrived in Paris in 1875, and was reporting on theatrical events as part of his letters home for the Tribune, James was capable of disparaging Dumas's latest play L'Étrangère ('The Foreign Woman'), which received its première at the Comédie Française on 28 February 1876. In his letter for the Tribune James says: 'I confess that L'Étrangère strikes me as a rather desperate piece of floundering in the dramatic sea.' 5