Dumas' account of death of Lord Nelson rediscovered after 135 years

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Alexandre Dumas was such a prolific author - 200 books published in his lifetime - that the appearance of a new novel 135 years after his death ought not to be a surprise.

Alexandre Dumas was such a prolific author - 200 books published in his lifetime - that the appearance of a new novel 135 years after his death ought not to be a surprise.

The only question might be: what took the dead man so long? In French bookshops this week - and already attracting attention from film-makers and foreign publishers - is a "new" novel by the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The 1,000-page tome provides its own answer to the question of who killed Admiral Horatio Nelson, as its hero is the man who pulled the trigger to kill England's celebrated sailor.

The book, which includes scenes of the Battle of Trafalgar 200 years ago on 21 October this year, has previously appeared only in newspaper installments.

Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, the story of an aristocrat torn between revulsion against the French Revolution and fascination with the Emperor Napoleon, was rediscovered by a Dumas scholar, Claude Schopp, 10 years ago.

In the scenes set at Trafalgar, the sea battle off Cadiz between the British, French and Spanish fleets, the central character is presented as the man who shot Admiral Nelson. The British commander was mortally wounded by a musket shot from the rigging of a French ship-of-the-line.

M. Schopp discovered a reference to the forgotten novel - the last to be written by Dumas - in a letter. He unearthed the original from micro-filmed copies of the Moniteur Universel newspaper from 1869 in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The scholar revised the text and added two and a half chapters at the close.

Dumas would, presumably, not have objected to the additions. It is now widely accepted that most of his works were written, or re-written, by ghost-writers based on his original ideas.

In the introduction M. Schopp says: "It should not be a surprise if scholars sometimes find something which they were not looking for. They often search for things and find nothing."

He says the novel fills a gap in the vast scheme laid out by Dumas to create fictional works telling French history from the middle ages to the mid-19th century. Like many other Dumas novels, the book appeared in short instalments on the front and second pages of the newspaper between January and October 1869, the year before his death. It remains a mystery why the novel was never published in book form and why it was overlooked by Dumas scholars for so long.

Other characters in the novel include the Emperor himself - presented enigmatically, as part hero and part villain - and the Empress Josephine.

"It's like a testament. [Dumas] knew he was ill and that he was going to die. The text is beautiful because we can feel that he was struggling with the mass of historical material he was working with," M. Schopp said. Talks are under way for film and translation rights.

Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine will be published by Phebus, €26

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