A FORGOTTEN novel by the celebrated French author Alexandre Dumas is set to be published for the first time after it was discovered buried deep in the nation’s literary archives.
The work by the author of The Count of Monte-Cristo and The Three Musketeers had been lost for more than 135 years.
Believed to be the great writer’s last work, The Knight of Sainte-Hermine - a swashbuckling tale of derring-do in the finest Dumas tradition - has not been heard of since 1869, the year before the author’s death, when it was published in installments in a French newspaper called Le Moniteur Universal.
The first clue to the existence of the 900-page manuscript was uncovered 17 years ago by a Dumas expert and biographer, Claude Schopp, while he was conducting research at the archives of the National Library of France.
"It’s vintage Dumas, in the same vein as the vengeful hero of The Count of Monte-Cristo," said Mr Schopp, who describes the novel as a major literary work.
The Knight of Sainte-Hermine is mentioned in two other works by Dumas, The Whites and the Blues and The Companions of Jehu, and forms the final part of this trilogy, which until now was thought to be missing.
Mr Schopp, who has devoted most of his life to studying the acclaimed author, said he came upon the serialised novel by accident.
"After numerous months of research, one thing lead to another and I had to consult the newspaper Le Moniteur Universel.
"I was amazed when, after going back through reel after reel of archives, I came across a serial which was almost complete, entitled The Knight of Sainte-Hermine and signed by Alexandre Dumas.
"Its publication had begun in this daily on 1 January and it finished at the end of November.
"For a quarter of an hour, while I was in contact with this treasure, I had the feeling that I owned the world," he said.
The project to bring The Knight of Sainte-Hermine to publication had been kept secret for 17 years, with only Mr Schopp, the publisher Jean-Pierre Sicre and the writer and literary critic Christophe Mercier in the know.
During this time, Mr Schopp worked tirelessly to adapt the manuscript from its serialised installments in the daily into a work which will be published as a novel for the first time on 3 June.
"It was a piece which was missing from the puzzle of Dumas’s fictional works," said Mr Sicre, the head of Editions Phebus, which will publish the lost novel.
"Claude Schopp has achieved a monumental task in making the story coherent," he added.
"It was necessary to correct numerous faults - of names, places, etc - resulting from a rapid publication in the press," according to Mr Sicre.
"In fact, Claude Schopp carried out the work of rewriting, which Dumas and his team would have done and which they did not have the possibility to do after the author’s death," he said.
This job was made even more complex by the fact that Dumas often created several identities for a single character.
The last few lines of the last chapter are missing, almost certainly because Dumas, who was dying by the final months of 1869, was too ill to finish the story.
Mr Schopp has thus written an end to the novel, lines which will be published in italics to differentiate them from Dumas’s original.
However, he says he still clings to the hope that one day Dumas’s ending may be found, "because it is possible after all that one was written".
In the past, Mr Schopp and other Dumas experts have found other unpublished or forgotten works by the prolific author, but these consisted of plays, travel notes, correspondence or shorter writings.
A retired professor from Quebec, Reginald Hamel, who is the author of the Dumas Dictionary, discovered a previously unpublished five-act play by Dumas entitled The Gold Thieves - also in the archives of France’s national library.
The discovery of The Knight of Sainte-Hermine is unique, not only because it is the writer’s last novel but also because of its considerable length and literary qualities.
The grandson of a Haitian slave and the son of a legendary general who died young leaving him without an inheritance, Dumas overcame poverty and a lack of formal education to become one of the world’s most popular writers.
His action-packed novels have been translated into almost a hundred languages and the most popular, The Count of Monte-Cristo and The Three Musketeers have inspired more than 100 of the 200 films based on his works.