It is September, and that means summer’s over, and it’s back to work for older folk, and back to school for the young. What a perfect time to toss into the mix one of the greatest swashbuckling novels of all time: Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. I’ve read it several times, each time on the edge of my seat. Each time, I’m drained when I get to the end.
As I re-read it this time, I couldn’t help but think about how historically inaccurate much of our romantic fiction is, especially historical romances penned during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I speak principally of the myth of happily ever after romances of the nobility and aristocracy. In truth, marriage was almost always dynastic and arranged; love was something you found outside of marriage. Look no further than the Princess Diana tragedy for a case in point. Even today, in many Latin countries, the same scenarios continue to play out.
In this respect at least Dumas is historically accurate: you’ll have to dig deep to find examples of marital bliss and compatibility in the pages of this novel. Not just among the royal and semi-royal but also in the lives of those who served them.
Also, note the ruinous effects of gambling. Fans of Downton Abbey will note that it has continued to be a problem even into the twentieth century.
So fertile was Dumas publishing history and life that it almost defies short biography sketches. But Bantam produced a pretty good one for its unabridged edition:
(Pere) lived a life as romantic as that depicted in his famous novels. He was born on July 24, 1802, at Villers-Cotterêts, France, the son of Napoleon’s famous mulatto general, Dumas. His early education was scanty, but his beautiful handwriting secured him a position in Paris in 1822 with the duc d’Orléans, where he read voraciously and began to write. His first play, Henri Ill et sa cour (1829), scored a resounding success for its author and for the romantic movement. Numerous dramatic successes followed (including the melodrama Kean, later adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre), and so did numerous mistresses and adventures. He took part in the revolution of 1830, fathered two illegitimate children by two different mistresses, and then married still another mistress. (The first of these two children, Alexandre Dumas [fils], became a famous author also.) His lavish spending and flamboyant habits led to the construction of his fabulous Château de Monte-Cristo, and in 1851 he fled to Belgium to escape creditors. He died on December 5, 1870, bankrupt but still cheerful, saying of death, “I shall tell her a story, and she will be kind to me.”Dumas’s overall literary output reached over 277 volumes, but his brilliant historical novels made him the most universally read of all French novelists. With collaborators, mainly Auguste Maquet, Dumas wrote such works as The Three Musketeers [1843-44]; its sequels, Twenty Years After (1945) and the great mystery The Man in the Iron Mask (1848-50); and The Count of Monte Cristo . L’action and l’amour were the two essential things in his life and in his fiction. He declared he “elevated history to the dignity of the novel” by means of love affairs, intrigues, imprisonments, hairbreadth escapes, and duels. His work ignored historical accuracy, psychology, and analysis, but its thrilling adventure and exuberant inventiveness continues to delight readers, and Dumas remains one of the prodigies of nineteenth-century French literature.
As for the book itself, it’s about as accurate as most nineteenth century historical novels. The characterizations of Louis XIII and Richelieu are well done. Anne of Austria led an extremely sad and loveless life as queen. Buckingham is fairly well done. In real life, he was self-centered, narcissistic, caring not who he hurt as long as he had his way; he was slain by an assassin, just as in the book.
Following is Bantam’s summation of the book:
Perhaps the greatest “cloak and sword” story ever written, The Three Musketeers, first published in 1844, is a tale for all time. Pitting the heroic young d’Artagnan and his noble compatriots Athos, Porthos, and Aramis against the master of intrigue, Cardinal Richelieu, and the quintessential wicked woman, Lady de Winter, Alexandre Dumas has created an enchanted France of swordplay, schemes, and assignations. The era and the characters are based on historical fact, but the glittering romance and fast-paced action spring from a great writer’s incomparable imagination. From the perilous retrieval of the queen’s gift to her lover in time to foil Richelieu’s plot, to the melodramatic revelation of Lady de Winter’s true identity, The Three Musketeers is the unchallenged archetype for literary romance and a perennial delight for generations of readers.Bantam editors are correct: If you can find a wickeder and more malevolent female protagonist in all literature, you’re a wider reader than I.
But prepare yourself: Once you have a few early chapters under your belt, find a quiet room and settle in for one of the most unputdownable reads of your lifetime. And you’ll see for yourself why the four musketeers have become immortals all over the world.
By all means, purchase only an unabridged edition.