ROMANCE OF THE FRENCH IDEAL
The Three Musketeers well represents the literary skills of Alexandre Dumas. It is one of those rare novels that seems to be perfectly at home in three different time periods—in 1628, when the novel is set; in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was written in 1844; and today, where it remains as an engrossing work of fiction and a constant temptation for moviemakers.
The Three Musketeers has received more affection than respect over the years. Alexandre Dumas was one of those tremendously productive authors who could regularly write for long hours at a time and complete works as quickly as his many fans could devour them. Literary critics have therefore sometimes assumed that The Three Musketeers—because it was written quickly, with a collaborator, and for profit—is too popular for its own good and can’t be considered a literary masterpiece. It is a fine adventure story for young boys, they claim, without much to offer adults looking for something more substantial.
However, those readers and critics who see The Three Musketeers as just romantic adventures full of swashbuckling sword fights perhaps overlook what it represents. During a time of great turmoil and upheaval in France, at the end of a long period when the foundations of French politics and society were questioned, The Three Musketeers stood as a profoundly idealistic novel. It showed its original readers everything they thought was grand about being French: honor and chivalry; loyalty to friends; an adventurous spirit; a taste for elegance; and of course passion for good food, wine, and beautiful lovers. Today, two hundred years later, these values still strike a universal chord.
The Life and Work of Alexandre Dumas
Alexandre Dumas ranks among the most widely read novelists of Romantic literature and may be the most beloved writer France has ever produced. His adventure stories depict the heroic triumph of human strength and endurance, a legacy he was born into.
Dumas’s father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, was born in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in 1762 to a black slave and her owner, the Marquis de la Pailleterie, a Frenchman who had come to the Caribbean to seek his fortune as a sugar planter. The marquis sold Thomas and three siblings, but purchased him back when he was fourteen years old and brought him to France. Once there, Thomas severed ties with his father, took his mother’s name, and joined the army. By thirty-one, he was a general serving under Napoleon Bonaparte. The bravery he exhibited and the injustices he suffered were worthy of one of his son’s plot lines. However, he had a falling-out with Napoleon, who refused to pay his pension, and died at the age of forty-four, leaving his widow and two children virtually penniless.
Alexandre Dumas was born in Villers-Cotterêts, France, on July 24, 1802. His early education was provided by family, neighbors, and the local priest, but in 1812, Alexandre’s mother was granted a license to sell tobacco, which gave her enough money to send him to a private school. At the age of thirteen, Dumas felt the first stirrings of literary ambition when a friend, Auguste Lafarge, wrote a witty epigram to get back at a girl who had jilted him. Soon all of France was reciting the stanza. Dumas was impressed by the glory of having others speak your name even when you weren’t there, as well as by the power of the pen as an instrument of revenge.
He moved to Paris in 1823, and, with his beautiful penmanship, found a position as a clerk for the secretary of the Duc d’Orléans—the future King Louis-Philippe. Dumas’s son, also called Alexandre, was born in 1824 to his mistress Catherine Lebay. The son would also earn renown as a writer, most notably of La Dame aux camélias, which would be adapted as the opera La Traviata and the classic Greta Garbo film Camille. History distinguishes the two Alexandre Dumas as Dumas père (the father) and Dumas fils (the son).
Dumas spent his early twenties reading, attending the theater, and writing, but it took a season of Shakespeare performed in Paris by an English company in 1827 and 1828 to inspire him and spur his success. In 1829 his play Henri III et sa cour (Henry III and His Court) debuted at the Comédie-Française, with the Duc d’Orléans and thirty princes and princesses invited as his guests, in attendance. The duc led a lengthy, roaring, standing ovation, and Dumas received instant fame and glory. Another play, Christine, was staged in 1830, followed by five—Napoléon Bonaparte, Antony, Hernani, Charles VII et ses grands vassaux (Charles VII and the Barons), and Richard Darlington—in 1831. Dumas became the darling of Parisian literary and social circles. He traveled extensively and turned each of his travels into yet another successful book.
In the 1830s, two social developments in France took Dumas’s career to even greater heights. In 1833, primary education in France was reorganized under Guizot’s law, and literacy jumped from about 40 percent to almost 100 percent in a generation. Press censorship was also lifted in the 1830s, leading to a proliferation of newspapers. In the fight for readers, editors began to run entertaining serial novels that attracted readers of every class, age, and background. Dumas was a master of the form; his stories of French history were filled with engaging characters and suspense, and always left his audience hungry for more.
Extraordinarily prolific—his complete works fill more than three hundred volumes—Dumas freely admitted to collaborating with assistants and secretaries, but his critics still dismissed him as a plagiarist. His most fruitful creative partnership was with Auguste Maquet, an imaginative young historian endowed with a lively imagination. It was through this partnership with Maquet that his most remembered novels were produced, including The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, Twenty Years After, and Queen Margot. Amazingly, his two best-known works were written at least partly concurrently. The Three Musketeers was published serially in La Siècle in 1844, while installments of The Count of Monte Cristo began running in Le Journal des débats. With the success of these romans-feuilletons, or serial novels, Dumas became known as “the king of Paris.” A saying held that “when Dumas snores, Paris turns in its sleep.”
He married Ida Ferrier, his mistress of eight years, in 1840, but they separated in 1844. He made fortunes and spent lavishly, including on Ida’s dowry, claiming to never have denied money to anyone but his creditors. He spent 200,000 francs to build his home, the Château de Monte Cristo, and had six hundred people at its housewarming party in 1847. By 1850, he was nearly bankrupt and forced to sell the estate for about 30,000 francs. He fled to Belgium in 1851 to avoid his creditors but returned to Paris in 1853 where he founded a daily paper called Le Mousquetaire. It was followed in 1857 by the literary weekly Le Monte Cristo and in 1860 by L’Indipendente, a political and literary journal in French and Italian, which he edited from Naples.
Dumas, a man with a huge imagination and appetite for life, lived as adventurously as he wrote. He was rumored to have fathered dozens of illegitimate children, but he acknowledged only three. He died on his son’s estate on December 5, 1870. A statue of him was erected on the Place Malesherbes, Paris, in 1883, and another in Villers-Cotterêts commemorates the town’s favorite son, one of the most prolific and loved writers of the nineteenth century.
Historical and Literary Context of The Three Musketeers The Setting of The Three Musketeers
Dumas found ideal material for The Three Musketeers in French history. The reign of Louis XIII (1610–1643) was rich with larger-than-life characters, which Dumas made larger still: Anne d’Autriche, the Duke of Buckingham, and most of all Cardinal Richelieu were all historical figures. It is a fascinating exercise to separate the fact from the fiction in The Three Musketeers, and many essays could be written about exactly where and why Dumas altered characters and chronologies to suit his literary purposes.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were periods of intense conflict between Catholics and Protestants across Europe. The religion of royal families was more than a personal issue; it was an issue of state. A series of religious wars in Europe raged on until King Henry IV of France (1553–1610), raised as a Protestant, converted to Catholicism prior to his coronation. In 1598, he enacted the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed religious freedom to Protestants and thereby ending the civil war conflicts.
But his Catholic son Louis XIII, when he came to power in 1617, sought to establish his authority by reigniting the religious wars and wiping out Protestantism from France. He found a powerful ally for this effort in Armand-Jean du Plessis, the Duke of Richelieu, who had become a bishop at age twenty-two and a cardinal at thirty-seven. Richelieu urged the young Louis XIII to combine the powers of the Catholic church with the powers of the state into a single unstoppable force. Richelieu became Louis XIII’s chief minister, the architect of both domestic and foreign policy, and was arguably more powerful than the king himself. Richelieu ensured the church’s power by battling the Huguenots (French Protestant), particularly by staging a siege of their stronghold at La Rochelle (an important scene in The Three Musketeers).
Richelieu was passionately opposed to the powers of the Hapsburg dynasty, which controlled Spain, Austria, and what was left of the Holy Roman Empire. He felt that its efforts to secure bordering territory in the north of France and establish a “universal monarchy” across Europe and beyond threatened the very existence of France. As the English were the allies of the French Huguenots, and Louis XIII’s wife, Queen Anne, from the Hapsburg clan in Austria, was rumored to be having an affair with the Duke of Buckingham, the leader of the English forces, Richelieu had many motives for bringing them both down, and this provides the central conflict for much of The Three Musketeers.
Power Shifts in Nineteenth-Century France
The nineteenth century in France, when Dumas was writing The Three Musketeers, was almost as tumultuous as the seventeenth century, in which the novel is set. France was recovering from almost a hundred years of incredible political, social, economic, and cultural turmoil that began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille and ended with the establishment of the Third French Republic in 1870. During this period, France’s political structure changed no less than a dozen times. With the constantly shifting governments and schemes to overthrow or restore one faction or another, each regime guarded its power fiercely, suppressing those that threatened to usurp it. When a new authority took power, it in turn punished those that had persecuted it during a previous rule.
Until the 1780s, France’s privileged classes—the clergy and the nobility—governed the country, while the working classes—the “third estate”—were heavily taxed to foot the bill. Outdated farming methods created food shortages, while extravagance in the court of King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, sparked outrage. A bloody revolution began in 1789, and the monarchy was overthrown, and both monarchs were beheaded. In 1792, the new National Assembly declared itself to be a French republic. Internal power struggles, however, led to not a democracy but rather a dictatorship, which tried to maintain order by executing everyone it perceived as a threat. This violent period, led by the revolutionary leader Maximilien de Robespierre, became known as the Reign of Terror, and thousands lost their heads from 1793 to 1794 as the guillotines were falling apart from too much use.
The turmoil was not contained within France’s borders. In 1792, France declared war on Austria and was embroiled in fighting countries that remained sympathetic to the old monarchy. A new constitution was enacted in 1795, followed by another coup in 1797. Then in 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte returned from a military campaign in Egypt and seized control of France. Five years later, Napoleon abandoned any charade of a French republic and declared himself emperor, and within a decade he had conquered Europe, his empire stretching from Spain to the border of Russia. He inspired a demoralized France with dreams of an everlasting empire, and by 1815 many parts of the world and all of Europe was divided into one of two opposing camps in the Napoleonic Wars. France’s eventual defeat led to a remapping of Europe, which would precipitate the beginnings of tensions that would ignite World War I.
In Dumas’s lifetime, the Bourbon monarchy (Louis XVI was part of the Bourbon dynasty) was restored under King Louis XVIII. He was succeeded by his younger brother Charles, who became Charles X. A popular revolution forced out the ultraroyalist Charles X in favor of the more moderate Duc d’Orléans, who reigned as King Louis-Philippe. His rule lasted eighteen years until the failure of his elitist government to embrace social progress prompted another revolution and the establishment of the Second Republic in 1848, with Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew as president. In 1851, he seized power from the parliament and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III a year later, but began shifting power back to the legislature in 1860. By 1870, the year Dumas died, France was again a parliamentary monarchy. Napoleon III’s rule collapsed with France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and was replaced by the Third French Republic. It was a shaky government but managed to hold on to power until the German occupation and installation of the Vichy regime during World War II.
The Romantic Movement in Literature
During the early years of the French Revolution, the arts in much of Europe took on a similarly revolutionary fervor. Artists began to overthrow the old classical structures that had dominated the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Romantics were inspired by the idealism behind the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, but appalled by the horrors of the Reign of Terror. While they were optimistic that humankind could create its own utopia, the reality of events taking place made them question the darker side of human nature. Rather than basing their poetry, drama, painting, and music on the principles of so-called reason exemplified in the classical works of ancient Greece and Rome, the Romantics valued the liberating principles of emotional expression, self-exploration, imagination, and lofty ambition. For some writers, such as William Wordsworth, Romanticism took the form of a fresh appreciation for nature’s simple pleasures. For others, such as Matthew Lewis, Romanticism took a darker and more Gothic turn that emphasized the raw sensations of terror and awe of the supernatural. Either way, to the Romantics, inspiration, intuition, and imagination were seen as divine sparks that pointed to truth.
A prolific writer, Dumas was influenced by Romanticism in different ways at different points during his literary career. His earliest success was as a writer of Romantic melodramas. They had sensational plots, dark villains, unfortunate heroines, and dashing heroes. Virtue always triumphed. In turning to the novel, Dumas was directly influenced by the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, known for combining the high emotionalism of Romantic melodrama with the seriousness of history. The historical novel became enormously popular, especially in France, where Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, and Victor Hugo were the leading lights. Dumas, through combining the popularity of melodrama with the general appeal of historical fiction, was on the cutting edge of literature, creating a new format of serialized cliff-hangers that incited his readers.
The Three Musketeers
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