The 19th Century was the Romantic period which saw the rise of many classic novels. Ranging from authors such as Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy, their novels not only gave the reader a view into Victorian society, but an insight into human nature itself.
One such novel of the 19th Century became, and still is, one of the most celebrated historical romances ever written, with chivalry, romance, espionage and a comic edge.
Alexandre Dumas, or Dumas père1, was born in Villes-Cotterêts, Aisne, in 1802. His father was a general in Napoleon's army. Dumas' paternal grandmother was an Afro-Caribbean slave, and his grandfather a French aristocrat. After his father's death, the family was reduced to poverty, and Dumas sought work as a notary's clerk.
At the age of 20, Dumas went to Paris to find a job. His elegant handwriting managed to secure a job for him with the Duc d'Orléans, later King Louis-Philippe. During this time, Dumas wrote plays for the Paris stage. With the success of Henri III et Sa Cour ('Henri III and His Court') (1829), Dumas established himself as a playwright. Incidentally, Dumas' La Tour de Nesle ('The Tower of Nesle') (1832) is considered to be the finest piece of French melodrama ever written.
Alexandre Dumas could be called the principal advocate of 'style over substance', in that many of his works are severely lacking in plot, but make up for it in his extravagant writing style2.
Dumas is also a culprit of that common (but not recommended) cure of writer's block - plagiarism. He had a team of researchers sifting through history to find suitable plots for him to rewrite, and once stole an entire plot of a contemporary of his, even though he did credit this person.
From a liaison with a dressmaker called Marie-Catherine Labay, Dumas had a son which was named after him (Dumas fils). It seemed that the literary success had been inherited, with his writing the successful play La Dame aux Camelias ('The Lady of the Camellias') that inspired Verdi's famous opera La Traviata.
Alexandre Dumas died in his house in Dieppe, France, in 1870, leaving a string of plays, novels and short stories behind.
The Three Musketeers
A dash of heroism, a sprinkle of romance, a lashing of espionage all mixed together with touches of discreet humour are all components that make this novel one of the all-time classics of its genre.
The story begins with a daring young man named d'Artagnan, finding his true path in life. Journeying to the grand city of Paris, young d'Artagnan is set to join the Musketeers, a Praetorian Guard for King Louis XIII, who is in an untiring struggle for power with the ambitious Cardinal Richelieu.
After proving his swordsmanship and worth, d'Artagnan is accepted into the regiment, and fast becomes friends with three people that fate brought together - Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Each with their own personality, the four become a formidable team.
Uncovering a plot to discredit the Queen, d'Artagnan and his companions are drawn into its depths to defend her and the rest of France. This takes them to both sides of the Channel, where they encounter unlikely characters who may help or hinder them in their fight to prevent the break in political influence, which would help the Cardinal gain more power than ever before. All this makes The Three Musketeers one of the most exciting swashbuckling adventures ever written.
Many of the characters were based upon real people, whom Dumas adapted to fit into the storyline.
Characterised as a daring young man who is eager to fulfil his dreams, d'Artagnan is loved by many and loathed by others. He is certain to bring vengeance to those who wrong him or others.
D'Artagnan almost always tends to fall head-over-heels in love with attractive women, whatever their motive.
The Three Musketeers was based upon Memoires de Monsieur D'Artagnan (c1700). In reality, Dumas' d'Artagnan was based on Charles de Batz-Castelmore d'Artagnan (c1629-1673), the author of these memoirs. He was a Gascon soldier in the service of King Louis XIV who was killed at the siege of Maastricht. Dumas adapted the chronology of this d'Artagnan to suit the plot.
The eldest of the four, and the most commanding. Athos' past is shrouded in mystery, and yet he could be mistaken for a nobleman at a distance. With an unhealthy enjoyment of gambling and drinking, Athos seems the antithesis of d'Artagnan, but the latter looks up to him like a father.
A Musketeer who never gives up, Athos is another character who advocates vengeance upon his enemies, even to the point of death.
Athos' real-life character was a Bearnese gentleman, who was killed in a duel in 1643.
A very fashionable man, and not one to keep his new clothes hidden away, Porthos is cheerful, genial and is the easiest person to talk to. He is popular with everyone, and is a giant compared to the others.
Porthos is best described as the one with the outgoing personality.
Porthos was based upon Issac de Porteau, an adventurer from Pau.
The youngest before d'Artagnan joined their ranks, Aramis floats between being a daring Musketeer and a worldly priest. Always studying theology, and discussing theses with fellow believers, Aramis is a Catholic whose true calling is to become a priest.
Aramis does get a little edgy when someone mentions a letter-writing lady in his acquaintance.
The character of Aramis was in real-life Henri d'Aramitz, a squire and lay-abbot.
Charming, friendly and with the countenance of an angel, 'My Lady' seems too good to be true. She is in fact an English noblewoman who can speak fluent French, with an accent worthy of Queen Anne herself. Many people are taken in by her, d'Artagnan included, but 'My Lady' has a history behind her, and someone wants revenge.
She is a completely fictional character, and any similarities between her and real-life figures are purely coincidental.
King Louis XIII
Young, paranoid, gullible and easily put off by the slightest things, the King of France is fighting a battle of power with the Cardinal. Louis is aware of the plot to discredit his Queen, but is not quite sure whether the accusations are true or not. He is willing to try anything to find the truth.
Louis just leaves everything in Cardinal Richelieu's hands, when the going gets tough, or when he wants to go hunting.
The real King Louis XIII (1601-1643) ascended to the French throne when he was just nine years old. His mother, Marie de Medici, acted as regent. She allied France and Spain by arranging the marriage between her son and Princess Anne of Austria, the daughter of King Philip III of Spain (and Naples). With the aid of Cardinal Richelieu, he managed to secure his absolute power over France.
Queen Anne/Anne of Austria
Young, pretty, and her heart is not with her husband. Instead, it lies with the official enemy, England, or, to be more precise, the Duke of Buckingham. With practically all the odds against her, Anne finds sanctuary with d'Artagnan and his friends to defend her and the credibility of the French monarchy at all costs.
Anne doesn't really care much about her husband, but is more concerned whether she stays alive or not.
Anne of Austria (1601-1666) was a Spanish princess. She lived an unhappy life, being married to King Louis XIII but remaining in virtual separation from him. The real Cardinal Richelieu doubted her loyalty because of this, and also because of her Spanish roots. He accused her of various treasonable offences, but never successfully proved her guilt. After Louis's death, she acted as Regent for her son, Louis XIV.
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham
The Duke of Buckingham would give both arms and any other appendages of his body for the Queen of France. He is very powerful, both in England and France. When he isn't supporting the Huguenot (French Protestant) revolt in La Rochelle, he is thinking of how he can get into France to see his beloved without getting shot or run through with a pointy sword.
A very pleasant character, the Duke of Buckingham is only doing what he thinks is best for England, without considering France.
In real life, Dumas' Duke was George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628). He was a favourite of King James I of England (VI of Scotland) and was soon knighted, then given the title of Marquis of Buckingham in 1618. A diplomat of the English court, he attempted to secure a marriage between King Charles I and the Spanish Infanta. For this, he was made the 1st Duke of Buckingham. Unfortunately, this engagement fell through, causing war with Spain. With his influential power growing, he became the virtual ruler of England as a result.
Not many people liked the Duke, specifically Parliament, who wanted to use any embarrassing moments to discredit him. One such moment was his disastrous mission at Cadiz, when he was Lord High Admiral of HM Navy. Another was a complete pasting at the siege of La Rochelle. He was more like Dumas' fictional power-ravenous Cardinal Richelieu than the real-life Cardinal.
The person who associated the goatee-beard with evil. Richelieu is the unofficial ruler of France. He has his own Praetorian Guard, just like the King, and these are the arch-rivals of the Musketeers. He uses this to try and gain more and more power. Although hated by practically everyone who he isn't paying to work for him, Richelieu tends to keep himself to himself and stays very much in the background.
Richelieu hates being teased, especially when his favourites get beaten up by favourites of the King.
Cardinal Richelieu was a real person who did not have many of the characteristics that Dumas gave his fictional counterpart. In fact, he wanted to secure the power of the French monarch over the increasing power and influence of many noble families. He was really Armand Jean du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu (1585-1642), who studied theology and eventually became a Catholic bishop, then rose to the status of cardinal.
He promoted absolutism5 and built the 17th Century grandeur of France. He tried to ensure friendly relations with England with political marriages, such as marrying King Louis XIII's sister, Henrietta Maria to King Charles I6.
Richelieu was a great diplomat, securing allies in Germany, Holland and Italy. He ordered the siege of La Rochelle against the Huguenots and broke them politically and militarily, but assured them of their religious freedom.
Just to give a tiny taster of the book, but not giving anything away, here are a few quotes.
'Did you send the wine, Aramis?' inquired Athos.
'No; did you, Porthos?'
'No; did you, Athos?'
'Hollo, sir!' he cried; 'you, sir, who hide yourself behind the shutter - yes, you! Tell me what you are laughing at, and we will laugh together.'
- D'Artagnan slightly insulted...
The Cardinal was in reality as furious as his master had anticipated - so furious, in fact, that for eight days he took no hand at the King's card-table. But this did not prevent the King from putting on the most charming face, and asking, every time he met him, in a most insinuating tone -
'Well! M le Cardinal! How is your poor Bernajoux? And your poor Jussac?'
- Louis XIII practising schadenfreude...
And finally, there have been many definitions of the exclamation of surprise throughout literature. Such phrases as:
- Oh (my) God!
- By Jupiter/Jove!
- Holy cow/any four-lettered profanity/Mary, mother of Christ!
- What the hell/any four-lettered profanity?
- Good Heavens/God/Lord!
... are all familiar. In The Three Musketeers, the exclamation of choice is:
What the plague?
- D'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and any other character, major or minor
One can only presume that it is a reference to the devastating effects of the bubonic plague.
In any case, this does not affect the quality of the writing in any way.
And lastly, if you are thinking of reading the novel itself, be sure to get yourself the full, unabridged, well-translated version as opposed to any other version, as these abridged versions will not provide the full richness of text that the complete novel will have.