I love swashbuckling. I love capes, and boots, and ridiculous feats of courage. There’s a scene in this book when the musketeers and D’Artagnan have a picnic in a deserted bastion of the fort of La Rochelle, which they, as royal forces, are besieging. They bet with their friends that they will be able to hold their picnic ground for an hour, and finish their lunch — which they do, thanks to the bodies of a number of their enemies whom they arm and pose in lifelike positions, sufficiently convincing to deter attackers. OK, there are holes here: I couldn’t quite envision the propping-up-the-corpses business. But who cares? In the immortal words of the immortal Christopher Smart, the whole caper was “Determin’d, dar’d, and done.”
Then of course there’s great pleasure in the double historical remove. We’re looking at 1625 through the eyes of 1844. Naturally this tells us more about 1844, and I find the hunger for careless glamor rather poignant. The amount of sheer waste in the story! Horses, jewels,women, wine… it’s as if Dumas were consciously scrubbing away the bourgeois stain of the bean-counting 19th century with a profligate gold-plated brush.
Lovely detail: at one point in the narrative, the character of cardinal Richelieu mentions the legend of the White Lady, who wears “a long white robe sprinkled with black teardrops and skulls and crossbones.” The ghost was said to walk the corridors of the Louvre as a warning of “great events.” Translator Richard Pevear’s note points out that the legend lasted through the eighteenth century and that “There were similar legends in other royal families in Europe.”
Also: Dumas had what we might term a “cinematic” imagination; he seeds the length of the book with certain visual motifs, like the use of the color red. The cardinal, of course, wears red (and is referred to occasionally as “the red duke” which is rather thrilling). But so, at the end, does a character known only as “the executioner of Lille.” (His cape is crimson for a ghoulishly practical reason. Think about it.) It’s like one of those minimalist opera productions in which every bit of set and costume is on the black/white spectrum except for the scarlet cloak on the heroic tenor.
To be determined: does Dumas’ playfulness with his genre (which is a lovely new toy in his day) count as irony? I rather think not — there’s a whole-heartedness about it.
I did wish, though, that I didn’t have Faye Dunaway stuck in my mind as the evil Milady.