The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Three Musketeers (1844)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Three Musketeers (original: Les Trois Mousquetaires) and its sequels Twenty Years After (original: Vingt Ans Après, 1845) and The Viscount of Bragelonne (original: Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, 1848) were written by Alexandre Dumas père. Dumas père (1802-1870) was a giant of nineteenth century French letters. He wrote a vast number of novels, plays, and poems, and is considered the greatest of the French romantic novelists. With The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, is regarded as Dumas’ masterpiece, and is a classic still read with pleasure today. The Three Musketeers is a beloved classic, and those readers who have not read it in decades will find that, stylistic faults aside, the novel is rollicking good fun.
During the reign of Louis XIII a young Gascon, D’Artagnan, travels to Paris in the hopes of becoming a musketeer. He meets and befriends three of the most prominent musketeers: Aramis, Porthos, and Athos. D’Artagnan finds himself enmeshed in a series of schemes, in support of the Queen’s love affair with the English Duke of Buckingham and in opposition to the plots of Cardinal Richelieu. D’Artagnan finds love with the Madame Bonacieux, the sweet wife of his landlord. D’Artagnan finds an enemy in the venomous but beautiful Milady, the best agent of Cardinal Richelieu. D’Artagnan and the other Musketeers travel across France, fighting the agents of the Cardinal as well as the English at the siege of La Rochelle. The four men find love, riches, and sorrow before separating, and D’Artagnan gains a high rank in the musketeers.
The Three Musketeers is not perfect. It is old; it was written over 175 years ago, and this is reflected in the prose style, which is dated, staid, stodgy, and prolix. Dumas takes the occasional plot detour and sometimes spends too long on a particular subplot or conversation. And there is little concern with the interior life of the characters. Action rather than emotion is Dumas’ concern.
On that level, however, The Three Musketeers succeeds magnificently. It is a grand spectacle of duels, sword fights, hell-bent rides across the French countryside, resplendent musketeers, court politics, and love affairs. Dumas vividly creates a world of casual love affairs and even more casual duels, a world in which manners are supremely important and personal honor is worth fighting for. It is the world familiar to readers from dozens of movies, but done by Dumas with high spirits and good humor. The lives of the musketeers show elements of the picaresque, which adds to the spirit of the novel. Milady is a wonderfully devious villain and Fatal Woman. Dumas delivers regular doses of action and incident, and with the occasional, regrettable, exception he does not linger over events or people of no bearing to the main plot. Dumas does a good job of providing context for the historical events and personages in The Three Musketeers, so that even those readers with no knowledge of seventeenth century French history will not feel completely lost. And only a grouch would complain that these events and people have been unrealistically sanitized and romanticized.
Any reader willing to put up with the novel’s minor stylistic flaws will be well rewarded in reading or rereading The Three Musketeers.
Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers, transl. Laurence Ellsworth. New York: Pegasus Books, 2018.