From the Introduction by Allan Massie
My granddaughter, aged three, was enthralled by a cartoon series, 'Dogtanian', and watched this version of The Three Musketeers
, in which men are dogs and women cats, over and over again. Her mother, some twenty years previously at a slightly older age, had been equally smitten. There is a photograph of her, dressed at a musketeer and mounted on her grey pony, not much smaller or more impressive than the yellow Béarnais sheltie, which provoked such mockery of its rider when the young D'Artagnan set out adventuring in search of fame and fortune.
If I begin this introduction to Dumas' novel with what may seems an irrelevant family memory, it is because it is not irrelevant at all. For, while happily the book is there to be read, and is still read with enjoyment so long after it was written, the first essential thing to grasp is that D'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis have escaped its confines. Like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver and Sherlock Holmes, they have become figures of modern mythology. The novel has been dramatized, filmed and made into TV series — with human actors as well as cartoon figures. The characters have become the stuff of children's games, for many young people of spirit have been musketeers at some point in their life.
Dumas' novels are intoxicating. They make life more vivid, and they are addictive. They are also comforting; whatever the drama we know things will come out right in the end, as in a classic Western like Stagecoach
or High Noon
. For this reason when I wrote a crime novel set in Bordeaux, the capital of D'Artagnan's old province of Gascony, it seemed right that I should allow my policeman hero to turn to Dumas in moments of stress or depression (as indeed Simenon has Maigret also turn) and that when his young rugby-playing son swerves round his marker to score a try under the posts, and leaves the field flushed with happiness and triumph, the father should think, 'like a musketeer, like D'Artagnan himself'.
Of course, for some stern critics, such things merely go to prove that Dumas is not a serious writer. Even the New Oxford Companion
to French literature treats him with what is almost disdain. The entry on him runs to a single column, whereas two are allotted to George Sand and four to Jean-Paul Sartre. Dumas, though 'on a world scale perhaps the best known of all French novelists', is dismissed as a mere entertainer, an excellent entertainer admittedly, but no more than that. You can't, it is implied, take him seriously, and indeed D'Artagnan and the musketeers belong to the same category of fancy as Dick Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot, John S. Blenkiron and Peter Pienaar; they may even be held to have, in this first book of their adventures, little more substance than James Bond. Dumas does not explore character as Stendhal does. He has none of Balzac's penetrating understanding of society. He lacks Hugo's feeling for the poor and wretched, and his awareness of historical process. He is not a scrupulous artist like Flaubert, reworking sentences till they satisfy him.
All this is true. It would be folly to deny it. And yet, one well-read Frenchman, my translator indeed, once surprised me by remarking that Vingt ans aprés — Twenty Years After
, the sequel to The Three Musketeers
— is the greatest French novel. Bizarre judgement? Perhaps. Then I recall that Robert Louis Stevenson, the most fastidious of artists who yet never lost his youthful love of Romance and high adventure, declared that he had read the last of the series, The Vicomte de Bragelonne
, at least half-a-dozen times, and even called it his favourite book. Such was the charm it held for him that he suspected that, like George IV who came to believe that he had fought at Waterloo, he might 'fancy it one of the first, and Heaven knows best, of my own works'. I am not at all surprised, but whence comes the charm that Dumas exerts?
Alexandre Dumas was born in 1802. His childhood and adolescence were passed in the years of Napoleanic adventure, but, only just twelve when the emperor was defeated and forced to abdicate for the first time in 1814, he was too young to partake of it. He belonged to a generation that felt it lived in duller times, and, if his energy was too abundant to allow him to experience the disillusioned melancholy which Alfred de Musset called 'le mal de siécle', nevertheless he could not but be aware that the paths of martial glory were closed. In the new bourgeois age they could be explored only in the imagination.
He was the son of a general in the armies of the Revolution, who had distinguished himself in an Alpine campaign against the Piedmontese, but had fallen foul of the emperor and been sidelined. General Dumas was himself the son of a minor aristocrat who had settled in the French colony of San Domingo, and his mother was a black slave girl. Alexandre Dumas was therefore a quadroon (interestingly, his great Russian contemporary Pushkin was an octaroon).
He enjoyed his first successes in teh the theatre, collaborating with others to write melodramas and vaudeville sketches. His spectacular historical drama, Henri III et sa cour
, a triumph when performed at the Comédie-Française in 1829, established him as one of the leaders of the new school of Romantic drama which scornfully swept aside the rules and restrictions of classical French tragedy. Other successes followed, notably Kean, ou Désordre et génie
(1836). He would continue to write plays and adapt works for the theatre, but it was in the novel that he fully expressed his own remarkable and fecund genius.
In the 1830s newspaper editors became aware of the public appetite for fiction. They fed it by means of serial novels — the romans-feuilletons
. Within a few years all the main Paris papers were clamouring for such material. By modern standards, their circulation was small — Le Siécle
, for which Dumas would write, had only some 33,000 subscribers. Its readership, however, was much greater, for it was available in clubs and cafés. Moreover, when republished in volume form, the romans-feuilleton
was also available in cabinets de lectures
, reading-rooms and lending libraries. The cheapest of them charged only one sou for reading a volume on the premises, two sous to take it home.
Newspaper serialization had peculiar requirements. Each episode had to be satisfying, even complete, in itself, while at the same usually advancing the general narrative, if not always directly. Description had to be brief, at least by the standards of the nineteenth-century novel first published in volume form. Characters had to be established quickly and memorably. Memorability was indeed important, for the exigencies of the narrative — or the author's whim — might have characters disappear for several episodes, being recalled perhaps a week or ten days later. There was neither space nor time for lengthy analysis of motives or states of mind. Plot was secondary to incident, for readers could not be expected to hold the details of a complicated plot in mind over a serialization lasting for several months. The author was required to be rapid, inventive, and alert to the responses of the readers. This last was important. Any evidence of a fall-off of interest might lead to the abrupt cancellation of a serial. This happened even to Balzac: in 1844 publication of his roman-feuilleton, Les Paysons
, was prematurely cut short and replaced by Dumas' La Reine Margot
, which begins with a brilliant account of the Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve.
Dumas had all the qualities required. His prose is always rapid and lucid. You never have to pause to think what a sentence means. He was wonderfully inventive and witty; the dialogue crackles. He had the gift for bringing characters to life with a few bold strokes. There is admittedly little subtlety in his characterization, though D'Artagnan himself develops over the course of the years and the sequence of novels in which he appears, so that the impetuous and fiery, though also canny, young Gascon of the Musketeers
has, as Stevenson put it, by the time we reach the last volume of his adventures, 'mellowed into a man so witty, rough, kind and upright, that he takes the heart by storm' and 'the whole man rings true like a good sovereign' — the coin, that is, not a king. But all the other characters are types, though types accorded a necessary dash of individuality; and this is as it should be, for this is all that is required.
Copyright © 2001 by Alexandre Dumas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.