Thrilled by the excellent recent adaptation by the BBC, I decided it was time to finally read The Three Musketeers. I have vague memories of borrowing a book with a yellow hardback cover from the library when I was much, much younger. But at that precocious age I found the nineteenth century language and over-the-top tropes of romance and revenge difficult to enjoy, and I don’t recall if I ever finished it. This time, I did a little research and discovered that Richard Pevear has a relatively new translation out, and that my UK library had a copy! Strangely, the title page promises that this edition is “Translated with an Introduction by Richard Pevear,” but there is no introduction to be found. Huh.
It seems almost silly to give much of a plot summary of The Three Musketeers. Everyone knows the story, right? Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are the eponymous black sheep within the musketeers: the ones who don’t play by the rules but nevertheless still hold to the ancient rites of honour. D’Artagnan is a young Gascon man eager to make his name by joining the musketeers, and he quickly befriends the Three and joins them on many adventures. Together they fight the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu and his minion, the irredeemable Milady de Winter.
Except, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Alexandre Dumas’ story is one that has become so popular, been adapted so many times, that its original narrative has become snarled and twisted and confused in public consciousness. Having now read the book, I can see why: this is a massive novel that plods on and on in a series of interrelated episodic adventures that can be repetitive at times. It’s not difficult to understand why the various writers of adaptations have streamlined and simplified the story for television and movies. In so doing, they have associated the three (or four) musketeers with the ideas of heroism, courage, and bravery. Also, they have a chocolate bar named after them. How many literary characters can say that?
Most of the adaptations manage to portray the heroes with flaws as well as virtues: they capture the carousing, the drinking, the gambling—oh, and the irrepressible urge to duel. But they elide over some of the most memorable moments. For instance, the musketeers’ four respective manservants play crucial roles in the books, almost as important as the musketeers themselves—and, for the most part, the musketeers treat them like shit. Athos doesn’t let his speak, and Dumas goes out of his way to describe how d’Artagnan forbidding his servant to quit his service actually endears his servant to him more…. Meanwhile, a lot of the problems in the book are the result of the musketeers drinking and/or gambling too much. They tend to pick fights where none are necessary. Then they go running to hide behind Captain de Tréville’s skirts, using their special friendship with him to get out of trouble. When they need more money, they chat up bored wives for loans.
So the musketeers aren’t the shining heroes we have made them out to be in popular culture. They are, to Dumas’ credit, much greyer and more morally complex than that. The same can be said for Cardinal Richelieu and Milady. Although it’s easy to mistake this book for a florid romance set two centuries before it was written, it is a far richer story of how personal whims and ambitions and relationships affect the political tapestry of a continent like Europe. For his love of Queen Anne, Buckingham betrays his nation. D’Artagnan finds himself set against Richelieu not necessarily because they are so different but because Richelieu’s methods conflict with d’Artagnan’s sensibilities.
One thing that surprises me in the novel is the very fair treatment that Dumas gives Richelieu. He is not a one-dimensional, transparent villain. It’s clear that Richelieu is acting for what he believes is the good of France. This is a perilous time for the kingdom, which has remained staunchly Catholic in the face of rising Protestantism, and has managed to alienate even the other Catholic countries in Europe—namely, Spain. Richelieu is legitimately worried about alliances between these countries and invasion or rebellion, and his scheming is, ultimately, an attempt to make sure that France is prepared. Peter Capaldi captures a sliver of this side of the character in the BBC adaptation, but his Richelieu is also a more personally self-absorbed character.
I wonder if Dumas was secretly fascinated by seventeenth-century France, so much so that he ached to write a political thriller about the events therein, only he knew that it would sell better if he couched it in the contemporary ideas of the romance. By our standards he is incredibly sexist—women are, to Dumas, the fairer and weaker sex, and indeed, part of Milady’s villainy is her presumption to “rise above” the proper stations of motherhood and companionship as a woman and seek a man’s destiny in life. (He also has this weird obsession with women’s hands.) But for his time, Dumas might have been perceived as fairly liberal, for a male writer, in his depictions of women characters.
That’s not saying much, of course. It’s sufficient that Dumas’ women have more agency than fenceposts. There are basically three important female characters (I’m not counting Kitty): Anne, Constance Bonacieux, and Milady. Although Dumas’ portrayals of them are far from faultless, he nevertheless manages to capture the dangerous and difficult nature of being a woman in seventeenth century France. He shows the empty court life that Queen Anne must lead, the emotional gulf that separates her from her husband and leads her to seek love in an English ambassador. And, oh, did this book make me love Constance even more than I did in the BBC version. In the latter, she is merely d’Artagnan’s landlady rather than the queen’s seamstress. But this additional dimension in the original text makes her character much more interesting. She and Anne are both victims of the oppressive, patriarchal nature of the time. They lack the power to do much about their situations, and they ceaselessly exercise the little power they do have to make their lives better, only for men to swat them down again if it’s inconvenient.
But it’s in the portrayal of Milady de Winter that Dumas truly excels at a nuanced portrait of women’s struggles. As I note above, there are very problematic aspects to Milady’s use of her sexuality to get what she wants, and the ending of the book seems to say that Dumas is punishing her for having the gall to act, essentially, the same as the musketeers do. She is the Cardinal’s agent in the same way that the musketeers are the king’s/queen’s/whatever. In fact, it’s arguable that Milady has a more legitimate claim to being a loyal French agent than the musketeers. Richelieu sends her to assassinate Buckingham—who, let us not forget, is English—because it would prevent the launch of an invasion fleet. That kind of seems like a good thing to do if one is concerned for French sovereignty, no? But the musketeers rush to stop her, and then condemn her for engineering Buckingham’s death, despite the fact that he is clearly an enemy of state and she totally had the Cardinal’s permission. Who is the wrong now, hmm?
Indeed, there is a delightfully subversive edge to this, the major plot of The Three Musketeers. For a long time prior to achieving her goals, Milady is imprisoned in a castle in the English countryside. She laments the fact that, as a woman, she is unable to merely fight her way free and escape through physical feats. Instead she must resort, as always, to her beauty and wiles. And my interpretation of this is not that Dumas is painting Milady as a sociopathic viper but as an unfortunate, psychologically scarred woman who has to do a lot of unsavoury things in order to survive. She is aware of how her gender has affected her life, has made things harder, and she has been forced to hone whatever few weapons she could forge from her disadvantages. So even though there is something fairly unfortunate in how Dumas portrays Milady’s vituperative scheming against d’Artagnan and her consequent fate, I also think that she is a far more complex character than she might seem at first glance.
These layers, then, are what result in the wonderful and transcendent quality of The Three Musketeers. On one level it is a straightforward romance, a tale of swashbuckling heroes against scheming villains. It has swordfights and chase scenes and all the melodrama that anyone could want—and I love it for that reason, far more than I suspected I would. On another level, it depicts the difficult life of musketeers in seventeenth-century France. The four musketeers are complicated and flawed characters who make mistakes and essentially function as vigilantes. Dumas captures the tense political situation in Europe at the time. And onto that additional level, he overlays the ambitions and relationships of individuals—both men and women—depicting how these alter and affect the fates of nations. The Three Musketers is an adventure novel, yes, but it should never be dismissed merely as that. It is nothing short of an amazing and impressive work of literature that deserves its status as a classic.