At last! I’ve been meaning to read the sequel to The Three Musketeers for about five years now and I regret not having read it earlier as I loved it every bit as much as I expected to. I’ve done my best to avoid any big spoilers here but if you haven’t read The Three Musketeers yet you might prefer not to read the rest of this post until you have.
Twenty Years After, as you might have guessed, is set twenty years after The Three Musketeers. The political situation in France has changed during this time period: Cardinal Richelieu is dead and has been succeeded by the Italian Cardinal Mazarin, who is in league with the widowed Anne of Austria, mother of the young King Louis XIV of France. The French people are divided between Mazarin’s supporters and his opponents, the Frondeurs, who are unhappy with the way the country is being run. As Twenty Years After begins, France is close to civil war and when Mazarin meets our old friend d’Artagnan and hears of the brave exploits he has performed in the past, he asks him for help, along with his companions, the three musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis.
D’Artagnan and his three friends have drifted apart over the years but he sets out to find them and invite them to join him in the Cardinal’s service. But while Porthos (hoping that Mazarin will reward him with a barony) is happy to go along with d’Artagnan, the other two have already taken the opposite side in the conflict. The story that follows is the story of how the friendship between d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis is tested by their differing political views and loyalties. Their work takes them to England, where King Charles I is facing capture and execution, and again they find themselves in opposition – but ultimately their loyalty is still to each other, especially when faced with a new enemy in the form of Mordaunt, the son of Milady, the previous book’s villain.
I found Twenty Years After a much more complex book than The Three Musketeers; I’m completely unfamiliar with this period of French history and even after finishing the book I’m not sure I really understood all of the historical background or exactly which of the various princes and dukes was on which side of the conflict. It’s a more mature book too – the characters are twenty years older and have different motivations and priorities, which allows Dumas to explore some different ideas and themes. But there’s still plenty of swashbuckling adventure and I definitely thought this book was just as much fun to read as the first one. As in The Three Musketeers there are some great and memorable scenes and set pieces – the scene on the scaffold during the execution of Charles I is one of the best – and I also loved the sequence of chapters describing the imprisonment of the Duc de Beaufort and his attempts to escape (which involved a trained dog, lobsters, some tennis balls and a giant pie).
The novel begins with an introduction to Cardinal Mazarin, but we don’t have to wait too long until we meet d’Artagnan again, still a lieutenant in the musketeers and dreaming of a captaincy. The other three musketeers and their servants are then reintroduced gradually one by one: first d’Artagnan’s old valet, Planchet, then Aramis with Bazin, Porthos and Mousqueton, Athos and finally Grimaud. I was a bit disappointed, though, that I had read more than 200 pages before all four of our heroes were reunited and together again in the same scene. And that was really the only problem I had with this book – the fact that throughout most of the story the four are divided into two pairs working towards different goals, with Porthos and d’Artagnan on one side and Athos and Aramis on the other.
The basic personality traits of the musketeers are the same, but they have also changed in many ways since the previous book, which is what you would expect after a gap of twenty years. D’Artagnan has matured from the naïve, passionate, brave young man we met in The Three Musketeers into a clever, cunning, quick-thinking man of forty who is now the natural leader of the group. Aramis has fulfilled his ambition of entering the church but isn’t fully committed, still being too interested in women and fighting. As d’Artagnan tells him, “when you were a musketeer you were forever becoming the abbé, and now you are an abbé you appear to me to have a strong leaning to the musketeers.”
Athos was my favourite character in The Three Musketeers but in this book he has become so honourable and saintly that I found him very frustrating at times. I still liked him but I much preferred the younger Athos of the wine cellar and the Bastion Saint-Gervais! In contrast, Porthos, who was never the brightest of the four, seems to have become even less intelligent. I’m sure he wasn’t quite as stupid in the first book! It does result in some great comedy moments though, and I do admire Dumas for making changes rather than leaving his characters static and undeveloped. It was also good to see that the musketeers’ four servants are given more personality in this book, particularly Grimaud and Mousqueton who even have some separate adventures of their own.
As I expected, Twenty Years After has definitely been one of my most enjoyable reads of the year! The Vicomte de Bragelonne awaits…