The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (re-read)

When I joined the Classics Club in 2012 and put together the list of books I wanted to read, I decided that, whichever order I read the others in, I would save my re-read of The Count of Monte Cristo until last. It’s one of my favourite books (I had already read it twice) and I thought it would be something to look forward to, even if some of the other classics on my list turned out to be disappointing.

Picking it up to start reading for the third time, I did have a few doubts – there’s always a chance that a book you once loved might have lost its magic – but of course I needn’t have worried. The opening line (“On the 24th of February 1815, the lookout at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples”) is hardly the most scintillating or memorable in literature but reading it, knowing what is to come, gives me the same feeling as when I re-read the first line of other favourite books, such as Rebecca (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”), Jane Eyre (“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day”) or Watership Down (“The primroses were over”).

Anyway, back to The Count of Monte Cristo! Our hero, or anti-hero (he can be considered to be both), is Edmond Dantès, a young sailor who, at the beginning of the novel, feels that he is the luckiest man in the world. Not only is his marriage to the beautiful Mercédès approaching, but following the death of his captain, he is also about to be given a ship to command. Things couldn’t be better…until the day of his wedding, when he is arrested on suspicion of conspiring against the king with the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. Of course, Edmond has done nothing of the sort – it is all part of a plot by his jealous shipmate, Danglars, and his rival for Mercédès’ love, Fernand Mondego.

A third man, Villefort, has reasons of his own for wanting Dantès imprisoned and safely out of the way, so with these three enemies ranged against him, Edmond is thrown into a dungeon in the Château d’If where he remains for the next fourteen years. Although he does eventually find a way to escape, his life has been ruined: all of his hopes and dreams have been destroyed, Mercédès is lost to him and he can never get back the years of his youth that have been stolen from him. Vowing to punish his enemies for what they have done, Edmond transforms himself into the Count of Monte Cristo and launches an intricate and carefully planned system of revenge.

The events I have described above take up only a relatively small section of the novel; most of the book is devoted to following the Count as he sets his plans into action. It takes a long time before he begins to see results, but if there is one thing he has learned in prison it is how to be patient – and so he is prepared to spend years devising the perfect methods of revenge. This means the reader is faced with a series of seemingly unrelated subplots and a huge cast of characters; it can be quite overwhelming on a first read, but when you’re reading for the second or third time you can appreciate how things that appear to be irrelevant actually have great significance. This time round, without the same urgency to turn the pages to ‘see what happens next’, I was able to read at a slower pace and enjoy some of the episodes I had previously seen as unnecessarily long digressions, such as Franz and Albert’s adventures in Rome, La Carconte and the diamond ring, and the story of the bandit Luigi Vampa.

Does the Count achieve his aims – and is he happy with the final outcome? I’m not going to tell you (and if you haven’t read the book I’m sure you don’t want me to) but I will say that he does have some doubts along the way, particularly when he discovers that innocent people he never intended to hurt have also become caught up in his web of revenge. “What a fool I was,” said he, “not to tear my heart out on the day I resolved to avenge myself”. I always find it sad to see how he has changed as a result of his imprisonment – when we first meet him again after his escape from the Château d’If, the lively, optimistic young man has disappeared, to be replaced by someone much more cynical and bitter – but towards the end of the book there are signs that the old Edmond is still there, beneath the surface. Most people think of this as a revenge novel, which it certainly is, but we should remember that the Count also takes care to help and reward the friends who stayed loyal to him throughout everything.

Although The Count of Monte Cristo was published around the same time as Dumas’ d’Artagnan series, I think this is a much more mature novel, dealing with serious issues and raising some thought-provoking questions. There are moments of reflection and philosophy like this:

“The friends that we have lost do not repose in the bosom of the earth, but are buried deep in our hearts, and it has been thus ordained that we may always be accompanied by them.”

And this:

“It is the way of weakened minds to see everything through a black cloud. The soul forms its own horizons; your soul is darkened, and consequently the sky of the future appears stormy and unpromising.”

And this:

“Joy to hearts which have suffered long is like the dew on the ground after a long drought; both the heart and the ground absorb that beneficent moisture falling on them, and nothing is outwardly apparent.”

The novel takes the reader through a range of emotions, from anger to pity to frustration to sadness (some of Edmond’s scenes with a certain other character always bring tears to my eyes, thinking of everything he has lost and can never regain). As always with Dumas, though, you can expect an exciting and entertaining read, so there are also murders, poisonings, court cases and duels, thefts, anonymous letters, illegitimate children and searches for buried treasure. Not everything that happens feels entirely realistic and you do need to suspend disbelief now and then, but I don’t mind that when a book is so enjoyable to read.

I haven’t said very much about the other characters in the book (and apart from Edmond Dantès himself, whom I have always found fascinating and complex), I have to admit that most of them don’t have a lot of depth. There are two, however, that I do particularly love. The first is the Abbé Faria, a fellow prisoner of Edmond’s in the Château d’If, an extraordinary man who acts as inspiration, adviser and teacher to Edmond and without whom he would have lost the will to live. The other is Monsieur Noirtier, an elderly man who has been left unable to walk and talk, but who devises an unusual form of communication and forms a special bond with his granddaughter, Valentine.

There is so much more I would like to say about this wonderful book, but I would have to give spoiler warnings, and I think this post is long enough now anyway! I will leave you to read The Count of Monte Cristo for yourself, if you haven’t already. I know the length of the book can seem off-putting, but I wouldn’t recommend reading an abridged edition as the story is so complex I think you would be missing out on a lot.

This is book 100/100 read for the Classics Club, which means I have now completed my list! I’ll be posting a summary of my Classics Club experience soon.

The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas

the-red-sphinx Well, it may be only January but I think I already know one book which will be appearing on my books of the year list this December! Having read and enjoyed all of Alexandre Dumas’ d’Artagnan novels over the last few years (beginning with a re-read of The Three Musketeers and ending with The Man in the Iron Mask), imagine my delight when I discovered that Dumas had written yet another Musketeers sequel – The Red Sphinx, which is being made available in a new English translation this month. Bearing in mind that this is a later Dumas novel, written towards the end of his career on the urging of his publishers, I was pleased to find, almost as soon as I started reading, that it was living up to my expectations!

I don’t think it’s at all necessary to have read The Three Musketeers first; The Red Sphinx is set in the same world – that is, in the 17th century at the court of Louis XIII of France – but it also stands alone and if you’re hoping to be reacquainted with d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, you’ll be disappointed as the four friends don’t appear at all in this book. However, it does contain many of the same elements that made the original novel so much fun to read. There are dashing young heroes and beautiful heroines; duels, battles and sieges; spies and smugglers; secret messages, clever disguises, letters written in code – and political and romantic intrigue in abundance.

Beginning only a few weeks after the events of The Three Musketeers ended, the novel opens in Paris at the Inn of the Painted Beard where a hunchbacked marquis is trying to persuade swordsman Etienne Latil to assassinate a rival. When Latil hears that the man he is required to kill is the Comte de Moret, illegitimate son of the late King Henri IV, he refuses to accept the mission and a fight breaks out during which both Latil and the marquis are injured. As fate would have it, upstairs in the inn at that very moment are the Comte de Moret himself and one of the Queen’s ladies, who have met in disguise to arrange for Moret to attend a meeting with the Queen.

cardinal-richelieu

Cardinal Richelieu

At the meeting, Moret, who has only recently returned to France from Italy, delivers some letters to the Queen, Anne of Austria, the King’s mother Marie de’ Medici, and the King’s brother, Gaston d’Orleans, and learns that they are plotting the downfall of Cardinal Richelieu, the Red Sphinx of the title. Now, in The Three Musketeers, the Cardinal is portrayed as a villain; in The Red Sphinx, he is very much a hero. With an intelligence network stretching across half of Europe, he is shown to be a formidably clever man but also a loyal one who always acts with France’s best interests at heart – and although he’s accused of having too much influence over the king, it’s evident that he is trying to use his influence for the good of the country.

I can’t possibly describe the plot of this novel in any more detail; it’s so complex that I wouldn’t know where to start. I think it’s enough to say that most of it is devoted to the power struggle between Cardinal Richelieu and his allies on one side and the two queens and Gaston d’Orleans on the other, with the ineffectual young king caught in the middle. Dumas spends a lot of time introducing us to each character who plays a part in the story, even the minor ones, and although this makes the book longer than it probably needed to be, I didn’t mind because the amusing anecdotes he provides about them are so entertaining. He also includes whole chapters dedicated to explaining the political situation in France and across Europe or to describing the progress of key battles – and I’ll confess to not finding these very interesting. In general, though, I thought the balance was right and despite the length of the book it held my attention from beginning to end.

One important thing to know about The Red Sphinx is that it was never actually finished! In his introduction to the new edition, Lawrence Ellsworth (who is also responsible for the wonderful translation) suggests that maybe Dumas struggled to write an ending because he had already done this in an earlier work. This means that the novel comes to a rather abrupt end with several plot points left unresolved. Annoying – but not as annoying as it could have been, because Ellsworth comes to the rescue by pairing The Red Sphinx with another little-known Dumas work, The Dove. This is a short story (actually more of a novella) which continues the adventures of two of our main characters, the Comte de Moret and Isabelle de Lautrec, and brings at least some of the threads of the story to a satisfying conclusion.

The Dove was written earlier in Dumas’ career than The Red Sphinx and has a very different feel, being told in the form of letters carried by a dove. It’s an unashamedly sentimental story, but I loved it. I found it beautifully romantic and perfectly paced, with the suspense building and building from one letter to the next.

I will, of course, be reading more by Dumas – I have an upcoming re-read of one of my favourite books, The Count of Monte Cristo, planned – but I was also so impressed by Lawrence Ellsworth’s translation that I’ve had a look to see what else he has done. It seems that he has also edited The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, which sounds very appealing. One to add to the wishlist, I think!

Thanks to Pegasus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas

the-man-in-the-iron-mask I had considered starting 2017 by posting some reading plans and resolutions but, to be honest, after failing to keep most of last year’s, I don’t want to make any for this year. I do have one goal for 2017, though: I would like every book I read to be a potential book of the year. That’s unrealistic, I know, but it’s something to keep in mind when I’m choosing which books to read and when I’m deciding whether or not it’s worth continuing with a book I’m not enjoying. And I’m already off to a great start with my first January read – The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas! I’m looking forward to telling you about that one after I’ve finished reading it, but in the meantime here are my thoughts on another Dumas novel I read just before Christmas.

The Man in the Iron Mask is the last book in the d’Artagnan series which began with The Three Musketeers and continued with Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne and Louise de la Vallière. The final three in the series were originally published as one novel, which must have been enormous; it’s easy to see why most publishers now split it into separate volumes! I think most people probably just go straight from The Three Musketeers to The Man in the Iron Mask – after all, they are the two best known and the most often filmed of the d’Artagnan stories – but I don’t regret having taken the time to read the ones in between. I did enjoy them all, particularly Twenty Years After, and it meant that I went into this, the final book, with the background knowledge I needed to be able to get straight into the story.

Unlike The Vicomte and Louise, which deal mainly with the political and romantic intrigues of various members of the 17th century French court, in The Man in the Iron Mask, the focus returns to d’Artagnan and his three friends, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. The first half of the novel revolves around Aramis and a plot involving a man imprisoned in the Bastille who bears a striking resemblance to the King of France. I won’t say too much about this as I wouldn’t want to spoil the story for future readers, but suffice it to say that things don’t go exactly as according to plan and both Aramis and Porthos (who, as usual, has become implicated in the schemes of others while blissfully unaware of what is really going on) find themselves in trouble.

We then catch up with Raoul, the young Vicomte de Bragelonne, who is trying to come to terms with the discovery that his beloved Louise de la Vallière is now the mistress of Louis XIV. Devastated by the loss of Louise, Raoul agrees to accompany the Duc de Beaufort on an expedition to Africa. How will his father, Athos, cope in his absence? D’Artagnan, meanwhile, has remained loyal to the king and for much of this novel he is caught up in the final power struggle between the two rival finance ministers, Fouquet and Colbert. When his duties bring him into conflict with Aramis and Porthos, however, d’Artagnan must find a way to serve his king without betraying his friends.

This is a much more exciting, action-packed book than the two preceding ones. The actual ‘man in the iron mask’ has a relatively small role to play but the plot has serious consequences which are explored throughout the remainder of the novel as we follow our old friends, the musketeers, to the end of their careers. I was pleased to see so much more of d’Artagnan and his friends than we did in the last two books, but I was disappointed by the lack of scenes with all four together (it was the relationship between the four of them, in my opinion, that made the first Musketeers novel such a joy to read) and that Athos’ storyline seemed to barely intersect with the others. Athos was my favourite character in the original Musketeers book and I really dislike the direction Dumas took him in throughout the later books in the series, particularly after Raoul became more prominent in the story. It’s funny that Aramis, my least favourite, ended up being the character I found the most interesting!

Towards the end, The Man in the Iron Mask also becomes a very sad book; after spending so much time with these characters – literally thousands of pages over the last few years – I didn’t want to have to say goodbye to any of them. Dumas ties things up very neatly in the final chapters…a bit too neatly for me; I would have preferred a happier ending with more left to the imagination! Still, I did enjoy this book and was delighted to discover that Dumas had written yet another, often forgotten, sequel to The Three Musketeers. It’s called The Red Sphinx and is being made available in a new English translation this month. I’m reading it now and am pleased to say that so far it’s definitely living up to my expectations!

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas

Louise de la Valliere Louise de la Vallière is the fourth book (or in some cases, the fifth – more on that later) in the series of d’Artagnan novels which began with The Three Musketeers. Looking at other readers’ reviews, this seems to be one of the least popular books in the series and I can understand why, even though I did enjoy it.

In Louise de la Vallière, the story is picked up directly where the previous book, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, ended and follows all the romance and intrigue of the court of Louis XIV. As the novel opens, the king’s brother, Philippe (known as Monsieur), has just married Charles II’s sister, Henrietta of England (Madame). An instant attraction has formed between the king and his new sister-in-law, so to avert suspicion they decide that Louis will pretend to turn his attentions to Louise de la Vallière, Madame’s young lady-in-waiting. Things don’t go exactly according to plan, however, and the king and Louise end up really falling in love with each other, breaking the heart of poor Raoul, the Vicomte of Bragelonne, who was hoping to marry Louise.

Apart from a few brief scenes here and there, there’s an almost total absence in Louise de la Vallière of the swashbuckling action and adventure which formed such a large part of the earlier volumes of the series. This could be disappointing if you’re expecting more of the same, but I do think the antics of Louis’ court are fun to read too. It’s amusing to watch the king’s desperate attempts to steal some time alone with Louise – passing letters hidden in handkerchiefs, climbing ladders to reach her window and installing secret staircases in her room!

What does all of this have to do with d’Artagnan, you may be asking? Well, the answer is – very little. He does appear from time to time, but this is not really his story. We don’t see much of Athos or Porthos either, although what we do see assures us that they are still the same characters we know and love: Athos is still noble and honourable, while Porthos is still the gentle giant, as good-natured and trusting as ever. I didn’t care for Aramis in this book, though – he’s preoccupied with a mysterious prisoner in the Bastille and when we do see him, he’s plotting and scheming, reluctant to confide in his fellow musketeers. His storyline ends on a cliffhanger which has left me wanting to start The Man in the Iron Mask as soon as possible!

Now, a note on the structure of this series. The first two books are The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, which I have written about in previous posts. The third book was originally intended to be one very long novel, but most publishers now split it into three: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, then Louise de la Vallière and finally The Man in the Iron Mask. Some versions (such as the free Project Gutenberg ebooks – see the notes here), split the chapters differently, including an extra volume, Ten Years Later, between The Vicomte and Louise. Be sure to check the editions you’re reading or you could miss part of the story.

This may not have been my favourite Musketeer novel, then, but I did still find a lot to like about it and can’t wait to finish the series with The Man in the Iron Mask.

My Commonplace Book: August 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

Margaret Beaufort

She could have asked, of course, but she would not get any answers. She thought of all the words that went unspoken in the world, throughout time: what happened to them, where did they go? What would happen if they were all spoken? How different would the world be then?

Succession by Livi Michael (2014)

~

“Molly, I cannot have you speaking so to Lady Harriet,” said Mrs. Gibson, as soon as she was left alone with her stepdaughter. “You would never have known her at all if it had not been for me, and don’t be always putting yourself into our conversation.”

“But I must speak if she asks me questions,” pleaded Molly.

“Well! if you must, you must, I acknowledge. I’m candid about that at any rate. But there’s no need for you to set up to have an opinion at your age.”

“I don’t know how to help it,” said Molly.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)

~

I know very little about my mother, and have no family to help me fill in the gaps. I am an only child and my father’s two elder sisters died several years ago. I am intrigued by this photograph and would like to find out more about the people in it…I hope you don’t mind me asking all these questions. Any information you could offer would mean a great deal to me.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (2011)

~

Penny dreadful

Since cheap magazines were traded on street corners, in playgrounds and factory yards, each issue could have many readers. Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale (2016)

~

It can’t have been much of a life, can it? for a woman of over seventy, living alone in lodgings, in debt to her landlady, wearing our cast-off clothes, trotting round after jobs that never materialised, writing articles that nobody would publish, and eating bread and margarine for supper. There really was something rather pathetic about that awful room of hers – crowded with papers full of impossible schemes…I don’t suppose there can ever have been anyone whose life was much less important, or who had less influence on anybody else.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)

~

It was something he’d learned in the war: only think about what is directly in front of you. No, that wasn’t quite right. He’d had to plan ahead all the time…but not to feel ahead. For a man of Giles’s far-seeing, intricate temperament that had been a hard lesson. But Simon, he could see, knew it by instinct.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore (2016)

~

Red Cocker Spaniel

Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been — all that; and he — But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.

Flush by Virginia Woolf (1933)

~

“I play,” he once said to me, “for the best musician in the world – he may not be there, but I play as if he were”. I thought to myself that he was always there when Sebastian was playing, but I did not say so, for that was the kind of thing which did not please him.

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell (1925)

~

It is quite beautiful, a metaphoric triumph over adversity, with every millimetre of its gnarled trunk proudly displaying its struggle.
I wonder now why humans hate the map of their life that appears on their own bodies, when a tree like this, or a faded painting, or a near-derelict uninhabited building is lauded for its antiquity.

The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley (2016)

~

I cannot say – I had misjudged him before – yet I do think, in that moment, he had his battle to fight – one fierce as his fiercest charge. Cosmas waited, devouring him with his eyes. And I waited; a sudden, amazing sense springing up in me, that if he yielded, as I had so desired him to yield, this King who might be would never be the Prince whom I had served and loved.

Rupert, by the Grace of God by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1899)

~

louisedelavalliere

“Life, monsieur,” said Planchet, laughing, “is capital which a man ought to invest as sensibly as he possibly can.”

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

~

Hélène wondered whether the lady was protesting a bit too much in order to convince her, or to convince herself. Could she start a new life at her age? You can start a new game of cards or redecorate the living room, but life itself, can you do that again?

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat (2013)

~

And now? Overseas in England, his brethren in the faith were fighting, were dying, to achieve the freedom which he had sought. Before his eyes rose the grey, thronged sea-port town he knew, the richer fields, the narrower skies; and yet here, in this strenuous bleakness, he had found his soul.

Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1903)

~

Love for her was to be a slow, ripening process, the fruit of many meetings and mutual interests. She had never believed in love at first sight. That surely, she told herself, was an invention of novelists, whose business it was to make everything slightly larger than life.

The Jewelled Snuff Box by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1959)

~

Fountains Abbey 1

The queen responded a week later. “We are sending a young gentleman up to Yorkshire to resolve the matter. We do not wish to hear from you again.”

It was a measure of Mr Aislabie’s poor standing at court that I was the young gentleman in question.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson (2016)

~

Favourite books this month: Wives and Daughters, Flush and Exposure

The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas

The Vicomte de Bragelonne This is the third Dumas novel to feature d’Artagnan and his three friends, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Originally published in serial form as part of a much longer book, it is now usually split into three volumes of which The Vicomte de Bragelonne is the first and Louise de la Vallière and The Man in the Iron Mask are the others. As Dumas is one of my favourite authors I was fully expecting to love this book – and I did, although it was not quite as satisfying as the first two d’Artagnan novels – The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After.

The first thing to say about The Vicomte de Bragelonne is that it is not really about the Vicomte de Bragelonne! He does appear near the beginning and again near the end, but his role in the story is not really any more significant than any number of other characters. The next thing I should say is that any reader hoping to find the four friends working together again in the spirit of “all for one and one for all” will be disappointed; we do see quite a lot of Athos, but Porthos and Aramis only come into the story very briefly towards the end.

So, what is this book about, then? Well, possibly because this is only one section of a longer work, it’s difficult to give a summary of the plot. The first half of the novel concentrates mainly on d’Artagnan and Athos who are working on two separate schemes both designed to restore Charles II to the throne of England. History tells us that the restoration would be accomplished – though not quite in the way described in this book, which is much more fun than what actually happened!

Later in the book we learn that Aramis and Porthos seem to be helping the Superintendent of Finances, Monsieur Fouquet, to build fortifications on the island of Belle-Île. We don’t find out exactly what they are up to, however, and this part of the story is left shrouded in mystery, presumably to be developed in the next two novels. Finally, there’s the storyline involving the title character, Raoul (the Vicomte), and his love for Louise de la Vallière.

The gaps between these three subplots are filled with lots of chapters detailing the political situation in France in the 1660s (particularly the death of Cardinal Mazarin and the rivalry between Fouquet and Louis XIV’s new Minister of Finance, Colbert) and the romantic intrigues of the French court (revolving around the King’s marriage and also his brother’s marriage to Charles II’s sister, Henrietta). All of this makes The Vicomte de Bragelonne a heavier, slower read than the previous two novels, but I didn’t find it boring at all – I love the way Dumas writes and I love French history, so I didn’t really mind the fact that there was less swashbuckling action and that we don’t see as much of d’Artagnan’s friends.

Of course, where history (or even geography) is concerned it can’t always be assumed that everything in a Dumas novel is completely accurate. I was amazed to find that in Dumas’ world the city of Newcastle had suddenly been transported from the River Tyne to the banks of the River Tweed sixty miles to the north! Dumas also tends to change dates or rearrange the sequence of events whenever the story calls for it as well, though I’m sure I wouldn’t have even noticed most of these alterations if I hadn’t been referring to the notes at the back of the book. I’m pleased to say, by the way, that the notes in the Oxford World’s Classics edition didn’t spoil any of the story – although I avoided the introduction just in case.

As The Vicomte de Bragelonne doesn’t stand alone as a complete novel and wasn’t originally intended to, there are a lot of things left unresolved at the end of the book, as you would expect. I’m looking forward to continuing the story soon with Louise de la Vallière!

Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas

Twenty Years After 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…