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.

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…

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (re-read)

The Three Musketeers One of my goals for 2013 was to re-read more of my favourite books, something I’ve been neglecting in recent years. Well, here we are in the middle of April and so far I’ve only re-read one!

The Three Musketeers may be the title, but our hero is not a musketeer when we first meet him at the beginning of the novel, in the year 1625; his name is d’Artagnan and he’s a young man from Gascony in France, on his way to Paris where he hopes to join the King’s Musketeers under the command of Monsieur de Tréville. On his arrival in Paris, d’Artagnan encounters three of the musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis – in one of those wonderful openings to a book that once you’ve read you’re unlikely ever to forget.

Soon d’Artagnan and the three musketeers become the best of friends, and when d’Artagnan meets and falls in love with Constance Bonancieux, one of the Queen of France’s ladies, all four of them are drawn into the intrigue surrounding the Queen’s affair with the powerful English nobleman, the Duke of Buckingham. With the King’s advisor, Cardinal Richelieu, hoping to expose the affair, Constance, d’Artagnan and his three friends become targets of the Cardinal and his spy, the beautiful Lady de Winter. But Milady, as she is known, is hiding a secret of her own and if d’Artagnan discovers the truth, he and Constance could find themselves in even greater danger.

I first read The Three Musketeers five years ago and when I finished it I had intended to read the other books in the trilogy (the second is Twenty Years After and third is the three-volume The Vicomte de Bragelonne/Louise de la Valliere/The Man in the Iron Mask) but as so often happens other books got in the way and I never did get around to continuing with the d’Artagnan series. And so when I made my list for the Classics Club I put all of them on there – along with a re-read of The Three Musketeers as I thought it would be a good idea to remind myself of the characters and story before embarking on Twenty Years After – and anyway, I never need an excuse to re-read a book that I enjoyed so much the first time!

I love Alexandre Dumas and although The Three Musketeers is not my favourite of the three novels of his that I’ve read (that would be The Count of Monte Cristo) I still think it’s a wonderful book with some great characters. The musketeers all have such different personalities: the aristocratic, melancholy Athos, the loud, brash Porthos, the fastidious would-be priest, Aramis, and of course, the brave, passionate d’Artagnan. Everyone will be able to pick a favourite musketeer, and mine is Athos. In her recent post on The Count of Monte Cristo, Lisa compared the character of Edmond Dantes with Francis Crawford of Lymond from the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett (two other great fictional characters, by the way); I agree, but I can also see some of Athos’ character traits in Lymond too, especially during one of the most memorable set pieces in the book, where the four friends eat breakfast in a fortress surrounded by enemy soldiers because it’s the only place they can find to talk in private.

It seems five years is a good length of time to wait between re-reads of a book. I had forgotten enough so that I could be surprised by the twists and turns of the plot, but remembered just enough to be able to look forward to some of my favourite parts: the breakfast scene I mentioned above, the episode with the Queen’s diamond studs, and especially the sequence of chapters in the middle (entitled Porthos, The Thesis of Aramis and The Wife of Athos) which is just a joy to read. The friendship between d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis is so inspiring and heartwarming (all for one, one for all!) and this is why, for me, there’s a change in the tone of the book when towards the end, the focus switches from the musketeers to Milady and I don’t enjoy the final third quite as much as the first two thirds.

Now, a note on the translation. I read the Wordsworth Classics edition of The Three Musketeers which uses the first English translation by William Barrow in 1846 (I think this is also the one used by Oxford World’s Classics). I would be interested to try a newer translation, such as Richard Pevear’s, to see how it compares – and also because I’m aware that the older translations altered certain parts of Dumas’ original text because they considered it too sexually explicit for Victorian readers. I can see that some readers today would probably find the Barrow translation too literal and antiquated but I didn’t have a problem with it at all; I actually quite like the way the sentences are constructed and I think it has a certain romantic, old-fashioned quaintness about it.

I’ll be moving on to Twenty Years After very soon!