Sunday, November 10, 2013

Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas

            This book is the sequel to The Three Musketeers.

            In the previous post, I gave my history with The Three Musketeers and some of my thoughts on the style and substance of the Three Musketeers series generally.  I’ll try not to needlessly repeat myself here, but most of what I said in the previous post applies to this book as well.  As before, I continue to be impressed by the story-telling qualities of Alexandre Dumas.  As before, I continue to find these books so modern in terms of story and pacing that it feels more like a modern-day paperback than a 200 year old classic.
            And as before, I continue to enjoy the story-telling element of these books despite not really sharing the values or politics of the protagonists.

            But since I said all that previously, let me focus on what is unique to this book.
The Review
          Everyone knows about The Three Musketeers.  And most people at least recognize The Man in the Iron Mask (the last book in the Three Musketeers series.)  But the books in the middle seem to be largely forgotten.  Few people are familiar with Twenty Years After.
            (In fact, while I was reading this book, I was made very aware of how few people recognize Twenty Years After.  Over the past few weeks, whenever a friend or co-worker asked to see what I was reading, not one person recognized the title.)
            The Wikipedia page, as of this writing, expresses some confusion over why this sequel is so little known despite the fact that it works very effectively as a follow-up to the original book. ( This book is the least well-known of the Musketeer saga but works effectively as a sequel, with reappearances by most main characters (or children of main characters) and a number of subplots.)
            Well, perhaps I can offer a couple observations.
            The sequel requires a little bit more patience than the original book.  The original Three Musketeers starts off immediately with a fight, and then continues to keep the pacing fast and the action plenty as D’artagnan dashes from one fight to another.

            Twenty Years After, by contrast, has a slow start. After beginning with the complexities of French politics during the Fronde (W), there is an extended “Where Are They Now?” round-up narrative in which D’Artagnan travels around to collect each of his old friends. 
            (I suspect this is already obvious from the title, but just to state the obvious: this sequel takes place 20 years after the original book.  The Musketeers are all middle-aged now, and have gone their separate ways.)
            It takes about 200 pages before all 4 of the protagonists are assembled, and then finally the story can truly begin.

            The history in Twenty Years After is also more complex.  The book takes place in 1648-1649, a period when both France and England were undergoing civil wars.  Over the course of the book, the Musketeers find themselves involved in both conflicts and this requires the reader to keep track of the politics of both conflicts.
            I’m enough of a history geek to find these civil wars quite interesting, but that’s just me.  It’s quite possible that another reader, someone who is only interested in these books for the action and adventure, would get frustrated by all the chapters describing the politicians scheming against each other.

            However, with those caveats aside, if you have the patience to wade through the politics of the Fronde period, and also the extended round-up narrative at the beginning, then you will find this book does not disappoint. 
            The first 200 pages move pretty slowly, but after you get through the initial set-up, then the story takes off pretty well from there.  I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but there’s lots of action, some great cloak-and-dagger intrigue, and a couple of really good escape scenes.

The History (Warning: Spoilers)
          This book deals with both a civil war in France (the Fronde) and a civil war in England.  The Fronde I know absolutely nothing about.  The civil war in England, however, I - am - somewhat - familiar - with.  I’ll comment a bit on my reaction to the historical sections of these books, but be warned, there are plot spoilers ahead.

1. The Fronde
            Since I don’t know anything about the Fronde period in France, I’ll leave it to others to comment on the historical accuracy of Dumas’s portrayal.  (I know Dumas likes to mix fiction with real history, so I’m treating the history in these sections with caution, but I don’t know enough to determine on my own what is real and what is not.)
            What I will say, though, is that I thoroughly enjoyed the story.
            In the original Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu (W) was presented as the master schemer in government.  By the time of Twenty Years After, Richelieu is dead, and instead Cardinal Mazarin holds Richelieu’s former position.
            Cardinal Mazarin (W), the narrator explicitly tells us, is not the equal of Richelieu.  Cardinal Richelieu could dominate and control the various factions in the French society, but Mazarin only has a tenuous grip on his power.
            Nevertheless, in terms of the story Mazarin plays much the same part as Richelieu played.  He is the ultimate schemer who concocts plot after plot to ensure his power. 

            But what makes Twenty Years After different is that this time there are two scheming churchman.  There’s Cardinal Mazarin on the side of the royal family, but on the side of the Frondeurs there is the Coadjutor Gondi (W).
            Mazarin schemes to keep order in Paris and preserve his position, Gondi schemes to bring about civil disorder in Paris and topple Mazarin. Gondi is every bit Mazarin’s equal, and the city of Paris lurches from one crisis to the next as both men scheme against each other.
            And, caught up in the middle of everything are the 4 Musketeers.

            In the original book, everything was a lot more clear-cut.  Cardinal Richelieu was the enemy, and the Musketeers had to save the Queen’s honor from Richelieu’s schemes.
            Here, the Musketeers are caught between two equally Machiavellian scheming churchman, and it’s unclear who they should side with.
            All of this comes to a head one night when Coadjutor Gondi is snubbed at court by Cardinal Mazarin, and then Gondi leaves plotting his revenge while Mazarin takes D’Artagnan aside to tell him to watch Gondi.
            In response, D’artagnan turns to Porthos and says, “The Devil! That’s getting bad ; I do not like quarrels between churchmen. 
            And at this point the Musketeers have a good idea that the rift between these two churchman is not going to be smoothed over, and Paris is about to erupt.

            The interesting thing about this civil war is the way it splits the Musketeers down the middle.  D’Artagnan and Porthos side with Mazarin and the royal family, Athos and Aramis side with Gondy and the Frondeurs.
            In fact, there’s a great scene which occurs after the Duc de Beaufort (W), one of the Frondeurs, has been sprung from prison.  Athos and Porthos have been working to help Beaufort escape, while D’Artagnan and Porthos are, on Mazarin’s orders, trying to re-capture Beaufort.  Neither group knows that their friends are on the other side, and during the middle of the fighting the 4 Musketeers suddenly find themselves face to face with each other.
            [Digression: I know that the whole subplot with the Duc de Beaufort ended up just fizzling out and not going anywhere (which was pretty surprising since his character’s story arch dominated the middle of the book—perhaps its one of the indications this book was originally published in serial form), but I still enjoyed the whole story arch about the Duc de Beaufort’s prison escape.  The whole lead up to the Duc de Beaufort’s escape, and the suspense created around it, was really great.  I also liked the irony that the Duc de Beaufort was just as vain and as stubborn as Cardinal Mazarin, the man who had put him into prison. So instead of the typical prison escape story—a story about a good and kind man wrongly imprisoned—the story is about Athos and Aramis where putting all this effort into freeing a man who probably doesn’t deserve their help, but they still recognized his symbolic value for the Frondeur cause anyway.]

2. The English Civil War
          The Fronde conflict in France is portrayed (somewhat) sympathetically.  The people are shown as having legitimate grievances against the policies of Mazarin and Queen Anne, and the Fronde cause has enough merit to attract 2 out of the 4 Musketeers. 
            It’s not an idealistic portrayal of a popular uprising—at the end of the story we find that the actual leaders of the Fronde movement are just as greedy and selfish as their opponents.  But at least Dumas treats the conflict with an equal amount of cynicism towards both sides.
            This balance however completely disappears once we cross the English Channel.  There is no attempt to balance the legitimate complaints of the Parliamentary party against the plight of King Charles.  Instead the English Civil War is portrayed in terms of pure good versus pure evil.  The monarchy is portrayed as good, and the Puritan republicans as evil.
            The Musketeers themselves are all unashamedly monarchists.  In chapter 24, Athos gives his son a speech about how although the King himself may make mistakes, the idea of monarchy is to be always protected and revered. 
            Initially, Athos and Aramis go to aid King Charles out of their respect for the sacred tradition of Monarchy.  D’Artagnan and Porthos, on the other hand, are ordered by Mazarin to serve as emissaries to Cromwell, but in chapter 60 the 4 Musketeers confront each other and Athos rebukes D’Artagnan for not helping the King Charles.  D’Artagnan replies:
            And how, after all, does it concern me that M. Cromwell, who is an Englishman, should rebel against his king, who is Scotch?  I am a Frenchman; these things do not concern me.  Why, then, should you make me responsible for them?”
            To which Athos replies:
            “Because all gentlemen are brothers. You are a gentlemen, and kings of all countries are the first among gentlemen. Because the blind and ungrateful populace always delight in bringing down what is higher; and it is you—you, D’Artagnan, the man of high birth, good name, and of great bravery, who have helped to hand over a king to sellers of beer, tailors, and wagoners! Ah, D’Artagnan, as a soldier you have perhaps done your duty, but as a gentleman you are culpable.
            This sentiment, that the republican cause is less reputable than the King Charles’s cause because the republicans are made up of common tradesmen, occurs repeatedly throughout the book.
            [There’s a double standard going on here, because back in France, Athos and Aramis had sided with the Frondeurs against the French royal family.  In the case of the Frondeur conflict, Athos and Aramis were able to justify this by claiming that they were not rebelling against the personage of the King himself, but only against the King’s policy makers.  In the initial stages of the English Civil War, the same logic was used by the many in the Parliamentary forces, but Dumas completely ignores this subtlety.]

            Of course I know that in and of itself the characters’ opinions don’t always reflect the author’s opinions.  But what’s more revealing is how Dumas frames the whole story.  King Charles is portrayed in this book much in the same way his propagandists always portrayed him during the Restoration Period—as an innocent martyr.  The Puritans and republicans, by contrast, are always portrayed as bloodthirsty thugs.  During the king’s trial, the narrator himself while often break into the story to editorialize about how unfairly King Charles was being treated.
            In other words, it’s not just the opinions of the characters—the whole book has an anti-republican sentiment.

            I’m not sure exactly what’s going on here.  According to Wikipedia, Dumas was a republican sympathizer and even participated in the July Revolution (W).  So he clearly can’t believe it’s wrong for a populace to rebel and overthrow a monarch, because he participated in it himself.  
            I’ve searched the Internet in vain to try and get some more insight into the intersection between Dumas’s personal sympathies, and the politics of Twenty Years After, and have come up with nothing.  If anyone out there can enlighten me, please do so.

            But if I had to make a guess, I would suspect Dumas was writing more as a dramatist than an ideologue and was simplifying the complexities of the English Revolution in order to make a good story, in the same way that English writers often did the same with the French Revolution.  Charles Dickens, for example, was content to simplify all the complexities of the French Revolution into a blood-thirsty lower-class mob  for the purposes of his story-telling.  (It’s worth remembering that Dumas wrote primarily because he was always desperate for money, and in the 1840s he may have judged the anti-republican themes to be the safer more marketable story.)

            And while I’m making comparisons with English authors, here’s something else that struck me:
            In Twenty Years After, King Charles is portrayed as being abandoned by all his friends and allies except for the 4 Musketeers, who are faithful to him until the end.  Several times in Twenty Years After, the book makes a big point of praising the bravery of these Frenchman who tirelessly tried to rescue the King from the scaffold even after all his own countrymen had abandoned him. 
            All of this reminded me of the English book The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which the hero of the book is an Englishman who tirelessly works to save helpless, but eternally grateful Frenchmen, from the guillotine. 
            How ironic that in the 19th Century, English authors were writing books about how brave Englishman saved helpless Frenchman from the bloodthirstiness of the French Revolution, while French authors were writing about how brave Frenchman saved helpless Englishman from the bloodthirstiness of the English Revolution.  (There’s probably some lesson to be learned here somewhere about the national biases of history.)

            And here’s another thing that makes me wonder if Dumas is taking his own portrayal of the English Civil War seriously:
            At the end of the original Three Musketeers, the Musketeers capture Milady and decide to appoint themselves tribunals and put Milady on trial for her crimes.  They had, of course, no legal authority for doing this, but they decided it was justified given the circumstances and given the de facto power that they held over Milady after they had ambushed and captured her.
            They acted both in dual capacity as both prosecutors and judges.  There was no one there to speak in Milady’s defense.  Once they had listed their grievances against Milady, they pronounced a sentence of death against her, took her outside, and promptly executed her.
            Ironically, however, this exact same form of justice is what the Musketeers  (and also the story’s narrator) find so repellant about King Charles’s trial. 
            In chapter 68, the narrator editorializes: “The Parliament condemned Charles Stuart to death, as it was easy to foresee. Political trials are always empty formalities, for the same passions which bring the accusation pronounce the judgment also.  Such is the terrible logic of revolutions.
            Well then, could not the same be said about Milady’s trial in which the same passions also brought both the accusation and the judgment?  Is Dumas deliberately being ironic, or is this a double standard?
            It’s possible this is just an oversight on Dumas’s part, but the thing that makes me suspect he’s being ironic is that he uses the same chapter titles for both procedures. In the Three Musketeers, chapter 65, in which Milady is condemned, is called The Trial.  In Twenty Years After, chapter 67 in which King Charles is condemned is also called The Trial.  Two very similar judicial circumstances—one in which the Musketeers and the narrator approve, one in which they do not.  Surely he must have realized the irony?  Or was he just writing these serialized chapters so fast that he didn’t have time to reflect on whether he was being consistent or not?

            Anyway, it is possible to do a long and lengthy rebuttal of how Dumas portrayed King Charles and the English Civil War.  But because I doubt whether Dumas is taking his own portrayal seriously, I’m not sure it’s worth to time and effort.   So I’ll just write the short version here.

            When looking at the origins of the Civil War, it is of course possible to put a certain amount of blame on both sides.  (If King Charles was obstinate. you could make the argument that John Pym (W) and his parliamentary supporters were equally so.)
            And Oliver Cromwell himself is difficult to defend, since once Cromwell came into power he would show himself to be every bit as tyrannically as King Charles had been.  (Although this criticism applies only to Cromwell himself, and not the other republican supporters, many of whom did stay true to their ideals.)
            And one more caveat: we need not wish the death of any man.  We can, like Thomas Paine, hold an anti-monarchist position but simultaneously wish that mercy be shown to deposed kings. 
            But this doesn’t mean that Charles Stuart was innocent of the charges brought against him.

            Charles Stuart started the Civil War in England by attempting an armed coup in which he planned to take control of London and put dissenting parliamentary members in jail.  His attempted coup-de-etat failed because Pym’s city supporters and Parliamentary round-heads were too well organized.
            Even after the start of the Civil War was a fait accompli, there were several points during the course of the war when the Parliamentary side was exhausted and eager to reach a compromise.  At each of these times, Charles refused a compromise.  He believed with a fanatic’s zeal in the cause of absolute monarchy, and refused to accept any compromise that would have ended the war.  Because of this, he overplayed his hand many times even when he could have gotten a peace that was to his advantage.
            In Twenty Years After, Charles is portrayed as an innocent martyr who several times proclaims that his only crime was fighting for what he believed in.
            In fact, it was not King Charles himself who did the fighting, but the English common people.  It is estimated that 1 in 10 of England’s population died during these Civil Wars, all because King Charles was too stubborn to give up the cause of absolute monarchy.
            King Charles refused to accept defeat.  When Parliament captured King Charles’ correspondence after the battle of Naseby, it was discovered that King Charles had been trying to recruit other foreign armies to his cause (W).  King Charles, through his wife Henrietta Maria, tried to gain the support of the French army to reinstate him on the English throne.  (Dumas actually relates this in Twenty Years After, but doesn’t appear to think this is a bad thing.)  When Charles’s royalist army was first defeated by the Parliamentary forces, King Charles made a pact with the Scots and invaded England again.
            Surely, a King who is willing to recruit foreign armies to suppress his own people is not deserving of much sympathy.
            For the purposes of his drama Dumas compresses the time frame of events.  He portrays King Charles as being rushed to trial and execution after he was handed over by the Scots, but in fact there was a whole second civil war that broke out that Dumas completely omits from his narrative. 
            After he was captured by Parliament the first time, King Charles still refused to negotiate a settlement with Parliament.  He just made empty promises, and eventually waited Parliament out until the royalist forces were able to recuperate, and the civil war started all over again. 
            At the end of the Second Civil War, England was exhausted by a decade of war.  And then even after he was defeated a second time, King Charles still refused to come to an agreement with Parliament.  It’s no wonder Parliament’s patience was exhausted with him at this point, and they put him on trial.
            Historians seem to differ on whether the outcome of King Charles’ trial was pre-determined or not.  (I’ve read historians on either side of the question.)  But at least some historians argue that the sentence of death was not an inevitability, and that even here Parliament was hoping King Charles would negotiate a plea with the Parliament that would allow them to come to some sort of constitutional arrangement and keep the figure-head of the King.  But by refusing to recognize the court or enter a plea, King Charles’ guaranteed the outcome would be his own death.

            As I commented in my previous post on The Three Musketeers, it is interesting to see Athos’s evolution.  In The Three Musketeers, he seemed to be the most cold-hearted of the 4.  In Twenty Years After, he is now consistently the voice for mercy.
            It appears he feels great regret over what he did to Milady at the end of The Three Musketeers, and this has caused him to change his character.  That, and also now he is raising a son, which has also caused him to re-examine his life.

            Of course, in saying all this I’m giving Dumas the benefit of the doubt and assuming that this is character evolution, rather than just narrative inconsistency.

            In the case of Porthos, however, I’m not sure the same benefit can be made.
            In The Three Musketeers, Porthos was portrayed as the vain one of the group.  In Twenty Years After, Dumas seems to have changed his mind and portrayed Porthos as the strong, but dumb member.
            (I’d actually have to go back and re-read The Three Musketeers to be absolutely confident in this claim.  But, as far as memory serves, I don’t remember Porthos being portrayed as exceptionally strong or stupid in the original book, so I think his portrayal in Twenty Years After is inconsistent.)

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Dean said...

Hi Joel, I really appreciated your review of this book, Twenty Years After! Even though I've read it before, your blog really helped me more fully understand what was going on. I am glad you enjoyed it.

Joel said...

Thanks for the comment Dean. As I said in the previous post, the fact that you've been recommending these books to me for so many years was one of the major reasons I finally took the trouble to track them down.