Revisiting books last read when ten years old

02/06/2010 by Christopher Buxton

The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas

What would my childhood have been like without the companionship of this swashbuckling trio? In my solitary games in gardens and bedrooms from Alderbury to Oxford, Porthos, Athos and Aramis were forever by my side. With a stick or a coat-hanger for a sword I engaged enemies in rowdy battle and in formal duel, always sure of the support of my shadowy friends, bluff Porthos, lugubrious Athos and sensitive Aramis. My principal role of course was D’Artagnan, but that did not stop me jumping a foot and assuming the character of sneering villain, trembling coward, or any of my musketeer friends.

I must have presented a curious spectacle to anyone chancing by. Alerted by my excited cries, they would have seen me cutting swathes through nettles and ferns outside and skewering pillows and cushions in the bedroom. But in my blinkered escape world a circle of six feet could be transformed into ice floes on the river Neva, canals in Venice, the Blois forest or a high battlement of a craggy castle. Where other boys played in groups at Germans and English, shooting each other with toy guns bought for them by less progressive parents, I played on my own amid a cast of hundreds, always with a sword, which necessitated close contact with imaginary friends and foes. My parents gave my games a discreet berth, and only once did a heavy mirror crashing off the wall of a rented bedroom bring my mother running from the kitchen. The mirror lay in shards across the Mediterranean Sea where I had just leapt from the bowsprit of a French man-of-war onto a Barbary corsair’s galley and was about to engage a fat sweaty bald man with a gold earring and a wicked cutlass.

I feared re-reading The Three Musketeers. An immature loyalty would be exposed. Dumas did not appear on any of my university reading lists. And yet I was sure that this was an oversight. To make matters worse, the many film versions failed to live up to my memories of a dark and richly disturbing struggle between good and evil. Key scenes were missing and what was left was a series of spectacular sword fights and banal comic stunts.

Re-reading the book, I now realise why the directors and adapters had a loss of nerve. The climax of the book has to show the four heroes superintending the formal beheading of a woman, Milady de Winter. Milady de Winter is that fearsome creature of nineteenth century literature, a woman who dares to operate on her own beyond any moral bounds. Her fault is to combine extreme beauty with keen intellect. Dumas dwells on her ability to control her animal lusts and thirst for revenge. This ability renders her more devil than woman.

She has a back history that would make her the heroine in any modern novel. She is the victim of male violence, but she has the resources and self confidence never to surrender. Like Stig Larsson’s heroine, she has a distinguishing mark on her body – not a tattoo but a brand – the result of red hot metal being pressed into her teenage breast – the punishment for theft. This mark of shame is not detected by the Comte de la Fère, her besotted first husband, until a riding accident necessitates the loosening of her clothing. One supposes that the Comte only encountered his bride naked in the impenetrable dark. So what does a hero and future musketeer do when he discovers that his wife has been branded? Why use his position to have her hanged of course! No questions – the brand is sufficient evidence of her depravity – the woman has brought shame on an ancient house and so must die. He loses his interest in women and assumes anonymity as Athos the king’s musketeer. Our heroine, half strangled somehow survives and evolves into the spectacular villain, the Cardinal’s chief spy, Clarice Lady de Winter.

By contrast all the other female characters are extremely beddable and so are bedded by the musketeers. Their function is to fall hopelessly in love with one or other of the men, provide them with money (if they have rich husbands) or secret information (if they are servants). They are weak, often weep and are vulnerable to kidnap, torture and assassination.

Either I must have read a bowdlerised version when I was a boy, or I had an aversion to soppy bits, but I only now realise how much sex there is in the book. It is French after all. Moral double standards are only occasionally questioned by Dumas who is at pains to excuse his heroes’ behaviour on the grounds that moral standards in seventeenth century France were different to those in the nineteenth century. So it’s OK for D’Artagnan to trick Milady de Winter into sleeping with him twice – even though he knows that this woman is responsible for the kidnapping of his supposed true love – the married Madame Bonacieux.

As a boy I lacked the benefits of a socialist higher education. I now realise what a snob Dumas was. His middle class male characters are venal, dishonourable and cowardly. This gives the gentleman musketeers the unchallenged right to exploit them. No inn keeper can safely present a bill. If he has a pretty wife, he must expect that not only will she sleep with one or other of the musketeers but that she will raid her husband’s coffers. Servants are presented as fallible but resourceful, to be alternately rewarded or beaten.

As a boy, I enjoyed the dangerous but care-free world that the musketeers inhabited. I welcomed their petulance, their rash disregard for anyone’s life, their insistence on provoking fights for no obvious cause. Athos for example insists on killing his opponent in a duel only because the latter has learnt his name. D’Artagnan picks a fight with the mysterious “man from Meung”, only because he assumes, wrongly, that the man has laughed at his yellow horse. There was no competition between the heroic simplicities of life and death set against the brown world of the British 1950s.

Now, did I enjoy re-reading the book? Yes. Dumas has a real narrative talent – a sense for darkened rooms and overheard conversations. Suspense is built around sharp time deadlines. And, relevant to the contemporary experience, he evokes the atmosphere of the police state. At the centre of a web of ruthless spies is the restless genius, Cardinal Richelieu. It is in his fearsome world that the guileless foursome have to operate. And the true hero of the book? Lady de Winter!