There's a reason that the three (or indeed four) musketeers are so often co-opted to some adventure that wasn't originally conceived by the great man. Indeed, there's a decent amount of discussion about whether Dumas himself did the conceiving, or whether it was his collaborator Maquet, but whether the stories are entirely his, or his adaptations of a plan he was given by Maquet, Dumas' achievement remains utterly spellbinding. The derring-do and heroism of Walter Scott, Dumas' English predecessor in the publication of historical novels, is frankly pedestrian by comparison. The first dozen-or-so chapters of the Musketeers (that is, The Three Musketeers) is amongst the best of all writing. It's not especially deft, it's not clever in the way that a lot of modern literary fiction sets out to be. It's just thoroughly, completely absorbing. The Musketeers' adventures across the three (or five, depending on how you count them) books are widely misunderstood and misrepresented, with a much lower sword fighting and chandelier-swinging count than you might expect.
It's fair to say that Dumas is a hero, both of mine and of writing, storytelling, literature as a whole that makes him worth reading. There are things in there that have made their way into popular culture generally, things that you know even if you don't know that they're from the Musketeers. Things that are part of the fabric of modern writing, that inform me and just about anyone who sets out to write a novel set in the past. In some ways, it's disappointing that the gradual Americanisation or, more specifically, the superheroisation, of the Musketeers has obscured what they are. Athos is injured when first we meet him. There is a real sense that the Musketeers are human, vulnerable, real in a way that the film and TV portrayals of them almost always fail to capture. That's my agenda, I suppose, to get away from the modern hero way of writing historical fiction and go back to the Dumas way. He is supposed to have set out to novelise the history of France. One day, perhaps, when I don't have to go to work, I might make the sort of progress on these books that will eventually allow me to start pursuing that goal for English history. Hope is a fine thing, of course!
So, for a change of tack, here's some of book IV. Edward Strelley has just arrived in the village of Sampford Courtenay, where the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 began...
“The Lord has sent you a great trial, Father. I see that. I have had mine. And I fear that I have failed it.”
“What form did this trial take?”
“A woman. That I loved - love - as much as a man can. But I cannot be with her. Her station prevents it.”
“Many of us have loved that which we cannot have.”
“She would have had me, I think.”
“Then you are a good man for not allowing it.”
“I feel as though I could live another fifty years and never enjoy a day. Without her, life is purposeless.”
“Your grief will lessen, in time.”
“That is what Cranmer told me.”
“You have spoken to the archbishop? Of this?”
“That book,” Strelley says, gesturing vaguely, “is as much mine as it is his. I sought his counsel as well.”
“Then mine is redundant.”
“Not so. You are here. He is not. You are a man of the people.”
Harper smiles again. “I thank you for your flattery. All I can say is that God does not punish us for our sins if we repent them.”
“Which is the sin? To deny the love we both feel? Or to break the law?”
“You are a man of great intelligence, Edward Strelley. Here you are, distant from this lady. You have found a reason to travel far away from her. Your conscience says you must not be together.” Harper’s mind catches up with the conversation. “You say that is your book as much as Cranmer’s?”
“That is a little unfair on him. Some of it is mine. Most of it is his.”
“Whatever the people think of it, it is beautiful. One day, the people of this nation will live, love and die by your words.”
“Cranmer’s words. Mostly.”
Harper puts an arm around Strelley’s shoulder. “This is not all that troubles you, is it?”
Strelley looks at him, head cocked to one side. “No.”
“You have not failed the trial of this woman, Edward Strelley. And yet you spoke of failure.”
“God sees all, does he not? If I have done wrong… Even if I have contemplated doing wrong.”
“God will not hold you to account for wishing that the world were different.”
Leave a Reply.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought