The Three Musketeers

I think I missed the ideal window in my life for reading The Three Musketeers.

The first time I tried it, I was too young; I was confused by Gascons and pistoles and lots of other things I’d never heard of, and the plot, it does not really get around to swashing bucklers and buckling swashes until a bit further in. So I quit. This month I picked it up again, but now I’m critical enough of a reader to be annoyed by things I would have zoomed right over when I was younger.

Like, for example, the way Dumas sings paeans to his characters, most especially Athos, who aside from drinking too much is in every way a paragon of blah blah blah. He’s my favorite of the three, but jeez, Dumas lays it on with a trowel. Or, to pick something more mundane: the sheer idiocy of the main characters’ spending habits. Assuming 1625 France was anything like 1625 England, I have every faith that Dumas’ portrayal is fair — but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to bash them over the head with a bench every time they piss away a fortune and end up penniless Yet Again. Then there’s the (equally period) over-eagerness to pick fights, which I find not charming but childish. And, of course, the treatment of women, most especially Constance Bonacieux, Madame dans Réfrigérateur.

And Milady, about whom I have a great deal to say.

I should preface this by saying my first full encounter with The Three Musketeers came by way of the Disney movie, which I now understand is wildly unfaithful. But, much like Eight Days of Luke permanently colored my view of Loki, the film planted a certain notion of Milady into my head.

I was therefore surprised to find she is, at least structurally, the central villain of the piece. Sure, there’s Richelieu, but half the time he’s trying to hire D’Artagnan instead of kill him, and in the end Dumas just has to leave that hanging, or else do a great violence to history. Rochefort, who could have been defeated as Richelieu could not, was a surprisingly minor character; for all that D’Artagnan keeps shouting “the man of Meung!” and trying to chase him down, Rochefort barely appears in the plot, and winds up a friend of D’Artagnan’s in the denoument. The climax of the book, as near as I can tell, arrives when, having chased Milady to the ends of the earth (or at least of France), the friends arrange for the executioner of Lille to whack her head off. That done, the story wraps up.

No wonder the filmmakers changed so much. Not only does it run against cinematic convention to have the villain be a woman, it’s hard to avoid overtones of callous cruelty in that ending. And Dumas failed miserably.

Has anybody published a revisionist retelling of this story, from Milady’s point of view? The thing practically writes itself. Her original crime (breaking her holy vows) can easily be written off as youthful stupidity followed by a badly-conceived attempt to escape the consequences; making that sympathetic would be a piece of cake. But that doesn’t work out (I admit I’ve forgotten the details of this transition), and she ends up falling in love with the Comte de la Fère. The movie predisposed me to believe she actually did love him, but there’s no particular reason to believe she didn’t; the novel at one point talks about her going from “the man she had ruined to the man she was about to ruin,” but what ruin was that? I don’t recall any evidence she was planning to help the Comte off this mortal coil, or otherwise mess up his life. The eventual ruin went the other way: having discovered the brand, he saw no better course of action than to string her up from the nearest tree.

‘Cause, y’know, that’s what you do with the wife you supposedly loved.

Okay, sure, Dumas was writing in the nineteenth century, when that is what you did. She was a criminal, ergo a subhuman and inherently untrustworthy being incapable of redemption. One line from the film stuck in my head, leaping to mind every time I think of their Milady: “I have become the monster you once thought me to be.” Yes, she undoubtedly commits crimes later — horrific ones — but after what happened to her, I can sympathize. Not approve, but sympathize. She had to make her way in the world somehow, and the somehow she found involved the Cardinal — who has at least a modicum of respect for her brains and her skills. The way she got out of prison in England was a masterwork of manipulation, and if it had been a man doing all the things she did, I doubt Dumas would have criticized that character a tenth so much. Half of his description of her evil centers on things like her (unnatural and unfeminine) rage, which a modern audience is more likely to admire than to deplore.

And then there’s the ending. I can’t tell — especially since I can’t read French, and don’t know how good this translation was — whether Dumas felt a touch of sympathy for her in the final reckoning; certainly I was appalled by the way it all dragged out, Milady weeping and crawling and so on, before finally the executioner cuts her head off. And I was appalled at the way the “heroes” reacted, too, and Athos’ declaration that he had enjoyed himself “prodigiously” on his time off.

Yeah. So very tempted to write a big fat novel about Milady, a ruthless critique of nineteenth-century misogyny as processed through seventeenth-century France, and of the warped notion of “honor” that guides the actions of Dumas’ supposed heroes. But I expect someone else has probably done that already.

I didn’t hate the book — if I had, I wouldn’t have plowed through six hundred pages of it — but it was not the rip-roaring ride I wanted it to be. Too many points on which my critical brain engaged, too many arguments I wanted to make with it. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t know that I’ll ever go back. Like I said, I think I missed the phase in which I could have loved it.

0 Responses to “The Three Musketeers”

  1. bob54449

    “Then there’s the (equally period) over-eagerness to pick fights, which I find not charming but childish.”

    Well, or cultural.

    Where I grew up and live, men DO pick fights when drunk (and men are often drunk here).

    In fact, it baffles me when, for example, Mrissa writes that she feels safer on dark street when in company of a burly man. I have so used to knowledge that dark streets are much more dangerous to burly men than to women – as what is the fun in beating up someone who is smaller and weaker than you are?

    • mrissa

      While Minneapolis is lovely, it is not such an idyll as to be free of bar fights.

      But we call them “bar fights” for a reason: if a drunk wants to pick a fight with an approximate equal, they mostly do it at the bar or party where they were drinking, not on the streets on the way home.

      Muggers and rapists tend not to have the code of chivalry or the Marquis of Queensberry rules at heart.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, I know it’s cultural, but it’s still kind of childish — at least in my view. And it doesn’t much matter whether the characters are drunk or not; they’ll pick fights pretty much with anybody who sneezes wrong as they’re walking down the street.

  2. unforth

    This is interesting for me to read, since I read Three Musketeers at exactly the right point in my life, love it prodigiously, think Athos is the man, and loath Milady just enough that I dressed as her for Halloween last year.

    While trying to defend her, remember on the other hand that she lures Buckingham to love her, does the same to his servant, and then convinces that formerly devoted servant to kill his master. She really isn’t a nice person. Yes, from Dumas point of view, her actions – were she male – would suddenly not have been that bad – but that doesn’t make it okay – from a modern point of view, either gender would have been heinously guilty in that situation. 😉

    That said, a novel from her pov would be pretty cool. But I wouldn’t read it, cause it’d make me cry. 😉

    • Marie Brennan

      remember on the other hand that she lures Buckingham to love her, does the same to his servant, and then convinces that formerly devoted servant to kill his master

      Remember also that Buckingham is an enemy of France, and that the latter two occur while the nations are actively at war with one another. It would look more honorable if she had killed Buckingham with her own hand, sure — but she’s a seventeenth-century woman; she works with the tools she has.

      This excuse doesn’t cover all her actions, of course. When she tries to get D’Artagnan to kill the Comte de Vardes, she’s being just as trigger-happy as any of the musketeers (OMG HE OFFENDED ME HE MUST DIE), and the deaths of her (second) husband and Constance are pure, spiteful malice. But that’s why my brain keeps offering up the “monster” quote; I feel like she became that malicious and spiteful of a person because of the life she lived, most particularly the incident of her own husband hanging her from a tree.

  3. mrissa

    I haven’t done a novel, and I don’t think it did anything like rehabilitating Milady, but you can have a copy of “The Snow Queen and Milady de Winter” to read if you like.

  4. aulus_poliutos

    There’s a German book told from Mylady’s POV, but I could not get past the first chapter.

    I read The Three Musketeers at the right age and still love the book. And I love to hate Mylady. *grin*

  5. sartorias

    I thought about doing a revisionist version once, but I kept coming up against that ending–either one stays true to the story and ends up with yet another woman going to her death (and there are far too many of those in literature) or else one departs from canon.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I thought the same thing. Though I can see a narrow little crack through which one could try to slip: the whole elaborate rigamarole of taking her across the river, and then her sort of running away but stopping, which puts the entire thing in a place where the Musketeers can see what’s happening — but not too clearly. It requires Milady to be in collusion with the executioner, but maybe they somehow rigged it. (Somehow.)

      Pretty weak, but it’s the only way I can think of to stick to what the book describes without just whacking her head off.

      • sartorias

        I thought of that too, but . . . I wanted something to give that extra twist, and have yet to come up with it. But the idea has been with me for ages and exactly for the reasons you name. For every Tess and whossername in Adam Bede, etc, who has to pay for crimes she was driven to because women must not be allowed to do what men gain honor by doing . . . urrrrrrrrrrgh.

  6. scottakennedy

    I still have fond memories of this book, which I read in a modern library edition when I was in fifth grade; I can’t even begin to imagine how much I plowed through without comprehension. I did, however, have the excellent Richard Lester films (The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers) as the reference point which motivated me, and recall MyLady (Faye Dunaway, I think) being chillingly villainous.

    I recently picked up the new Richard Pevear translation (having really enjoyed some of his Russian translations), but haven’t managed to crack it open yet. By all accounts, it puts the sex back in which was eliminated from most prior translations.

    It does seem that a couple other writers have tackled the Mylady question, Tiffany
    Thayer (in either 1939 or 1947, depending on which web page one references), wrote a version published as Tiffany Thayer’s The Three Musketeers which purportedly contains an opening sequence detailing her early life. There is another one written in the 1980’s by Yak Rivais Milady, mon amour: Une femme dans la tourmente, 1627-1628 which does not appear to have been translated into English. There’s a useful descriptive list of Dumas retellings and versions at

    In any event, both of the above retellings seem reasonably obscure today, so please don’t let their existence squash your enthusiasm for a retelling of Mylady if it proves more than fleeting.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s likely to be fleeting; a non-fantastical historical novel in a country I don’t know much about is not exactly something I’m about to tackle right now, and I doubt the enthusiasm will last for the next ten years or however long it would take me to get around to it.

    • mojave_wolf

      I read an abridged version of the novel in about 4th grade and don’t remember it that well, tho my feelings were positive; but I basically only remember one thing well about the movie w/Faye Dunaway et al, and it’s not Milady’s chilling villainy — ’twas the big speech at the end by whichever previously sympathetic Muskateer, who I had been pulling for all along w/occasional issues like the sort described above, and then we realize his primary motivation for hating this woman and wanting her dead has nothing to do w/anything she’s done, and his entire reason for putting her into the position where she became his enemy in the first place, is cause she didn’t tell him about her past. Poor, poor, man. Keep in mind, this pissed me off *infinitely* when I was conservative teen-age boy in redneckville who thought feminists were these annoying overpolitical things I hoped never to meet.

      Even tho my memory of details is vague, my memory of sheer horror and thinking “*This* is why he’s the good guy and she is evil? OMFG” remains. Later, when I knew more, I thought back and figured this was one of those 70’s revisionisms where they try to play with moral ambiguity and shade the characters to make you think; if I’d thought of it in that sense when I was watching I woulda liked it a lot better, but still been horrified. As it was, I was too young/immature/ignorant for that interpretation.

      That said, I also recall that the acting in the movie was wonderful, all round.

      Anyway, for Swan Tower: I’d totally go for an ending change. Worked for Tanith Lee in Sung in Shadow . . .

      • Marie Brennan

        Precisely. Athos strings her up without even knowing what her crime is, IIRC; the point is that she’s a criminal (nevermind that for all he knows she might have been wrongly convicted), and she lied to him.

        I should give that movie a shot, though — sounds like a lot of people here enjoyed it.

  7. d_c_m

    I loved The Three Musketeers when I read it and yes, swan, I totally agree with you. Milady got a raw deal.

    So write that book woman!! I will soooo be reading it. 🙂

  8. handful_ofdust

    The Tiffany Thayers revisioning goes a ways towards, if not rehabilitating Milady, then certainly explaining her in more detail than Dumas might have thought necessary. (Also, the villain of the next book in the series–Twenty Years After?–turns out to be her son, which is sort of fun.)
    But yeah: You’ve hit on several of the points about Musketeer behavior I find infuriating yet weirdly endearing. I remember the first time I read the book as an adult, when I stopped halfway through, turned to my friend and said: “Wow, this is basically the Thug Life with frilly shirts and swords, isn’t it? ‘Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and pistoles’, and keep your damn hands off my bling!” (It works just as well if you imagine them as 1930s gangsters instead of gangstaz, BTW–or Rat Pack members, for that matter–because the attitude is remarkably similar.)

    • Marie Brennan

      <rofl> You are totally right. Especially since their mistresses are pretty much just treated as status symbols, human banks, and occasional sources of assistance; I have essentially zero patience for that particular rhetoric of “love,” where the men know almost nothing about their ladies (how much time has D’Artagnan spent with Constance when he decides she’s his goddess?) and pretty much ignore them whenever they get busy with something else. And then don’t get me started on D’Artagnan’s treatment of Milady.

  9. mindstalk

    Have you read Brust’s The Phoenix Guards?

  10. Marie Brennan

    Got it. Will try to get back to you ASAP.

  11. flo_nelja

    I’m here by ‘s rec about your meta, and it’s really interesting.

    I hope you don’t mind me adding a testimony about “how I felt the book”, even if I don’t know you. An if, being French, I can’t speak a good English.

    I read “The Three Musketeers” when I was twelve, and loved it a lot.
    I loved the plot, basically loved the characters. But Milady was special. When I think about it now, I guess I found the scene in which she seduces Felton incredibly hot. Except that, I didn’t know the idea of “hot” since, well, I was young. I just knew that I loved to read it again and again. ^^

    I can’t remember whether I was sorry for d’Artagnan and Athos. I guess a little. I don’t think I was sorry for Milady. But I was for Felton and Ketty. And Constance, a little bit.

    I really think that, if I were to re-read it now, I would feel it the same way you do.

    • Marie Brennan

      Your English is better than any of my second languages, so I’m hardly going to throw stones.

      There are many things I read and loved as a kid that I think I would have problems with now; I often don’t go back and re-read things for that exact reason.

      I definitely feel sorry for Constance, and for Kitty. Not so much for D’Artagnan and Athos, who after all pretty much get what they want out of life. Sure, there’s a brief bit of sadness when Constance dies, but I didn’t find it convincing in the slightest.

  12. rozk

    Mary Gentle’s 1610 is not a revisionist version of Rochefort and Milady de Winter, but those in search of one would probably like it anyway, and like it even more by the end…

  13. belledewinter

    … *tiptoes in*

    Hello, I found this while searching the net for Milady de Winter. Pleased to meet you. ♥ Just wanted to tell you I fully agree what you said up there. It really seems the treatment given to Milady was too harsh and cruel, good to see I’m not the only who agrees. Also, this novel from her POV that you mention has been written. 🙂 Tiffany Thayer tried her hand at it a few years back, the book is called Three Musketeers. ♥

    If you don’t mind greatly, I would like to friend you. 🙂

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