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.