The Three Musketeers
was published as a serialized novel by Dumas when he was already an established an recognised playwright
in 19th century France. With it he strove to do for France what Walter Scott
had already done for England
- make its history approachable to non scholars through gripping adventure tales. It was a flyaway success
, with people standing in line for hours every week to await new issues of the Siecle
, the publication which carried the series.
Unlike Scott, however, Dumas was not tempted to create the appropriate atmosphere with antiqauted language and pages upon pages of historical and picturesque descriptions. He plunges the reader straight into the heart of the action, and allows her to form her own impressions and judgements of 16th century French politics. This is perhaps why it has been so easy to film the novel for the consumption of the impatient 20th century viewer, with several excellent adaptations available (my favourite one is unfortunately in Russian, and no details are to be found about it in the imdb).
The novel unravels against the backdrop of the intrigue between the king, Louis XIII, and his ambitious and immoral prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Each had a personal guard, a company of crack troops mostly assembled from the nobility - the Cardinal had his Guard, and the King the Musketeers. The tensions between the political factions of the king, his queen Anne of Austria and the Cardinal are a well documented historical fact, as is the Duke of Buckingham's infatuation with Anne, however Dumas does not provide much in the way of explanation or background for this fact - he simply uses it to create a handy set of villains for his daredevil Musketeers.
All of the main personages in the novel - including Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d'Artagnan - are real people who lived around the time the it is set in. Nevertheless, Dumas took an extremely free hand with the accuracy or even chronological compatibility of these people to weave his story. The only possible exception to this rule is that most enigmatic character of Milady, the Cardinal's spy, whose fictional name is Lady Clarick de Winter. A Lady Carlisle, Clarick or Clarik is indeed mentioned in some chronicles and memoires from the time, but no details are known about her or her dealings with either Richelieu or Buckingham.
The episode with the diamond tags, which is the driving narrative of the first half of the novel, is also mentioned in memoirs of the time, and the siege at La Rochelle is of course a historical event. Apart from the siege, however, the second part of the novel is somewhat questionably "historical" - it is dominated by Milady's machinations and culminates in her gruesome excecution at the hand and in front of ten men. I have come across a very amusing theory which postulates that as the fleur de lis brand on Milady's shoulder is not a convincing motive for such an ending, and as the Cardinal accepts the death of his favourite agent with surprising calmness when the brand is given as reason for it, it is actually a cover for a much more sinister discovery, one which can only be made when the lady revelas herself naked in full light, which the discerning reader will of course remember she never does; in short, that Milady is nothing less than a female impersonator from the school of Madame Butterfly, and her husband and lover are wreaking their revenge for her emasculating deception.
Whatever the sexual implications, the novel is still a spanking good read, written in easy, approachable style, with wonderful dialogue and a healthy dollop of comedy alongside the action and drama. A true classic, it manages to be both a peep into royal French history and an old fashioned tale of love, courage, frienship and adventure.