The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The historical novel

BEFORE

1800 Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent is in the vanguard of a fashion for historical fiction.

1814 Waverley, by Scottish writer Walter Scott, is the first in a series of historical novels that includes Rob Roy (1817) and Ivanhoe (1820).

1823–41 US author James Fenimore Cooper writes his “Leatherstocking Tales”, historical fictions that include The Pioneers (1823) and The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

AFTER

1829 Honoré de Balzac’s The Chouans tells of the 1799 royalist uprising in France.

1989 Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth is a postmodern historical novel about Simon Bolivar, “Liberator of South America”.

Although the idea of setting a novel in a previous period of history was not a new one – fictional tales of the past are as old as literature itself – the historical novel as a distinct genre achieved unprecedented popularity in the 19th century. Demand came first in Britain, and was stimulated by the novels of the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, which appeared between 1814 and 1832. These had a huge readership, in Britain and abroad, and their success inspired a wave of similarly themed novels.

By the 1820s, the influence of Scott’s novels in particular had spread as far as the USA, where James Fenimore Cooper wrote the popular “Leatherstocking Tales”. Translations of British historical fiction were also creating a market for the genre across Europe, notably in France, where it was taken up by writers such as Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. The most popular of the French historical authors, however, was Alexandre Dumas.

"Never fear quarrels, but seek hazardous adventures."


The Three Musketeers

A thirst for adventure

The first of Dumas’ novels, The Three Musketeers, appeared in serial form in 1844, and almost immediately made him a household name. The novel contained all the ingredients of the popular fiction of the time: dashing, romantic heroes and wily villains; plots involving derring-do and camaraderie; and the backdrop of a period that was well known to its readers for political intrigue.

At the time of the book’s publication, France had undergone a turbulent period post-Revolution: tensions between monarchists and republicans were unresolved, and the romantic depiction of a fictionalized past appealed to those yearning for a more settled time.

At the heart of Dumas’ story is d’Artagnan, a young nobleman who leaves his home in Gascony to join the Musketeers of the Guard in Paris, in 1623. Through a series of misadventures, his ambition is thwarted, but he ends up first duelling with, and then befriending, the three musketeers of the title, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Together they embark on a series of missions to save the honour of the queen, and to ensure that the king is not hoodwinked by the machinations of First Minister Cardinal de Richelieu into a war with the English. Along the way, there is much carousing, and inevitable romantic liaisons.

Beneath the swashbuckling, however, Dumas makes some serious points, and is critical in his portrayal of the period. His musketeer heroes are brave and attractive, but show a blind allegiance to the monarchy, and are not always gentlemanly in their treatment of others. And the object of their loyalty, King Louis XIII, is portrayed as gullible and weak: he is ruthlessly manipulated by the cardinal and his agents, the Comte de Rochefort and Milady de Winter.

The instalments of the story were eagerly awaited by the French public in the summer of 1844, and were translated widely. Building on this success, Dumas serialized two further “d’Artagnan Romances”, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne, and the similarly styled The Count of Monte Cristo, all of which have remained popular, both in their original novel form and as adaptations for television and the cinema.

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The Musketeers of the Guard, a brotherhood of bodyguards, are the focal point of a story that combines international politics, courtly intrigue, friendship, enmity, and romantic entanglements: a historical tale with timeless themes that guarantee its enduring popularity.

ALEXANDRE DUMAS

Alexandre Dumas was born Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie in Picardy, France, in 1802. His father was the son of the governor of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and an Afro-Caribbean slave woman, Marie-Cessette Dumas.

Like his father, Alexandre later adopted the surname of his grandmother, but it was his aristocratic ancestry that helped to launch his career as a writer. He found work with the Duke of Orléans (who later became the “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe), and after initial success with historical drama, turned to writing novels. These included the adventures of d’Artagnan, for which he became famous. When Louis-Philippe was deposed, Dumas fled France in 1851 and did not return until 1864.

Dumas had many affairs, and is said to have fathered at least four children, including a son Alexandre, who also became a writer and is often known as fils (son).

Other key works

1845 Twenty Years After

1847–50 The Vicomte of Bragelonne

See also: Ivanhoe • The Last of the Mohicans • Les Misérables • War and Peace • A Tale of Two Cities