Review 1668: The Vicomte de Bragelonne

My edition of the Collected Works of Alexandre Dumas explains that The Vicomte de Bragelonne was originally published as a massive work but is traditionally published in English as either three or four separate novels: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man in the Iron Mask. I read the first book, which was quite long in itself.

I felt I was at a disadvantage in reading this book because it is one of the D’Artagnan novels and I haven’t read The Three Musketeers for many years or Twenty Years After ever. Although all four of the original characters appear, I felt that I didn’t understand their relationships to each other. As for the title character, who is the son of Athos, although he makes a couple of appearances, this first novel in the set is about D’Artagnan.

In the beginning of the novel, Louis XIV is a young king, but he has been under the control of Cardinal Mazarin for most of his life. D’Artagnan is the lieutenant of the musketeers, and he overhears when Charles II of England comes penniless to the king to ask for money and men to take back his kingdom. Louis’s finances are kept strictly in the Cardinal’s hands, so Louis goes to the Cardinal to ask for the money or men. The Cardinal, who has made himself wealthy at the kingdom’s expense, tells Louis there is no money and he can’t spare any men. When D’Artagnan sees Louis send Charles away with nothing despite wanting to help him, he resigns in disgust, determined to help Charles.

D’Artagnan’s friend Athos, now the Comte de la Ferre, also wants to help Charles. He was present at the beheading of Charles’s father and knows the Charles I buried a million livres at Newcastle. Athos determines to fetch the money.

This novel seems disjointed. More than half of it deals with the two missions on behalf of Charles, while the rest deals with Louis finally coming into power and sending D’Artagnan on a mission. Perhaps as a complete work, with all its parts, it would seem more coherent, but at this time I was not willing to put in the time to read the whole thing.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Day 958: Merivel: A Man of His Time

Cover for MerivelIt wasn’t until I started reading Merivel for my Walter Scott prize project that I realized it was a sequel to Rose Tremain’s better-known novel Restoration. I hadn’t read Restoration in 20 years, but I decided not to reread it first. I only remembered that it was about a doctor who got caught up in the debaucheries of the court of Charles II.

Merivel is a picaresque novel, like its predecessor. In its bawdy exuberance, it reminds me a bit of Tom Jones or Tristam Shandy. It begins in 1683, when Robert Merivel is living alone on his estate, an older man suffering from melancholy. His young daughter Margaret spends much of her time with the neighbors, who have four daughters. He is lonely and feels his life has had little purpose. He discovers his original manuscript (presumably the text of Restoration), which he refers to as the Wedge, but he doesn’t have the energy to read it.

On a whim, he decides that since Margaret is going on a trip with her friends to Cornwall, he will journey to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles and offer his services as a physician. To do this, he gets a letter of introduction from Charles II.

It is difficult to describe the plot of this novel. It doesn’t have a central concern except the feeling of its hero of having accomplished nothing. Merivel has many adventures, including falling in love with a woman he meets at Versailles and dueling with her husband, but they are all related in a semi-comic, mocking manner. Merivel, who seems ready to fall into every folly, is a sort of hapless anti-hero who hasn’t grown up much from the first novel.

Behind the scenes, we see that England is faltering. The poor are getting poorer as the court indulges itself. Merivel, who remains aware of the plight of others, can’t help observing that Charles II seems to feel no responsibility for this. Although this novel is not one of my favorites on the Walter Scott Prize short list, it certainly seems to reflect the time period in which it is set.

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Day 135: The Sun King

Cover for The Sun KingThe Sun King is an interesting biography of Louis XIV and a history of his court, although it occasionally assumes a level of knowledge about French history that I do not have. It is also not terribly revealing of the personality of Louis XIV, who was apparently a very guarded person. For example, the book contains no revealing quotes from personal letters or anything similar.

I was interested to read that Nancy Mitford originally envisaged the book as a description and discussion of the architecture and gardens of Versailles rather than a biography, which perhaps partially explains the focus.

The book starts with the beginning of Louis’s reign, so there is no information about his early life. Chapters are organized around incidents during his reign rather than periods of history. The book describes the opulent court and details intrigues and power struggles within it. The chapter about poisoning was shocking. It is easy to see why the French court of the time had such a reputation for decadence.

The edition that I read (not the one pictured) is full of beautiful pictures of Versailles as well as sketches of the architects, artists, and gardeners responsible for creating the palace. However, there are no good pictures of Louis, presumably because none exist. He is always depicted as a tiny figure in large historical paintings of some event, so it was hard to see what he actually looked like.

Of course, the book is well written and witty. Although Mitford is best known for her humorous novels of sharp social commentary, she also wrote several well-received and thoroughly researched biographies.