Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dumas père, La Reine Margot (1848)

I hadn’t read any of Dumas’s novels since I was in high school, when I read them voraciously. So, how would I react to them after having read so widely in modern literature and developed (I hope) pretty sophisticated literary tastes? After all, Dumas is dismissed as a writer of silly action novels, written in factory circumstances with a team of co-writers and researchers.

Well, based on rereading La Reine Margot, I still think Dumas is terrific and look forward to rereading more. La Reine Margot is, I believe, the most perfect historical novel ever. Why?

1. It’s about an amazing piece of history, starting with the Saint Bartholomew massacre of Huguenots to the death of Charles IX and the accession of Henri III, his brother and the last of the Valois dynasty. Even more important is a duel of wits between Catherine De’ Medici, that fascinating mother of three kings, all of whom she survived, and the future Henri IB, at that point titular King of Navarre and famous for his cleverness at avoiding death. Finally, there is the beautiful and passionate Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of Charles IX and the daughter of Catherine De' Medici, and the wife of Henri de Navarre. While she pursues love elsewhere, she works with her husband to foil her mother’s attempts to have him killed.

2. It’s actually pretty historically accurate as far as U can tell. Marguerite’s lover de Mole was not a Huguenot who escapes the massacre in her bedchamber as the novel has it, bur rather himself a bigoted Catholic. On the other and, Marguerite did hide another Huguenot during the riots. There is no proof that Catherine mistakenly killed her own son by poison, but there certainly was a rumor to that effect. The chronology of the novel is handled “creatively’ at points.

3. Nevertheless, much of the novel is based on fact. Unlike most historical novels, all of the characters of any significance (except for a few servants) and there are almost dozen of them) are real historical figures. And their characters are very much in keeping with the real ones, as far as I can tell the weak-wiled and treacherous Duke of Alençon, for example, another son of Catherine, was exactly that on real life.

4. The structure of the novel is perfection. Although it involves many characters and many actions, and even though it is constrained, for the most part, by historical events, it ha san amazingly centered and coherent, with no digressions and no history lesson. All of the action takes place within Paris, and much of it within the walls of the Louvre. The fates of each of the characters are spelled out, not left hanging.

5. True, the novel has the melodramatic and Gothic trappings you’d expect: conspiracies, torture chambers, secret passages, trap doors, ambushes, disguises, poisoned books and poisoned lipstick. But it also has subtle verbal exchanges, some real comedy, and multi=dimensional characters., with dialog that is the opposite of bombast.

6. Dumas is an excellent dramatist. And he had a score of successful dramas and comedies. His first success was as in a theater, with a play about Henri III, a play as ground-breaking as Hugo's more famous Hernani. It was almost twenty years later that he published the Three Musketeers and obtained fame as a novel, his second career. As a dramatist, Dumas knows how to set up a scene, and there are dozens of exciting ones. These include the night of the massacre, nighttime love assignations, divinations, escapes, court balls, and, above all, an exciting hunt where Navarre saves the life of Charles X by killing a wild boar that was about to finish the king off. Even quiet scenes, such as Charles and Henri's visit to Charles’ mistress, where he shows off the illegitimate (and only) son, making Navarre vow to protect it.

7. The unity extends to a smoothness of style that presents the narrative with a single voice. Dumas may have written collaboratively, but there’s no doubt who is in control here.

L a Reine Margot is a treasure, It’s escapists, yes, but it’s in no way is it a less artistic creation than any of the other books I have read.

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