June 12, 2008

RITE OF PASSAGE:

and heaving bosoms: Gerald Warner celebrates the unexpected appearance of one last ‘swashbuckling novel’, and mourns the loss of a genre that taught boys honour, courage and chivalry (Gerald Warner, 11th June 2008, Spectator)

‘Do you have the new novel by Alexandre Dumas?’ Who ever imagined going into the local branch of Waterstone’s and asking that question, in the 21st century? Yet the unexpected — the impossible — has happened and an authentically new historical novel by the legendary author of The Three Musketeers has recently been published for the first time in Britain. Its classically Dumas title in French, Le chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, has been changed for an Anglophone readership to The Last Cavalier.

An account of how the Master’s last novel was rediscovered by Claude Schopp, the leading Dumas scholar in France, is given by him in an appendix to The Last Cavalier which describes how the complete book was painstakingly reconstructed. It is the continuation of Dumas’s French Revolutionary novel The Companions of Jehu and completes his panoramic fictional account of French history by covering the Napoleonic period.

In the literary canon of the swashbuckling novel, nobody ever rivalled Dumas père. He brought history to life as never before or since. Behind the arras in every statesman’s cabinet lurked a listener; a party of horsemen cantering into an inn-yard at dusk betokened high adventure; no rapier rested long in its scabbard when there was a quarrel to be settled (the more trivial the better), a lady’s (frequently fragile) honour to be defended, or a service to be rendered the King of France (as distinct from his villainous ministers).

Although Dumas’s heroes took the aristocratic principle of noblesse oblige for granted, acting as unreflecting partisans of divine right kingship, the author was unfaithful to his own ethos. In 1830, when the ancient Bourbon monarchy that was the backdrop to his romances was brought down, Dumas played an unheroic role as a self-interested supporter of the usurper Duc d’Orléans, shortly transformed into the umbrella-wielding Citizen King Louis-Philippe. He later made an equally ineffective, grandstanding intervention against the Bourbons of the Two Sicilies during the Risorgimento. The musketeers would not have been impressed.

Yet such inconsistencies become inconsequential once the reader immerses himself in the world that Dumas conjured. It may be that schoolboys today negotiate adolescence unassisted by Dumas; if so, they are to be pitied. Anyone who has not galloped, heart in mouth, with the musketeers on the road to the convent of Béthune, in a desperate bid to save Constance Bonancieux from the vengeance of Milady, has omitted a crucial rite of passage. He who has never thrilled to the urgent command ‘To horse!’ is a potential health and safety officer.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at June 12, 2008 10:41 AM
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