The Knight of Maison-Rouge: A Novel of Marie Antoinette
by Alexandre Dumas
Love amid the Terror
A review by Charles Taylor
It may be that the good folks at the Modern Library will one day call and tell
me that someone in their offices has won the Mega Millions lottery and is donating
their winnings to me, or that they are providing me with a wardrobe for life designed
by Paul Smith. In the meantime, I couldn't be more grateful to the Modern Library
for their decision to publish Alexandre Dumas' The Knight of Maison-Rouge.
This translation by Julie Rose marks the first time the book has appeared in English
in almost 100 years. So for contemporary readers, this is almost like being given
a new Dumas novel. If you are not jumping up and down at this point ... well,
you're probably not someone I'd care to have a drink with. For those of you still
scanning the previous lines scarcely believing what you've read, I'll repeat myself:
A new Alexandre Dumas novel! That, dear reader, is a precious gift.
The Knight of Maison-Rouge originally appeared in installments in 1845
and 1846, the same years that saw the publication of Twenty
Years After (the second book in the Musketeers trilogy), Queen
Margot and The
Count of Monte Cristo. This is to say, it appeared when Dumas was doing
his best work. The Knight of Maison-Rouge is not some piece of ephemera
plucked from the archives of a prolific author, now appearing as a curiosity
piece for completists. It's vintage Dumas, which is to say it's as thrilling
and readable a historical romance as you're likely to find.
The novel is set in Paris in 1793 just as the Terror is getting under way.
Louis XVI has already gone to the guillotine. The rest of the royal family,
Marie Antoinette, Louis' sister Elisabeth, his daughter Marie Thérèse
and the young dauphin, Louis Charles, are imprisoned and subject to all sorts
of cruel indignities. The hero is Maurice Lindey, a soldier who has fought bravely
on the Republican side and yet resisted its most bloodthirsty excesses.
Making his way home one night, Maurice encounters a watchman who has apprehended
a beautiful young woman who lacks identity papers. Interceding on her behalf,
he escorts her home. He is desperate to see her again but is made to swear that
he will not seek her out. For his gallantry the young woman offers him a diamond
ring, which he even more gallantly refuses. What follows is perhaps the most
erotic moment in Dumas:
"'Close your eyes,' whispered the stranger, and Maurice did as he was
told. The woman took both his hands in hers and spun him round. Suddenly he
felt something like perfumed heat waft toward his face and a mouth brushed
his mouth, leaving the ring he had spurned between his lips."
Just as no brave young soldier could resist that provocation, neither could
any reader still breathing. Disobeying his word, Maurice goes in search of the
young woman, who he discovers is named Geneviève, and becomes a frequent
guest at the home she shares with her husband. Maurice and Geneviève
are, of course, in love. What we know but he only gradually comes to find
out is that she, her husband and his workers are a group of royalists plotting
to free Marie Antoinette and the remaining members of the royal family from
their captivity. The knight of the title is a mysterious royalist who has risked
death to sneak back into France to carry out his sworn duty to rescue the imprisoned
queen. He may or may not be modeled on Count Axel Fersen, who shared a close
relationship some say a love affair with Marie Antoinette.
Other historical figures take part in the novel, most memorably Simon, the
lout who is charged with the "re-education" of the young dauphin,
which amounts to a license to brutalize the poor boy. (Simon's actual treatment
of Louis Charles was even worse than Dumas suggests. The child's story, and
the story of the pretenders who claimed to be the lost dauphin in the years
following the revolution, can be read in Deborah Cadbury's The
Lost King of France, a wonderful book published earlier this year that is
a perfect companion piece to the Dumas novel.) Dumas also alludes to the claims
of incest the child was brainwashed into repeating at Marie Antoinette's trial.
Needless to say, The Knight of Maison-Rouge is the story of how Maurice
makes the tormented choice of allowing his love for Geneviève to outweigh
his dedication to the revolution. There are a few glaring anachronisms in Julie
Rose's translation, phrases that strike the reader's ear as contemporary. But
Dumas' sweeping, dramatic spirit comes through. This is a story where people
live or die for love and where we can take qualities like chivalry, duty and
honor seriously precisely because they are rendered in larger-than-life terms,
as is appropriate to a historical romance.
Though Dumas is often described as writing adventures, romance is a better
term. Many of his stories do not end happily. The Knight of Maison-Rouge
is no exception, but then, the fate of the French royal family does not lend
itself to happy endings. But what Dumas provides is the sort of sad ending that
is so transcendent it can be more enjoyable than a happy ending. You put down
"The Knight of Maison-Rouge" convinced that you've just spent time
in the company of the greatest entertainer ever to put pen to paper.