The story behind the recent arrival of a newly updated version of The Knight of Maison-Rouge (Modern Library) could come from Alexandre Dumas himself. A thrilling, swashbuckling tale is lost in a heap of dust, only to be rediscovered many decades later, freshly translated and sent back out into the world.
Just as improbable as a fresh work being discovered from a long-dead author (Dumas died in 1870) are the quality and contemporary resonance that fuel the novel. Set in 1793 during the Reign of Terror led by Robespierre and the Jacobins, The Knight of Maison-Rouge offers powerful, frightening scenes of life during a turbulent political era drenched in suspicious language, crushing fundamentalism and corrupt, base condemnation.
Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was a brilliant historical novelist. This refurbished novel does nothing to diminish that reputation. The insatiable author feels no need to hammer his points home; instead, a cast of expertly rendered characters -- royalists, republicans, rogues and political opportunists -- takes the reader on harrowing journeys through the Parisian streets of the late 18th century.
Translator Julie Rose, an Australian, renders Dumas' prose with verve, precision and not a little wit. The Knight of Maison-Rouge, whose title character is based on a real-life royalist who made several daring attempts to spare Marie Antoinette the guillotine, is a crisp and compelling read with nary an anachronism in sight.
"It was a matter of getting the right tone and muscular rhythm," Rose says. The novel's lack of translation since the late 19th century made the project more appealing. After all, for most readers this will be considered a new work in the Dumas canon.
Dumas wrote the book a half-century after the events depicted, but, as ever, his command of the French character and mastery of period detail make it eminently believable. The protagonists are republican guard Maurice Lindey and Lorin, his verse-addled companion.
Each man is an avowed supporter of the movement that has already taken the life of Louis XVI and will soon dispatch his widow, Marie Antoinette. She is now derisively known as "Madame Veto" or "the Austrian," a reference to her native country. The anti-monarchist bent translated to the language of everyone: "monsieur" and "madame" were jettisoned in favor of "citizen" and "citizeness." References to Antoinette as the queen were not merely verboten, they were suspicious. The price for such apostasy was steep: rigged juries and trials, followed by the guillotine, the chopping block that served France's killing frenzy on a daily basis.
The novel's tension begins with the dissension between the republican reformers and the underground royalists,and extends through the internecine feuds boiling between Robespierre radicals and less-severe reformers. With Dumas, though, such poli-sci summaries of the novel's themes are unfair; his characters are surrounded by friends and family with allegiances of varying persuasion, complicating everything while illustrating the flaws of all political dogma. Such predicaments do more to demonstrate the lethal realities of a poisoned society far better than an academic summary of political philosophies and alliances.
The humanity of Lindey and Lorin prevents them from endorsing the increasingly harsh brand of republican governance sweeping Paris. Romantic love, rather than love of country, proves even more vexing. Notions of friend and foe, like much else during the Terror, take a savage beating. What Faulkner later deemed the central theme in any story -- the human heart in conflict with itself -- abounds in The Knight of Maison-Rouge.
Dumas writes of the intrigue inherent in every conversation and each chance encounter during this time: "Politics was the topic -- how could it be otherwise? What else did you talk about in an era in which politics cropped up everywhere, looked up at you from the bottom of dinner plates, papered the walls, was proclaimed at every hour in the street?" Antoinette, as Dumas depicts her, isn't the haughty aristocrat many remember from history class, but bears a stiff-lipped grace that is, at heart, an affecting portrait of admirable humanity.
The mysterious knight's thrilling rescue attempts -- through coded messages, secret tunnels and costumed disguises -- elicit soaring hopes in the reader over the prospects for the erstwhile queen's freedom.
There are no pronouncements from Antoinette, or anyone else, to let them eat cake. As Dumas portrays late 18th century France, the national motto becomes far more chilling: let them drink blood.