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From the Introduction by Bruce F. Murphy
In The Knight of Maison Rouge (1845), Alexandre Dumas raised the historical novel to a new level with a love story set during the terrible, “mythological” year of 1793. Here is history not as costume drama, but as living, breathing tragedy. With inexorable logic, the novel shows what happens when two people from opposite political camps fall in love during Robespierre's reign of terror. Lieutenant Maurice Lindey is an ardent young republican who hates tyranny and injustice whether they come from left or right, high or low, and who embodies Dumas' ideal of natural nobility of spirit. But such evenhandedness is a liability at a time when addressing someone as “monsieur” instead of “citizen” can bring one to the guillotine. A single gallant actescorting a beautiful and mysterious “woman of distinction” through the perilous streets of revolutionary Pariskindles a passion greater than love of country or honor. While Marie Antoinette languishes in prison awaiting trial and inevitable execution, Maurice makes daily visits to his love, Geneviève Dixmer, who happens to live in a quarter known to be the hiding place of the Chevalier of Maison Rouge, a daring counterrevolutionary, whose plots to free the queen have become notorious. Based on extensive research and Dumas’ personal experience of revolutionary movements, the novel is suffused with both the claustrophobia of a time when “one half of society closely watched the other,” and the intensity of loves and friendships born in the shadow of death.
Alexandre Dumas (18021870) was one of the dominant figures of the Romantic period, a writer whom Jules Michelet termed “a force of nature.” His volcanic outpouring of plays, novels, and other writings earned him a fortune while his flamboyant personal life made him a legend. The son of a half-Haitian general in Napoleon's army and a provincial innkeeper's daughter, Dumas came to Paris in 1823 and worked as a clerk in the household of the future king Louis-Phillipe. After gaining critical acclaim as a playwright, Dumas began to write the historical novels that are the source of his enduring fameThe Three Musketeeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, and many others. He traveled widely in search of material and background and employed a series of collaborators and researchers, whom he did not always recognize or pay, resulting sometimes in court cases (and once, a duel). His lifelong love of love affairs produced three illegitimate children, including the writer Alexandre Dumas fils. It is not only a romantic temperament that Dumas shares with the hero of The Chevalier of Maison Rouge, but political commitment: Dumas participated in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and supplied guns to Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. During his long career, Dumas wrote more than three hundred books and created some of the most famous characters of modern fiction.
In 1845, Alexandre Dumas was at the height of his powers and in the midst of a period of frenzied literary activity. In this annus mirabilis, the second volume of the Musketeers trilogy (Twenty Years After), The Count of Monte Cristo, and La Reine Margot were all running concurrently in different newspapers. In addition, Dumas began publishing the first historical novel he had ever written about the French RevolutionLe Chevalier de Maison Rouge. This was a significant departure. The period he chose, the Terror, was the most agonizing and horrific of the revolution. Not only that; it was the first time that Dumas had presented the French public with a novel set during a time in their history that was still within living memory. Many no doubt shivered at the scenes he brought to life.
And we may shiver also, for the Terror foreshadows the ideological extremismmadness, evenof events that are within our memory, whether one thinks of the fascist period in Europe, China’s Cultural Revolution, or the “disappeared” of Argentina's “dirty war.” Dumas lets us see what it is like to live in a situation where the rule of law has virtually broken down, because the law is changed day by day to destroy now this “enemy,” now that. In the novel’s opening scene, Paris is a dark labyrinth through which the citizens scurry like “wild beasts tracked by hunters to their lair.” But the hunters and the hunted are one and the same; as in Orwell's 1984, the only way to feel secure is by betraying someone else.
But there are some revolutionaries who uphold both liberty and gentility. One of these is Maurice Lindey, and his friend Louissarcastic versifier and picaresque soldieris another. As the story opens it is the night of March 10, 1793, and the Jacobins are about to crush the Girondists, the last dike holding back the full flood of the Terror. It is not an auspicious time for two soldiers of the revolution to grant favors to obviously well-born ladies, but that is exactly what Maurice and Louis do. And thereby hangs the tale.
A simple conundrum can be a strong mainspring for a plot (especially on the stage), and Dumas was adept at creating such puzzles. For example, a French queen gives precious jewels to her lover, who returns with them to England; her enemies then arrange for the king to give a ball and ask her to wear the jewels for the occasion (The Three Musketeers). In the case of The Chevalier of Maison Rouge, the question is: what happens when a man, for political reasons (the success of a cabal), must force together his wife and the man who loves her, and whom she perhaps loves?
In one of Dumas's more erotic scenes, before stealing away into the night, the mysterious woman asks Maurice to close his eyes and then kisses him, simultaneously placing one of her rings inside his mouth. He returns to the neighborhood later, desperate to learn her identity. She is Geneviève Dixmer, the elegant young wife of a coarse, middle-aged tanner. It rapidly becomes clear to us (but not, somewhat unbelievably, to Maurice) that Dixmer is playing a deep game, and he encourages the friendship between his wife and the young lieutenant because Maurice's unit periodically is assigned to guard the queen. In fact, Dixmer and his associate Morand (of whom Maurice is irrationally jealous) manoeuvre Maurice into offering Geneviève and Morand an opportunity to see the long-suffering queen (Louis XVI had been beheaded in January 1793, two months before the story begins). Marie Antoinette is throughout presented as brave and steadfast. She is adored by the Chevalier of Maison Rouge, whose attempts to rescue her provide the action while the lovers' unsatisfied ardor provides the tension.
Maurice's character mirrors Dumas' own divided allegiances. Dumas' father was the son of a nobleman (the Marquis Antoine-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie) who had emigrated to Haiti and Marie-Céssette Dumas, a slave. Dumas admired both aristocratic virtues and the grit and determination of the underdog. Similarly, Maurice is half-aristocrat, half-revolutionary, “independent by fortune and a republican in principles.” At one point he identifies himself as a “Jacobin,” and is described as “a child of the Revolution with a heart of flint.” Yet he finds that love transcends all values, even that of life itself.
What Dumas hated was cynicism, cowardice, and the rabble that tears down an ideal but has nothing to put in its place. In The Chevalier of Maison Rouge, Dumas again presents the lower classes in an unflattering light. Whereas the aristocrats have their nobility, the military has its sense of honor and the professional revolutionaries worship an ideal. The masses seize their chance not only to destroy social injustice, but everything they hate for being better, nobler, and more beautiful than they. Maurice and Louis find themselves dogged at every turn by Simon the shoemaker, the personification of the viciousness of the mob. He physically abuses the young Louis XVII, and is one of those “cowards who, totally deficient in real courage, retain a desire to torture the vanquished, in order to persuade themselves that they are the conquerors.”
What is most impressive is Dumas' understanding of what it means to grow up in “an epoch when politics were mixed up in everything,” and how this affects mind and emotions. History is not merely the backdrop for the drama, but rather a no-man's-land the lovers have to cross in order to reach each other. In this novel, politics is a game only in the sense in which hunting is a sport; it smells of powder and blood, fear and death. Criticsever ready to believe that nothing that is very popular can be any gooddisparaged Dumas in his own time as a “factory” rather than a writer. But his attention to language is revealed here in the numerous remarks upon “the language imposed by the Republican vocabulary,” the revolutionary correctness in speech which, if one failed to observe it, could result in death. Phrases like “the revolutionary principles which have effaced all distinction” sound much like the slogans of other ideological regimes; and when ideology and reality conflict, reality is always judged to be in the wrong. Perhaps this is why Maurice, a child of the revolution, finds himself at one point “unable to analyze his own emotions.” Words like “love,” “honor,” “transcendence,” and “soul” may be abolished, but not the things they stand for.
Certain remarks of the narrator show Dumas' fascination with historical detail and research, as when he mentions that there were thirty-three prisons in Paris at the time of story. Other details chillingly convey the atmosphere of paranoia and the horror of revolutionary violence. There are the subterranean channels leading from the basement cells of prisons to the Seine, by which the bodies of victims are unobtrusively dumped into the river; there is the wardrobe where the executioner keeps his “perquisites,” such as the “bloodstained garments of those executed on the preceding evening” and “long tresses of hair,” which he sells back to the families of the victims. Most affecting of all is the “hall of the dead,” in which those condemned to the guillotine wait for the carts that will take them to the Place de la Revolution:
Around him were several individuals, mute with despair . . . inscribing in their notebooks some indistinct words, or pressing one another's hands, some repeating, without intermission, a cherished name, as if imbecile, or bathing with tears a portrait, a ring, or tress of hair, some hurling imprecations against tyranny . . .
In the end, the revolution has simply become a machine for destroying human beingssymbolized by the guillotine itself. As one young patriot observes a moment before being put to death by his fellow patriots, “Yes, to die for our country; but decidedly I begin to think we do not die for her, but for the pleasure of those who witness our deaths.” Most grotesquely, the innocent are the guiltiestbecause they have no one else to betray. History has come full circle. Liberty was the end of the revolution; now the revolution is the end of liberty.
Bruce F. Murphy is the author of The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (2001) and the editor of the fourth edition of Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia (1996). His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Paris Review, Poetry, TriQuarterly, and other journals.