Aug

12

 I have found a worthy complement to the O'Brien series: Dumas' The Last Cavalier

In 1997 someone had gone through an old French newspaper and found a serialization of Dumas's last work, which had never been published as a book because it was unfinished. Finally it was published in 2005. I happened to buy a copy then, but have only just gotten around to reading it.

I have found it absolutely fantastic. For those who like historical novels, it provides great coverage of the Napoleonic era, the period after the revolution. If you are (as many on the list) a fan of the Patrick O'Brien series about Jack Aubrey, you will find this book gives you the French side of many of the events. One of Aubrey's counterparts would have been Robert Surcouf, so-called King of the [French] Corsairs. Of course Aubrey was fictional and Surcouf real. Dumas' tales of Surcouf are just as good as O'Brien's tales of Aubrey. The protagonist in Cavalier is mentored by Surcouf. Additionally there is an excellent play-by-play account of the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson's death.

Dumas has written so much, that there are bound to be repeated scenes. An obvious one is that in which an engaged couple signs the marriage contract. That scene in Count is repeated in Cavalier including where the groom disappears immediately before signing, although the respective grooms depart for different reasons. The Tuileries Palace discussions of Louis XVIII and his staff in Count are repeated with Napoleon and his staff in Cavalier, although chronologically Cavalier precedes Count by at least a decade.

Dumas seems to want to please everyone, and refrains from taking sides, which probably accounts for his publishing success, as both Republicans and Royalists could find something to cheer about. He also provides entertainment for his female audience - lots of social gatherings.

This is a long book. My copy was 700+ pages; the action spanning six years with additional prior history.

The first 300+ pages deal with politics and troubles of a police state, somewhat on edge because of an uprising in Brittany. The parallels to the current political scene are startling. Supporters of Napoleon attributed everything good to him, while the Royalists blamed everything bad on him. One hopes we do not undergo a similar war of extermination. Finally our protagonist gets his freedom and goes on one swashbuckling episode after another, much like the Musketeers.

Dumas meant for it to cover perhaps another eight years if you consider the 14 years from the signing of the marriage contract mentioned by the soothsayer. And I truly wished it had. It's one of those books you hate to have end.

Further editing to put it into a book by Dumas would have made it even better. Still, some of ways he conveys information are extremely well done. He spoke of Surcouf (Jack Aubrey's counterpart) as a man whose one good fairy not invited to his baptism was Patience. And he chastises young men for leaving their health in brothels and their purses in taverns. Another: "While Nature may have given him a lot of excellent qualities, it had refused him like qualities of the mind."

As the Chair has said, some of the best reading is over a hundred years old.


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