Ash Smyth

Swash and buckle aplenty

The Red Sphinx may be as subtle as a Verdi opera worked over by the Daily Mail — but who cares, when it’s so enjoyable?

Swash and buckle aplenty
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The Red Sphinx, or The Comte de Moret

Alexandre Dumas, edited and translated by Lawrence Ellsworth

Pegasus Books, pp. 808, £

A feeble king and his scheming minister, a hunchback noble and the Daughters of Repentance, a botched assassination and a walled-up prisoner, some comic horse-sex, cross-dressing valets, a handful of gay jokes, a dwarf, and a literal éminence grise. The latest instalment of Game of Thrones? No, actually: a sequel to The Three Musketeers.

December 1628, mere weeks after the great siege of La Rochelle, and attention has now turned to the goings-on in Italy, where France is being outmanoeuvred by Spain and the Austrian Habsburgs. The childless Louis XIII is forever said to be at death’s door; Queen Anne still mourns her departed lover Buckingham; the Queen Mother plots to put her second son upon the throne; and Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duke of Richelieu and of Fronsac, is, as usual, trying to keep his head atop his shoulders in the most difficult of circumstances.

Into all this strolls the Comte de Moret, aka Antoine de Bourbon, ‘natural son’ of Henri IV and therefore Louis’s half-brother (yes, another brother). He’s in disguise for now (of course), but to cut a long story short — i.e. 600 pages later — they do eventually invade Piedmont, the Comte in the heroic lead. And here the novel ends — quite accidentally, on something of a cliffhanger — because the paper it was churned out for went bust.

Serialised from 1865–66, The Red Sphinx is Alexandre Dumas’s unabashed attempt at recapturing certain former glories. With its cantering pace and patchwork of court gossip, official correspondence, ‘gallantry’ (that is, sex), operatically fortuitous timings and 13-page historical sidebars, it is basically a mash-up of every other Dumas novel, with all the subtlety and nuance of a Verdi opera worked over by the Daily Mail. (I stopped, in fact, to check it wasn’t just a cheeky franchise spin-off.) But there is swash and buckle aplenty, and even plumage if that’s what does it for you. And it is great fun.

Its translator, Lawrence Ellsworth, makes no bones about Dumas’s penny-a-line prose, which comes out considerably more brawling than the Collins pocket hardbacks I was weaned on. But there’s no denying Dumas’s own too-frequent clunkers (‘Boileau, who wouldn’t be born for another eight years, hadn’t yet said...’), his anachronistic perspectives, the open adverts for preceding novels and everywhere the smudgy fingerprints of the project’s journalistic origin. Given the avowedly unfinished nature of the source material, more editorial involvement might have been a kindness.

Still, The Red Sphinx is a nice find for the completist. D’Artagnan enthusiasts take note, however: the musketeers make no appearance here. And Cardinal Richelieu is no longer the villain. In fact, he is the central character. Though we don’t set eyes on him for the first 100 pages, the Cardinal then furiously and comprehensively takes over: ‘a figure fine, keen, and vigorous’, a ‘physical and moral genius’… ‘who manipulated all Europe from [his] study’. Not only is he a loyal and efficient servant of the French crown, what’s more, but he is also shown as generous, compassionate and oftentimes light-hearted. A pleasant enough surprise, for sure — and perhaps not only to the reader. Dumas’s newspaper title was Le Comte de Moret; but the tale reads now like an apology to Richelieu —one Dumas only knew that he was making many weeks into its publication.

This does not quite fit with Ellsworth’s chosen ‘ending’ — Dumas’s inflamed epistolary novella The Dove (published 1850), about the latter fortunes of Moret and his true love Isabelle de Lautrec. It is, mais oui, jam-packed with high poetry, historical allusions, and absurd coincidences — but we also lurch back to the old trope of the Cardinal as cruel and avaricious tyrant. It is an ending in the same way that The Red Sphinx is ‘a sequel’. Does it work? Not particularly. Does it matter? No, it doesn’t.