Thursday, April 29, 2010

I rejoiced to plunge into the book again at breakfast - R. L. Stevenson reads Alexandre Dumas

Robert Louis Stevenson’s favorite book, which he claims to have read “five or six” times, was The Vicomte de Bragelonne, or Ten Years After (1847-50) by Alexandre Dumas.  It’s the 1,500 page third part of the Three Musketeers saga. Most readers seem to skip to the final third of the novel, issued in English as The Man in the Iron Mask.  Stevenson loved the whole thing.

Almost.  In “A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas’s” (1887), Stevenson justifies his perplexing preference.  First, though, he is obligated to concede the novel’s faults.  The book “goes heavily enough” until Chapter XVII, which he admits is a bit long for an adventure, or any, novel.  The title character is inconsequential; the heroine is similarly weak, a fault that poor Stevenson finds understandable, if not forgivable:

Authors, at least, know it well; a heroine will too often start the trick of "getting ugly;" and no disease is more difficult to cure.  I said authors; but indeed I had a side eye to one author in particular, with whose works I am very well acquainted, though I cannot read them, and who has spent many vigils in this cause, sitting beside his ailing puppets and (like a magician) wearying his art to restore them to youth and beauty. (121)

I’m told that I can expect to find Stevenson’s only decent female character in Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped.

What does Stevenson love so in The Vicomte de Bragelonne?  Well, what’s not to love about this:

I would rise from my book and pull the blind aside, and see the snow and the glittering hollies chequer a Scotch garden, and the winter moonlight brighten the white hills. Thence I would turn again to that crowded and sunny field of life in which it was so easy to forget myself, my cares, and my surroundings: a place busy as a city, bright as a theatre, thronged with memorable faces, and sounding with delightful speech. I carried the thread of that epic into my slumbers, I woke with it unbroken, I rejoiced to plunge into the book again at breakfast, it was with a pang that I must lay it down and turn to my own labours; for no part of the world has ever seemed to me so charming as these pages, and not even my friends are quite so real, perhaps quite so dear, as d'Artagnan. (119)

Stevenson spends some time defending the morality of the novel and praising the depth of characterization of d’Artagnan, which he says will surprise readers who only know The Three Musketeers.  But really, his experience of reading Dumas is not quite explicable.  Readers will have their own books, their own adventures, which they carried to bed and rejoined at breakfast.  “A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas’s” is as much about the joys of reading as it is about Alexandre Dumas. And the subtext, of course: Stevenson is telling us what he is trying to do in his own books.

It’s curious that Stevenson never attempted anything of the sort himself.  His own novels, whatever their vices or virtues, are taut and efficient.  They are invariably well-written, by the standards of his day and ours.  They’re polished.  Which is the answer to the puzzle. Stevenson cared about his own writing, in a way that Dumas did not.  Stevenson wanted to write stirring, romantic Dumas-like scenes without giving up on good sentences.  So he wrote short, punchy stories rather than immense, sprawling ones.  Good.  Good.

This post is my contribution to the Alexandre Dumas Classics Circuit, which sneakily avoids any actual Dumas.  My own Dumas reading seems to have stalled out after The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-5).  Despite Stevenson's best efforts, Twenty Years After (1845) remains on the shelf.


  1. I love the way he says that even his friends were not "quite so real, perhaps quite so dear" as the character he was reading about.

  2. 'ailing puppets': that's nice.

    Personally I think winter moonlight on a Scottish garden sounds great!

    I haven't been able to get into Dumas, even after buying his Knight of the Maison-Rouge set during the French Revolution, but Stevenson is more readable and Treasure Island is certainly a great adventure too.

    It's so interesting to see what authors are influenced by what other authors, whether to go in a different direction or in the same way. When I was reading about Zola, I found that Henry James had written an essay on him while writing The Golden Bowl and the translator of The Kill seemed to think James had been influenced by Zola, at least on the point of semi-incest.

  3. You both suggest why I love that passage. Any "big reader" has felt the same way, about some book, some time.

    Henry James's suspicion of Zola is completely predictable. James is among the least conceptual novelists I can think of. His approach to fiction is entirely different. It's a testament to his critical open-mindedness that he eventually came around to Zola - L'Assomoir was the turnig point, it seems.

    I just glanced at the James essay on Zola, and at the Modern Library edition of The Kill. Thanks for the pointer - I'd like to pursue these ideas further sometime.