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le chevalier de maison-rouge

6 may 2024

It's 1793, the depth of the Terror in revolutionary Paris. A beautiful woman, out wandering at night without papers, falls into the hands of a mob, who propose to set her on the fast track to the guillotine. But an errant champion named Maurice Lindey intervenes, and rescues the young woman. And, of course, falls hopelessly in love with her.

But Maurice is not "Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge" of Alexandre Dumas père's title. The Redhouse Knight is a more shadowy character, a Scarlet-Pimpernel type, except that The Scarlet Pimpernel wasn't written till 60 years after Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge. Maurice, by contrast, is a committed revolutionary – in fact, an official of some consequence in the provisional republican authorities. But he's also a natural gentleman, and a Romantic avant le lettre.

So Maurice sets out to find the mysterious woman (who disappeared into the night), and once he finds her, to woo her (although she is already married, to a wealthy tradesman). Meanwhile, Maurice is in the implausible position of at once preventing Marie-Antoinette from fleeing her revolutionary captors, and of unwittingly abetting his crush Geneviève Dixmer in her attempts to help Marie-Antoinette escape. And at considerable, 19th-century-novel length, we follow many a wildly-conceived plot to spring the Widow Capet from the various prisons she's shuttled around to on her way to the guillotine.

Dumas' plot mechanics are pretty creaky. His scope ranges across many settings and situations, but to keep them all threaded together, he's forced to interject his characters awkwardly into all kinds of situations they couldn't plausibly get into. Aristocrats infiltrate revolutionary prisons. Random soldiers play key roles in royal trials. Maximum-security prisons seem to have revolving doors. The Redhouse Knight himself keeps turning up as different aliases, a chameleon in appearance, gaining access thereby to anywhere the plot needs to go. So many characters go by multiple names that Dumas is forced to tick off their AKAs when he reintroduces them.

Throughout the novel, Dumas' signature concern with imprisonment and escape keeps returning to the fore, with more insistence than in any of his other novels I've read, with the exception of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. Most of its heroes end up in one prison or another along the way. Early on, Maurice gets locked up in a garden shed, and has to devise a plan to get the drop on his captors and try to break out. Perhaps the thrill of being captured and trying to find a way out is archetypal. Perhaps captivity narratives uniquely suited Dumas and his many collaborators (here, to some extent, Auguste Maquet) – or were in exceptional demand from the public they were writing for.

Dumas, Alexandre. Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge. 1845. Kindle Edition.