The Red Sphinx: Alexandre Dumas

★★★★

Now that Christmas is almost upon us, we can start planning reading lists for the New Year. For those who love derring-do, intrigue and swashbuckling, there’s a treat coming up in January: a fresh new translation of a little-known sequel to The Three Musketeers. Although the musketeers themselves don’t appear, there’s a handsome young hero, a beautiful heroine, battles, plots and, bestriding everything like a colossus, the Red Sphinx himself: the shrewd Cardinal Richelieu.

In the opening chapter, a hunchbacked nobleman attempts to hire a swordsman to do away with a rival in love. However, the sellsword, Etienne Latil, has inconvenient principles and, when he hears that his quarry is the Comte de Moret, the illegitimate son of Henry IV, he refuses the job. A duel becomes a mugging; poor Latil finds himself close to death; and the nobleman escapes with the aid of his friends. But a mysterious young man, disguised as a Basque peasant, has been meeting a lady upstairs in that very inn during the fracas and it transpires that he is none either than the Comte de Moret himself who, on hearing of the sacrifice Latil has made, leaves him money to aid his recovery.

Moret has only recently arrived in Paris, but he’s already being drawn into court intrigue. The lady he’s been meeting at the inn is none other than one of Queen Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, the irrepressible Fargis. She invites him to a secret meeting with the Queen, at which Moret discovers that the Queen, the Queen Mother Marie de’ Medici, and the king’s brother Gaston d’Orleans, are plotting against Cardinal Richelieu. Nothing new there, perhaps. But there are darker plots swimming under the surface. For Louis XIII, sombre and dark and lacking all the energy of his murdered father Henry IV, is too readily influenced by the Cardinal. There are public rumours suggesting that he isn’t even Henry IV’s real son – that Marie de’ Medici’s amours with her Italian favourites have stocked the royal nursery. Moret, as the only ‘true’ son of Henry IV, is a valuable ally and the plotters hope to win him to their cause. Fortunately, there is one very powerful factor luring him in. For Moret has fallen immediately, irrevocably in love with another of Queen Anne’s ladies, the virginal Isabelle de Lautrec.

Now, I’m used to thinking of Cardinal Richelieu as the baddie, so none of this was a surprise, but Dumas then takes us to spend some time with the Cardinal himself. And it becomes clear that late Dumas is much more sympathetic to Richelieu than young Dumas was. The Richelieu of the Sphinx is a hero: an overworked, loyal, self-sacrificing servant of France, who advises Louis XIII not from a desire for personal advancement but purely for the interest of the country. His network of spies keep him informed about everything that happens at court, and he knows only too well that the Queen and Queen Mother would do anything to see him brought low – and yet he works on, modestly and without challenging them openly.

Yet events are about to place the king in a conundrum – advised one way by the Cardinal, in the interests of France – and another way by the Queen and the Queen Mother, who secretly remain loyal to the interests of Spain and Austria. War is brewing in Italy, where the Duke of Mantua has died. The French have managed to get their own man, the Duc de Nevers, named as his heir, but the Duke of Savoy is poised to challenge this in the name of Spain. Personal, political, romantic and military interests become combined in a potent mixture, which will challenge all our heroes to declare their allegiances once and for all.

The Red Sphinx dates from the very end of Dumas’s career, when his publishers encouraged him to embark on another adventure story to be serialised in the press. Sphinx takes up the tale only a month after the conclusion of the events told in The Three Musketeers and long before the ‘official’ sequel, Twenty Years After. It was told in installments in the periodical Nouvelles. However, that publication folded before the story was done and Dumas, for whatever reason, didn’t have the energy to put an end to it. The tale has therefore lingered, unfinished (and closing on a bit of a cliffhanger). But Lawrence Ellsworth, the translator of this new version, has linked the Sphinx to an early short story by Dumas, The Dove, in which some of the characters reappear – albeit with a markedly different worldview. Both Sphinx and Dove are included in this volume, which thus brings the story to a more satisfying close.

As Ellsworth (the penname of Lawrence Schick) admits in the introduction, Sphinx isn’t Dumas at his absolute best. It shows a mature writer trying to recapture the panache of his youth and, though he often succeeds, there are fairly long passages of exposition. Whole chapters are occasionally devoted to explaining the political situation of Europe at the time, and any introduction of a new character is liable to be accompanied by a litany of stories about his or her personality, gleaned from memoirs of the time. From the point of view of a reader who needs a bit of help understanding the period, this can be useful. But it does interrupt the flow of the story and it’s important to note that Dumas, several times, protests that he wants readers both to be entertained and educated. As a novel, Sphinx might have flowed more easily if he’d stuck to the entertainment. And, of course, the break between Sphinx and Dove is quite marked, not least because the stories are told in radically different styles. Sphinx is classic Dumas, full of humour and brio. Dove is more earnest and sentimental and is less to my taste, but makes a pleasing conclusion.

The real star of this volume is the translation. Ellsworth is a fascinating character, who has devoted his life to swashbuckling in all its forms. He says that he learned French in order to read Dumas in the original; he has edited the appealingly-named Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure; and, when not editing or translating, spends a lot of time dressed in 17th-century costume at reenactments and role-playing events. His website is even called SwashbucklingAdventure.net. I like this guy. His translation is much more lively and engaging than others I’ve read of Dumas – particularly those of the traditional Musketeer sequels (Twenty Years After, Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de Vallière and The Man in the Iron Mask), which, to be honest, I found a bit of a slog. Ellsworth captures all the fun and liveliness of Dumas’s French and I’m thrilled to see that he’s already completed a translation of Musketeers itself, which I hope will also be published. For once, I’ve taken the translation into consideration in my rating: it’s pushed it up an extra half star.

My advice is not to worry too much about the political situation. It will become clear by the end of the book and, if you can’t remember all the different characters (as I can’t), you can always go back and read it again. I’ll be buying a paperback copy when it comes out, as I found myself rather daunted by the book in Kindle form – it’s just so long that you don’t feel you’re making any progress, and I’d rather have the paper version in my hands. Just abandon yourselves to the power-struggles between Queens and Cardinal, and savour the adventure. There are narrow escapes from smugglers in moonlit mountain passes; principled bravos; disguises and secret passages; messages written with invisible ink; and even a duel fought in sedan chairs. It’s a delicious, if lengthy, addition to the Dumas canon and it’s worth buying if only for Ellsworth’s delightful translation, which simply bristles with his love of the author’s work.

This is great fun: real, solid, old-fashioned swashbuckling. In finishing it, I’ve also reached a small milestone: for the first time, since I started reviewing books from Netgalley, I’m 100% up to date!

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

I don’t normally include photos of the translators, but Ellsworth is such a character that I can’t resist. Here he is in his 17th-century persona.

Lawrence Ellsworth

Lawrence Ellsworth © Nina Harwick

3 thoughts on “The Red Sphinx: Alexandre Dumas

  1. Helen says:

    I received this from Netgalley a few weeks ago but haven’t read it yet because I’m actually in the middle of The Man in the Iron Mask at the moment. When I’ve finished it, I’ll have a short break then start this one. I’m pleased to hear you’ve enjoyed it and given it a high rating – a good translation can make a big difference! I’m also impressed that you’re up to date with your Netgalley reviews. I wish I could say the same!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Ha ha – you seem to do a lot more reviews for Netgalley than I do, so I suspect it’s rather easier for me to be up to date! I shall look forward to hearing what you think of this. Of course I fully expected you to have requested it as well, knowing our shared fondness for swashbuckling!

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