THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, by Alexandre Dumas
I was an avid reader as a child. I was given my first copy – which I still possess – of Monte Cristo when I was about eight, and ever since it has been an integral piece of my mental furniture – a palace of manifold delights, constantly revisited, most recently in the Penguin Classics’ first complete modern translation.
Dumas – aided by his backroom helpers; he had a small industry of assistant scribes – was a master storyteller. It is due to him, more than anyone else, that my fascination with French history was kindled: first, of course, by the Three Musketeers and other d’Artagnan romances; and above all by Monte Cristo, so evocative of the post-Napoleonic political feuds that survived into the Bourbon Restoration.
As a child, I did not immediately realise the significance of this historical background. The plot, in all its intricacies of sub-plots and a myriad of memorable characters whose respective fates are remorselessly intertwined, was totally absorbing in itself. To those who are not familiar with the story, I can only say read the Penguin Classics Count of Monte Cristo, and immerse yourself in all 117 chapters and 1078 pages of it: You will, I hope, find yourself enthralled by the most gripping account imaginable of Revenge, relentlessly pursued down the years until the last shred of wrongdoing has been exposed and called to account.
The varied changes of scene, and the development of character in the main protagonists, are the creation of a profound psychologist of human nature. Dumas himself had a colourful background and an adventurous life, which he drew on to give authenticity to his novels. Monte Cristo opens in sunshine and hope. The young sailor Edmond Dantès returns to his home
But jealousy and politics intervene. The shaky first Bourbon Restoration is about to be overthrown by Napoléon’s return from
Painstakingly, clue by clue, Monte Cristo unravels the plot against him, pieces together the reasons for his imprisonment, and identifies the culprits, some of whom are now themselves rich and powerful. He dedicates himself to their downfall, and pursues his objective singlemindedly and remorselessly. His deep and devious schemes are made possible by his limitless wealth, and are also favoured by fortune. At the end of the novel all his enemies are ignominiously dead, or grovelling at his feet.
If this account makes The Count of Monte Cristo sound a grim and bleak affair, that is far from being the case. The novel abounds in contrasts of scene and character, and there are some highly amusing episodes – such as how the Count saves from being ravaged by dormice the peaches of a telegraph operator who is also an enthusiastic gardener; and the comic misadventures of the rascally Cavalcanti father and son. Almost at the very end, there is a poignant scene where the Count visits the widowed Mercédès, whose husband – his most vindictive enemy – he has publicly humiliated and driven to suicide, at the little house in a Marseilles backstreet where his old father was allowed by his enemies to starve to death, and which he has now given to Mercédès – no longer a wealthy Countess - as a humble last refuge.
Sentimentalists – of whom I am one – might wish that