Readers of my recent blogs may have noticed me dropping a name, nothing really to do with the books I was reviewing. So, just in case you’re wondering, I’ll drop it again – Alexandre Dumas – one of the greatest storytellers who ever lived. And for me, as a devotee of historical fiction, he is and always will be one of my all-time favourite writers. Having made my confession – nailed my colours to the mast, so to speak – I thought it was about time I posted a review of a REAL classic, a book I’ve read many times, in the original French as well as in English:
The Count of Monte Cristo
‘…the whole of human wisdom is summed up in just two words: Wait and hope.’
The problem with The Count of Monte Cristo is that everyone has seen the movie. We all think it tells the story. It doesn’t! In fact I can think of no film that has come close to doing justice to Dumas’ work, either in action or in characterisation.
The Count of Monte Cristo was first published in 1845 and is set in France in the Napoleonic Age. It tells the story of Edmond Dantes, whom we first meet as a young sailor returning home to his father and to Mercedes, his lovely betrothed. He is carrying a letter given to him on the Island of St Helena which he has promised his dying captain to deliver to an address in Paris. A political innocent, Edmond does not realise that mere knowledge of the letter makes him complicit in a Bonapartist plot to restore Napoleon as emperor of France.
Edmond’s engagement to Mercedes and his quick promotion to captain make him enemies. Fernand wants Mercedes for himself, while Danglars believes he should be captain of the Pharon, the ship owned by the Morrell Company. Danglars concocts a plot to compromise Edmond with the law. He dictates a letter of his own, which Fernand writes and sends to the king’s procureur, the public prosecutor.
Soldiers arrive during Edmond’s wedding feast to arrest him, and take him before the deputy procureur, Villefort. When Villefort realises the addressee of Edmond’s letter is his own father, a known Bonapartist, he commits Edmond to the Chateau d’If, an island prison off the coast of Marseilles.
Edmond is rescued from thoughts of suicide by Faria, a fellow prisoner, a scientist, linguist and philosopher, who teaches him all he knows and confides to him the wherabouts of a long-lost fortune. When, after fourteen years, Edmond escapes, he finds the treasure in the grottos of the isle of Monte Cristo and sets about avenging himself on his enemies. But his first action is to rescue the family of Morrell, his former employer, from destitution. This he does in the persona of the mysterious ‘Sinbad the Sailor.’
Fernand, Danglars and Villefort are now rich and powerful people. Fernand is now Count Morcef and has married Mercedes. Danglars is a banker and a baron. Villefort is procureur general. However, they have not come to power without leaving a trail of sinister secrets, which Edmond, now Count of Monte Cristo, uses to destroy them. He enters Paris society accompanied by a young Greek girl, Haydee, whom he calls his slave, and strikes up a friendship with Maximilian Morell, son of his former master. The rest of the book – about two thirds of it – tells what happens.
Uncompromising in his pursuit of revenge, Monte Cristo begins to forget his humanity. His actions, however just in principle, have unintended consequences, and threaten the innocent as well as the guilty: Mercedes and her son; Haydee, who loves him; and Valentine, the daughter of Villefort.
‘An accursed family,” he says when Maximilian confronts him with the horror that is taking place in the Villefort household. ‘What is it to me?‘ ‘But I love her,’ Maximilian replies.
To reveal more would be a spoiler. I will say only that The Count of Monte Cristo does not have the happy-ever-after ending depicted in the movies. Dumas gives us a much more satisfying one because it leaves the reader with questions.
Forget everything that Hollywood has served up as an apology for Dumas’s masterpiece. It is a book about jealousy, envy, treachery and ambition, but also about love and humanity.
Read it for yourself!