Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Memoirs of the Count De Rochefort by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras

Comte de Rochefort is one of the most memorable secondary characters in Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After. But Dumas did not make up the character himself. He got it from an earlier novel written by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras in 1678 (translated into English in 1696). In Dumas' handling, Comte de Rochefort was a cunning antagonist and later a friend to titular character d'Artagnan, as well as a loyal servant to Cardinal Richelieu. Because of my enthusiasm with the 17th century, I was more than eager to read fiction both set in the era and written during it.

When delving in to classical fiction, the writing style and storytelling styles get more and more alien to a modern reader the farther into the past we go. Novels written in the early days of fiction writing had a tendency to deviate from the main story to basically write essays about the time, morals or other issues that the author felt were important. A coherent story was far less important than it is today. As such, it is very hard to review them from the perspective of a modern reader.

Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras wrote The Memoirs of the Count De Rochefort using the pen name of the titular character himself, making it seem that they were the actual memoirs of a historical individual. In the story, the author rarely mentions exact years, which makes the tracking of the story timeline somewhat difficult, but it appears to place a fifteen-year-old Comte de Rochefort at the Siege of Salses. I only found references to one siege which took place in 1639–1640. On the other hand, the story also includes Louis de Marillac, a good friend of Rochefort, who was decapitated in 1632. In the novel, this happens long after the siege I found, so it may be that de Sandras is describing an earlier siege in the same area. A better hint is Rochefort's age at the end of the story, which appears to be around 70 and corresponds probably with the publication date of the novel. That would mean that he was around 15 in 1623 when he is sent to Cardinal Richelieu (who became the cardinal in 1622). This seems to fit with some other dates mentioned in the novel as well (although my Kindle destroyed my notes and highlights, so I cannot check all of them).

The story is told in the form of memoirs, beginning from Rochefort's early childhood and how he was kicked out of his home when his father remarried, joined a band of gypsies and finally entered military service at around fourteen. There he managed to prove himself and received an invitation to see Cardinal Richelieu himself. At around this point, Rochefort begins to lose agency in his own story and the focus moves to various political intrigues and random, disjointed events that he is only peripherally connected to. This grows worse as the novel continues and you begin to recognise the pattern of a quick introduction of new characters, the problem they face, how Rochefort advises them and how the situation is resolved after a difficulty or two. Rinse and repeat with a new cast of characters. It is basically a collection of anecdotes that are only loosely connected by the device of a memoir and Rochefort himself is there only in the role of a storyteller. There are a few events further on that continue telling his story, but these are few and far between.

Overall, the book required persistence to get through and offered relatively little in the way of historical details of the period, except where it came to politics and legal intrigue (more than one of the stories involve magistrates and legal disputes). I can only recommend this to the utmost fans of Dumas' The Three Musketeers who simply have to find out where Dumas got some of his characters and ideas from.