Dumas’s Telling of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace

I’m a little shocked at how long it’s been since I last wrote a blog post. That’s what happens when you’re having fun! With the holidays and various other real-world things to deal with, I’m afraid I haven’t been focused on this blog.

However, I got a Kindle for Christmas. Among the benefits of a Kindle is being able to download pretty much any out-of-copyright book for free. One such book is The Queen’s Necklace by Alexandre Dumas. This is Dumas’s version of the Affair. As a novelist writing about the same incident, I was, of course, interested in how a great novelist like Dumas treated it. Dumas had two things going for him: he was born only twenty years or so after the Affair, and he was French. He also was a great writer.

Victorian novels were not the same as modern novels. They were the same format, but the conventions and styling were different. The narrator often spoke to the reader (“Reader, I married him,” says Jane Eyre to us, the readers), and events were more theatrical. There was much less internal dialogue. These things are true of Dumas’s work as well. It’s not florid like so many Victorian novels; in fact, I would say the details are pretty sparse. It’s driven largely by dialogue and exposition.

The Queen’s Necklace begins with a very entertaining dinner party put on in 1784 by Richelieu, one of the old guard at Louis XVI’s court. He and his servant banter about the coming party. It’s interesting to see the interaction, because you’d expect a sly old dog like Richelieu to always get the upper hand, but it’s the servant who ends up on top in the verbal sparring. He has everything under control, though he lets Richelieu question him and fume at him. It’s amusing–but has little to do with the Affair.

The party itself, however, is another story. The most interesting guest at the party is Count Cagliostro, the one and only. Dumas presents him as someone you’re inclined to laugh at. Everyone there at the supper party, at least, is inclined to laugh at him, including Madame du Barry and Governor de Launay. They test his powers of precognition and his claims to have lived long enough to see the pyramids built. Cagliostro answers them, but we the reader aren’t (supposed to be) convinced (I don’t think). But then Cagliostro begins prophesying the deaths of those at the party. For those who know these people’s ultimate fate, it’s eerily accurate. So, is Dumas saying Cagliostro really had some mystical powers and was able to tell the future? Or is this just an entertaining in-joke? I mean, the fates of the supper guests would have been commonly known to his original audience. Are we meant to chuckle at the irony when du Barry poo-poos the idea that she might be executed like a common criminal? No matter what the case may be, Dumas uses Cagliostro to his full, theatrical potential.

The story moves on to slightly more mundane things after this. We meet the Queen getting out of her sleigh in Paris. We don’t know immediately that it’s Marie-Antoinette, but it doesn’t take long to figure that out (again, a healthy dose of knowledge about the people and places involved is helpful). The Queen is on her way to meet a young lady in a ramshackle house. The lady is Jeanne de La Motte. I haven’t gotten very far in The Queen’s Necklace, but it appears that in Dumas’s version the Queen is innocent of wrongdoing. However, there’s no historical reason to think the Queen ever met Jeanne before the trial, so this meeting plays into the stories/lies that Jeanne told. I won’t fault Dumas for it, though; it’s possible that it happened and it makes for a good story.

After the meeting, the queen gets into some mild trouble trying to get home to Versailes. We meet a few dashing young men as well as the Duc d’Artois, Louis XIV’s brother and therefore Marie-Antoinette’s brother-in-law. She gets into a disagreement with the king, and the Diamond Necklace itself is brought up. The king offers to buy it for her, but she refuses because it’s too extravagant. This is certainly true. The queen refused to buy it, both because it was too expensive and because it had been intended for the late king’s mistress, du Barry. The necklace had been around for a while; the increasingly-desperate jewelers had been looking for a buyer since the late king’s death.

The last I left off, Jeanne is unaware that her anonymous visitor was queen, and she was waiting for a visit from Cardinal Rohan. I highly expect the fireworks to begin. It was this relationship that gave Jeanne the opportunity to enact the swindle of the century.

So far, the story has been charming. Most of the story has been treated pretty lightly thus far, which is perfectly alright since thus far nothing all that dramatic has happened. This has all been a set-up for what’s to come. I’m excited to see exactly whom Dumas thinks did what, when, and why.

But for now, I am reading another book about the era, Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud. So far, so good; not great, but good. Perhaps I should stop jumping from book to book and just finish reading one?


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