Critical Evaluation

Memoirs of a Physician is an intricate plot of court intrigue in the closing days of the reign of Louis XV, with dramatis personae as diverse as the scheming Duc de Richelieu, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the favorite-dominated king. Manipulating all these by means of his magical control of natural forces and the power invested in him as a representative of the secret brotherhood of Freemasonry is the mysterious figure of Joseph Balsamo. The climax is as lurid as any modern thriller.

For its full historical value this volume should be read as one of a series of five, all concerned with the court life of France at the time of Louis XV and XVI. Called the Marie Antoinette romances, the five novels are Memoirs of a Physician, Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge (1846, with Auguste Maquet; Marie Antoinette: Or, The Chevalier of the Red House, 1846; also known as The Chevalier de Maison-Rouge, 1893), Le Collier de la reine (1849-1850, with Maquet; The Queen’s Necklace, 1855), Ange Pitou (1851; Six Years Later, 1851), and La Comtesse de Charny (1853-1855; The Countess de Charny, 1858).

Without doubt the most fascinating character in the Memoirs of a Physician is that remarkable impostor, Balsamo. From his first introduction, he is seen as a powerful and contradictory figure with great resources and unscrupulous ambitions. His passion for the unnatural and unexplainable adds to the fascination his personality holds for the reader. The phenomena of occultism had long fascinated Alexandre Dumas, père, and it was inevitable that he should work it into one of his novels. The manner in which he used his interest in the Memoirs of a Physician, however, is a spectacular success, one of the most remarkable examples of his genius. Dumas dabbled, at different times, in palmistry, phrenology, clairvoyance, and spiritualism. To test the reality of this power, he made several experiments at the time when he was writing the Balsamo sequences of the novel, apparently with considerable success. In this novel, the possibilities of this and other unusual or unexplainable phenomena were stretched to the furthest demands of his fiction. Dumas’s skill, however, was such that the reader willingly suspends disbelief and is drawn into the spell cast by the writer and his sorcerer character.

The arch-quack Balsamo is presented with all of his quackeries, his schemes and ploys, and his ruthless use of his supernatural powers to exploit the innocent and further his own ends. He believes, however, in himself and in his mission to re-create humanity by destroying the existing order; as the...

(The entire section is 1113 words.)