The Chevalier de Maison-Rouge takes as its subject matter the so-called carnation conspiracy, the attempt by the Chevalier de Rougeville to rescue Marie Antoinette from prison following the French Revolution. As a novel, it is an excellent example of the ability of Alexandre Dumas, père, to interest and enthrall his readers when the ultimate result of the action is a foregone conclusion. The title of the novel is taken from La Maison Rouge which, under the monarchy of pre-Revolutionary times, was one of the companies of the King’s Household Guard, so named because of the brilliant red cloak that was part of the uniform.
The carnation conspiracy is a relatively little-known incident that occurred in September, 1793, while the French queen Marie Antoinette was in prison awaiting execution. An officer in the Household Guard, the Chevalier de Rougeville, entered the queen’s cell in disguise, escorted by a municipal officer named Michonis. De Rougeville caught the queen’s attention and then dropped a carnation behind a stove in the room. The flower contained a note that detailed the plans for a conspiracy to rescue her from captivity. Unfortunately for the plotters, the action was observed by a gendarme, Gilbert, assigned to watch the queen. The incident was reported, and the revolutionary government, under the impression that there was a widespread plot in Paris to rescue the queen, took severe protective measures, including the arrest and imprisonment of everyone deemed by the officials to have had a part in the conspiracy. The queen’s guard was replaced by a new and more numerous force, and a number of the people around her were placed in prison themselves. The harsh measures were effective and, as every student knows, the queen went to her execution as planned.
This footnote to history constitutes the framework on which Dumas chose to hang his plot. The author of a historical novel is certain to be somewhat hampered in his pattern making by the stubbornness of facts and events well-known to the reader and by the discrepancies of time and place. Yet in The Chevalier de Maison-Rouge, Dumas demonstrates small care for historical accuracy and the constraints of fact. At the same time, however, he exhibits a tremendous faculty for...
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