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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1524

First published: 1853-1855 (English translation, 1858)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: 1791

Locale: France

Principal Characters:

Count Olivier de Charny, an aide to King Louis XVI

Countess Andree de Charny, his wife

Dr. Sebastian, her illegitimate son

Count Alessandro di...

(The entire section contains 1524 words.)

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First published: 1853-1855 (English translation, 1858)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: 1791

Locale: France

Principal Characters:

Count Olivier de Charny, an aide to King Louis XVI

Countess Andree de Charny, his wife

Dr. Sebastian, her illegitimate son

Count Alessandro di Gilbert, the boy’s father

King Cagliostro, the assumed name of Joseph Balsamo

Queen Louis XVI

Honore Marie Antoinette

Mirabeau

The Story:

In the days following the fall of the Bastille, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were forcibly escorted to Paris by troops under the command of General Lafayette. With the king were his most trusted aides, Count Olivier de Charny, the Marquis de Favras, and a commoner but also a close and trusted friend of the king, Dr. Gilbert. During the commotion of the king’s return, an agent of the powerful and mysterious Cagliostro learned from the king’s locksmith, Gamain, of the construction of a secret door in the quarters in Paris where the king was to be confined. He immediately reported this information to Cagliostro. It was suspected by Cagliostro that the secret door would be used in the future to allow the king’s escape with his family.

Meanwhile, young Sebastian Gilbert, disturbed by reports of riots in Paris, left his foster home in the country in order to seek his father, for whose safety he feared. In Paris, Sebastian met the Countess Andree de Charny, whom he immediately felt was his mother. She, in turn, recognized him as her own long-lost son. What Sebastian did not know, however, was that he had been born out of wedlock when the countess, then known as Mademoiselle de Taverney, had been attacked by Dr. Gilbert, at that time only a humble peasant, fifteen years before. Later, when she became the wife of Count de Charny and gained the favor of Queen Marie Antoinette, she procured from the queen a lettre de cachet and had Dr. Gilbert locked in the Bastille where he stayed until it was captured by the rioting populace.

Years had brought a philosophic calm to Dr. Gilbert, and he now sought to expiate his early crime by doing deeds of charity to all who would accept his services.

Sebastian, sensing his mother’s hatred for his own father, ran away and was run over by a carriage in the streets of Paris soon after leaving the countess’ apartment. Arriving soon after in search of his son, Dr. Gilbert quickly traced the boy to a small house where Sebastian had been taken after the accident. Dr. Gilbert administered to him, and he recovered.

Count de Charny, knowing nothing of his wife’s early misfortune, could not understand why their relationship had remained so distant throughout their married life; the countess had been fearful that her husband would discover the story of her earlier life. Now, however, the count had little time to think of his own affairs because of the rapid movements of events and the dangers facing the king and his family.

Soon after the royal family’s arrival in Paris, King Louis summoned de Charny and asked him to go on a mission to the Marquis de Bouille and procure his aid in securing troops to cover the king’s escape. Meanwhile, Dr. Gilbert tried to convince King Louis to put his trust in Honore Mirabeau, who was then the man of the hour and held the respect of the French people. The king’s only chance was to agree with Mirabeau and sign the revolutionary principles. Although the king listened to Dr. Gilbert’s advice, he still decided to bide his time until more favorable circumstances arose.

In the meantime, the National Assembly grew more restless. Many people were brought to trial, among them the Marquis de Favras, whose execution was practically certain. His sole chance of reprieve was offered to him by Cagliostro, who guaranteed him a sure escape. Favras declined, however, and in the end went nobly to his death.

In desperation, the king finally agreed to follow Dr. Gilbert’s advice and joined forces with Mirabeau. Mirabeau’s own popularity began to wane, however, when one of Cagliostro’s agents distributed pamphlets accusing Mirabeau of betraying the revolutionary cause. A short time later, Mirabeau, who had been suffering from a lung condition, died. On his deathbed he managed to scrawl a message to the king, urging him to flee while time still remained. The king and his family immediately began preparations for their flight.

On the night before the royal party was to leave, Cagliostro paid Dr. Gilbert a visit. He told Dr. Gilbert that he knew of the king’s plans for escape and that he was willing to offer assistance in order to assure that King Louis and his family would have a safe journey. Dr. Gilbert, who was quite fatalistic, declined Cagliostro’s offer; he felt that what must be would be.

The night of departure arrived. The king and his family escaped through the secret door and thus were able to elude the guards stationed around their quarters. Accompanying the royal family were Count de Charny and M. de Malden, another trusted nobleman dedicated to the king’s cause. The flight had been carefully planned. Long before, arrangements had been made to have fresh horses waiting for the king’s carriage at regular stations along the route, and at a bridge near Someville, the Marquis de Choiseul was waiting with a company of dragoons to accompany the king on his journey.

Sudden difficulties developed when the king’s carriage broke down and caused a delay of four hours. Meanwhile, at Someville, the marquis’ troops were being threatened by the local populace, and there was imminent danger of the arrival of nationalist troops. After waiting as long as he could, the marquis was finally forced to retire with his dragoons. When the royal family finally did reach Someville, the king was recognized by a revolutionary patriot, Jean Drouet, who immediately fled to inform nationalist troops quartered not too far away. De Charny, exchanging his tired horse for a fresh one, immediately set out in pursuit of Drouet. He finally caught up with him, only to discover that neither of his pistols was loaded when he fired at Drouet. The informant escaped in the woods and finally made contact with the nationalist troops. A short time later, the troops arrived in Someville, where the king was being detained by the villagers.

In order to avoid bloodshed, King Louis agreed to an armed escort back to Paris. Upon their arrival in the city, the king and his family were threatened by large groups of people. De Charny tried to defend the king by attempting to single-handedly fight a hostile mob, but he barely escaped with his life.

Although throughout his career de Charny had devoted his chief energies to the defense of the monarchy, his wife had always been in his thoughts. After his escape and in the presence of the royal family, Dr. Gilbert disclosed to the count his wife’s secret of her illegitimate child. The doctor explained that only her great love for de Charny had kept her from revealing her shame and expressing her true feelings for her husband. De Charny immediately returned to Andree, and the two were happily reunited.

Critical Evaluation:

THE COUNTESS DE CHARNY is the sequel to ANGE PITOU (1852) and the final work of the series MEMOIRES D’UN MEDECIN (1848). Like its predecessor, it was originally intended to have been written in collaboration with Auguste Maquet. Although Maquet helped a little with ANGE PITOU, financial difficulties caused a break between the two men, and Alexandre Dumas was left to his own resources for the authorship of both works. Much of THE COUNTESS DE CHARNY, like its predecessor, is based on Dumas’ boyhood memories, yet the author, inspired greatly by Jules Michelet’s HISTOIRE DE LA REVOLUTION FRANCAISE (1847-1853), gives more actual history than is usual in his romances. The work, however, maintains the Dumas tradition of spirited storytelling. He takes fewer liberties with fact, but he creates and revivifies the atmosphere with detail typical of romanticism and imbues it with fast-flowing action, flamboyant dialogue, and his renowned curtain lines. The story of Charny and Andree comes to its well-rounded conclusion and leaves no need or any real wish for a sequel.

One interesting aspect of THE COUNTESS DE CHARNY is the fact that Dumas prefaces it with one of his amusing “chats” in which he explains how ANGE PITOU came to its abrupt end, an occurrence which bothered many readers. Dumas gives as his reason the fact that ANGE PITOU was first published serially and toward the end of the series a stamp duty was imposed on papers which published stories in installments; thus the novel’s conclusion was rushed to beat the tax. This did not pose a problem for THE COUNTESS DE CHARNY, which was published in book form and gives no impression of hurried or sloppy writing. It has been cited by critics for its display of imagination and its excellent portrayal of action.

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