And now for today's quick review, this time of Stanley Weyman's melodramatic vintage swashbuckler Under the Red Robe.
'If you have never robbed a man - or a woman - of honour! If you have never ruined boy or girl, Monsieur de Berault! If you have never pushed another into the pit and gone by it yourself! If - but, for murder?'... Thus the lovely Mademoiselle de Cocheforêt seeks to reach the heart of the ill-famed Gil de Berault, known throughout Paris as 'The Black Death'. And the hardened duellist sent to spy out and arrest her brother feels the first stirrings of shame. 'Her gentleness, her pity, her humility softened me, while they convicted me. My God, how, after this, could I do that which I had come to do?'
This swashbuckling story of love and hate, intrigue and adventure, in the reign of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII of France, has been a best-seller ever since its first appearance in 1894.
Under the Red Robe by Stanley John Weyman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A fun and unassuming vintage swashbuckler, somewhat mediocre but full of fun melodrama on themes of honour.
I'm only giving this book two stars because, well, it wasn't that good. It was kind of derivative and very silly in parts. However, thinking about this novel reminds me what's good about silly melodramatic vintage swashbucklers.
Under the Red Robe is about a man still clinging to some shreds of honour despite being a gambler, a duelist, and a spy. When he finds himself forced to spy on a pair of noble but helpless women, however, he's gradually called back to a sense of right and wrong.
Books like this strike us as silly because of their excessive preoccupation with punctilious details of honour and manners, and their authors were very inventive about placing their characters in heart-rending situations where everything must be given up for the sake of honour. This is all very nice and melodramatic, but you'll get the most out of books like this if you pull back and de-romanticise everything a bit, and focus on the fact that these are books about people agonising over doing the right thing, people who take pride in doing the right thing - keeping their promises, serving their masters, being faithful to their loves, telling the truth. Too often there's also an emphasis on avenging their insults, but I loved that in this book the avenging of insults - the hero's identity as a duelist - is set at odds with his true, conscientious, sense of honour which might be defined as a consciousness of virtue.
A lot of modern fiction is far more concerned with doing the smart, the effective, or the pragmatic thing, above doing the right thing just because it is right and because one's personal sense of right and wrong demands it. I can't possibly recommend Under the Red Robe as great art, but it was a welcome reminder to me of what true honour is, how greatly it was once prized... and what terrific melodrama it makes.
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