Time Passes Oddly in The Three Musketeers

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers. But if you’re a bit on the compulsive side, like me, you might’ve noticed that occasionally book-time passes more quickly than you’re expecting.

SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read The Three Musketeers but plan to, note that there are significant plot points discussed here.







A French village. © Dennis Owusu-ansah | Dreamstime Stock Photos

When Alexandre Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers, he created an adventure that took place during actual events in French history. Indeed, I first learned about Cardinal Richilieu from The Three Musketeers … movies.

Yeah, movies. I have to admit that until a few months ago, I was part of what is probably the majority: people who have enjoyed the story on film. I hadn’t read Dumas’ book. But who doesn’t like to watch all that cinematic swordplay and buckling of swash? And if we get a dollop of history, hopefully the director has kept it honest. Or at least as honest as Dumas did.

After all, many of his characters are based on people who lived and impacted our world: Richelieu, King Louis XIII, Queen Anne of Austria, Lord Buckingham and others. There was even an historical d’Artagnan—Charles de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan served as captain of the musketeers for Louis XIV. That living d’Artagnan was only 11 at the time The Three Musketeers story begins, but that’s artistic license, you know? After all, Dumas published the book in 1844, almost two centuries after most of the historical protagonists were dead.

Dumas also puts us into historic events, such as the siege of La Rochelle and the assassination of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. Our heroes and villains have greater or lesser roles in these incidents, but they are definitely swimming in the tides of French and English history.

How long did it take for our Gascon to go from the buffoon of the beginning of the story to the clever and intrepid fourth musketeer at the end? If you’d asked me how much time the story covered—based on my memories of the movies—I would’ve said, “I don’t know. Maybe a year, eighteen months?”

What do you think?

Duma tells us exactly the time span. The first chapter opens: “On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625 …”
and the Epilogue notes the end of the action in its first paragraph: “On the twenty-eighth of October, 1628 ….”

The entire story takes just over three and a half years.

When I read the book last Spring, I became interested in looking into the history of its time. I wanted to connect real to fictional events in a timeline. In the process, I realized that Dumas made time pass in some unusual ways. There are two instances in particular that caught my interest, one at the start and one at the end of the book.

The first six chapters tell us how the rash Gascon, d’Artagnan, joins with the three friends of the title. Those chapters take place over a few days after he arrives in Paris. Then in Chapter 7, we learn about the home lives of the musketeers and see d’Artagnan become their friend. Time seems to pass without much explicit mention, but the heroes fall in together pretty quickly.

In Chapter 8, we begin the affair of the diamond studs when d’Artagnan meets his landlord. Some day may pass in Chapter 10, and then our hero meets Constance. He mentions to her in Chapter 11 that he is “only twenty.”

But wait a minute! In Chapter 1, our Gascon is described as “a Don Quixote of eighteen.” What happened to those two years?

I had to do some careful reading, but I found where I think Dumas made a bunch of time pass in one sentence. It’s quite clever, because that timespan is given by implication.

What is the sentence? It’s in Chapter 7, after he describes the home lives of the musketeers. I need to cite the preceding paragraph, to set up the one that does the magic.

“The life of the four young men had become fraternal. D’Artagnan, who had no settled habits of his own, as he came from his province into the midst of a world quite new to him, fell easily into the habits of his friends.”

This is more of what we read in the first six chapters. There’s been a sense of days and weeks passing in casual camaraderie. The next sentence reveals the subtle passage that I interpret as compressing two years.

“They rose about eight o’clock in the winter, about six in summer, and went to take the countersign and see how things went on at M. de Treville’s.”

D’Artagnan learns of differences in habit between winter and summer. Now, if he had only witnessed one cycle—one year—he could not be certain that this was habit. But repeated behavior over two years? To me that constitutes a habit. Only when I was searching for that missing two years did I realize that this sentence implied its passage. There are other places in the text that indicate some shorter spans of time passing in this chapter and the next, but this is the beautiful one.

I was impressed. I assumed that Dumas had done it on purpose.

Unfortunately, I had to take back that compliment of cleverness because of the weird timeline at the end of the book. The problem starts with Richelieu’s (not-so) secret meeting with Milady at the Red Dovecot inn near La Rochelle and ends with Buckingham’s assassination. The exact amount of time is a bit vague; perhaps one can argue with my interpretation by a few days one way or the other. I won’t quibble with you about that.

Here’s the timeline as I see it:

At the inn, Richelieu writes a letter for Milady. He dates it December 3, 1627.

Milady immediately takes ship to England. It isn’t clear how long it took her to get to Portsmouth, but she arrived as the servant Planchet left there. His round trip to Portsmouth and back to La Rochelle took 16 days. Planchet may have left La Rochelle a few days after she did, so let’s call her voyage somewhere around two weeks.

Milady is immediately captured by her brother-in-law and held captive for five days. Then her jailor, Felton, helps her escape. They immediately travel to Portsmouth, where Felton assassinates Buckingham that morning.

By my count, it’s still some time before Christmas, 1627.

But, here’s the kicker. Buckingham was assassinated by Felton on August 23, 1628. That’s an historical fact.

What happened to those eight months?

My answer to the dilemma is that the months disappeared into author time. What do I mean by that? Well, Milady got her instructions in Chapter 43, and Buckingham was assassinated in Chapter 59. That’s about a quarter of the book. Surely, the reader will lose track of the date while reading so many chapters.

I don’t know whether Dumas didn’t realize what he was doing or did it on purpose. After all, this story was originally published as a serial. If he was writing at the same pace as he was publishing, maybe he just forgot. I think the author was just sloppy.

Indeed, there are lots of examples of characters being given wildly different ages at different places in the text, and if you read the sequel (Twenty Years After), Milady has a somewhat different childhood name than she was given in The Three Musketeers.

I haven’t mentioned the 10-day calendar difference between France and England at that time, but it is also an issue, especially at the end of the story. For dates when countries changed to the Gregorian calendar, see: http://www.webexhibits.org/calendars/year-countries.html.

As I said, I hope you read the book and enjoy it.

Just don’t read too closely.

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