Ange Pitou, Volume 1 - Alexandre Dumas _Ange Pitou_, also known as _Taking the Bastille_, continues the “Marie Antoinette Romances” and further details the travails of the French monarchy in the dying days of its power. The title refers to the ‘hero’ of the story, Ange Pitou, an orphan being raised by his tyrannical and parsimonious aunt in the environs of Villers-Cotterêts (Dumas’ birthplace). As the story in volume 1 begins Ange Pitou is on the verge of being expelled from his school under the tutelage of the Abbé Fortier for his heinous use of “three barbarisms and seven solecisms in a theme of only twenty-five lines” which are anathema to the Latinist churchman’s ears. Pitou, much more inclined to his life as a poacher and haunter of the forests around Villers-Cotterêts, is not personally upset by this set-back, but rather fears the wrath of his aunt who harboured dreams of the young man becoming an Abbé and supporting her in her old age. As events continue Pitou eventually finds himself in the care of a much more moderate guardian ‘Father’ Billot, a farmer of some standing and the local agitator of political unrest (he also happens to be the father of the beauteous Catherine, a fact not altogether without interest to Pitou). So far so pastoral. Of course Dumas will not leave things in this state and it soon comes to light that not only was Pitou once under the guardianship of our old friend Gilbert (now known as Doctor Gilbert), but Billot himself is both a tenant of Gilbert’s and a fiery adherent to his more advanced political philosophies. Through not only the ownership of a banned political tract composed by Gilbert and found in the possession of Pitou while on Billot’s farm, but also the theft of a mysterious casket left in the farmer’s care by Gilbert, both the farmer and the former schoolboy find themselves on the run from secret police and on the road to Paris where they will take not insignificant roles in the historic storming of the Bastille, the symbol of tyrannical oppression in the eyes of the people, and un-official commencement of the French Revolution.

One of the things that can be annoying about reading Dumas, especially when considering his longer series of books that follow the progress of a specific historical period and group of characters, is that there are often large swathes of time that separate the volumes and important events that occur which are mentioned in passing in a “oh yeah, and while you were gone this happened” kind of way. I don’t totally fault Dumas for this since he wanted to write about long ranging periods of the history of France, and in order to do this in a completely continuous way would have made his already voluminous output unbelievably large and unwieldy. Add to that the problem of reading in translation and the situation of abridgment which unfortunately can occur, especially in some of his lesser known works, and it can be more than a bit frustrating. In this case it has been six years since the last volume (The Queen's Necklace) and the last time we saw Gilbert was even earlier, at the end of Memoirs of a Physician wherein he apparently took ship for America with Philip de Taverney. Balsamo did drop some hints about Gilbert in The Queen's Necklace where he chastised Philip for leaving him for dead (or maybe even killing him, the implications were unclear), but suddenly we have Gilbert locked in the bastille for his incendiary pamphlets, apparently he is also the father of a fifteen year old boy currently going to school in Paris who used to be Pitou’s foster-brother. So, that’s a bit of an information bomb. Added to that is the fact that Gilbert, in addition to being a political philosopher and practicing physician, has also been the pupil of Balsamo/Cagliostro at some point and displays to full effect his mesmeric abilities. Seems to me that this probably could have made for an interesting volume in itself, or at least a bit more exposition from Balsamo on the subject in the last one, but I guess Dumas was too busy to trouble himself with such things…continuity doesn’t seem to have always been his first concern.

Dumas delivers on his usual combination of interesting characters, fast paced action, and excellent dialogue. Ange Pitou himself is mildly interesting, a lanky country bumpkin with just enough book learnin’ to sound like he understands what the revolutionaries are talking about even though he doesn’t. There is also some romantic tension that ties nicely into the political situation given that Pitou’s object of adoration, Catherine Billot, only has eyes for one of the Charny boys, a nobleman and brother-in-law of Andree de Taverney, now the Countess de Charny (oh the wonderfully tangled plot lines of Dumas). Père Billot is a salt of the earth farmer of the gruff but lovable variety looking to level the field and bring equality to the people. More interesting by far is Gilbert, now a man of distinction and some influence far advanced from his previous position of pining unrequited lover to Andree and aspiring philosopher and revolutionary under the auspices of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The King is still a feckless, though well-intentioned, monarch on the eve of disaster and Marie Antoinette herself has become jaded by her unpopularity with the people and surrounded herself with a sort of anti-court who are opposed to the more moderate wishes of the king and is something much more akin to the vain dragon-lady of popular conception than her previous role of uncertain victim of circumstance. Volume 1 ends, of course, on a cliffhanger as the newly freed Gilbert has just acquired the position of personal physician to the king and regained his stolen casket from Andree after displaying his mesmeric abilities. Andree herself was on the verge of explaining her antipathy for Gilbert to the Queen and detailing the secret contained by the casket when the curtains were drawn. I’m looking forward to volume 2.