The Last Cavalier
During his lifetime, Alexandre Dumas planned to write a series of novels that would include all of French history from the Renaissance to his own day. The Last Cavalier, a recently discovered, unfinished novel, follows in exquisite detail the Napoleonic era, mostly through the eyes of its death-defying hero, the Count Sainte Hermine.
Strangely, the hero of Dumas’s novel plays only a minimal part in the first half, when the action centers on Napoleon as First Consul, and the intrigues that led to the consolidation of his power. Only in the second half does the narrator travel with the dashing count, who, because of his royalist loyalties, has been cast out of society and forced to work as a lowly seaman. Blood will out, however, and it isn’t long before “Rene”—one of his many aliases—is in the good graces of powerful men, who lift him up, step by step, in the hierarchy. By dint of swashbuckling skill and reckless bravery, the melancholy young hero finds himself always in the middle of the action, fighting the English, of course, but also pirates and tigers and Italian brigands.
Dumas’s attention to detail is brilliant (mind-numbingly so, for he often veers away from the narrative—both a strength and a weakness of the book). He also knows how to entertain. Clearly, the novel had been serialized, for never does a chapter pass without an exciting episode. It’s hard to believe this vibrant work was written while Dumas was on his deathbed, for its energy never flags, and its style never weakens. The Last Cavalier is a prize find, and vintage Dumas.