Twenty Years After is Alexandre Dumas' first sequel to The Three Musketeers. It is actually the second in a series of five books: The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Vallière, and The Man in the Iron Mask. To make things more confusing, the last three volumes were originally published as one enormous book (about 2800 pages) called The Vicomte de Bragelonne, which was later divided into three parts, only the first of which retained the title The Vicomte de Bragelonne. The Man in the Iron Mask is, of course, often read on its own, but, as another blogger explained once, that is like reading The Lord of the Rings beginning with The Return of the King: possible to do, but the reader would be missing a lot, and might get confused about what is going on.
This particular volume, Twenty Years After, begins in 1648, when Louis XIV was ten years old and his mother, Anne of Austria, was regent. Cardinal Richelieu is dead, and Cardinal Mazarin has replaced him as chief minister. In Dumas' version of the story, Mazarin is the queen's lover, and she never makes a decision without his approval, so he is the real ruler of France. In real life, it is not known for certain whether Mazarin was the queen's lover or not, but there were certainly rumors about it, which the people of France believed. Mazarin, both in real life and in Dumas' fiction, was extremely unpopular because of his influence on the queen, the heavy taxes he imposed, and the fact that he was not French. He was Italian, and his real name was Mazarini.
The events of Dumas' novel take place during a rebellion known as the Fronde. This was a rebellion against Mazarin, and not an attempt to overthrow the monarchy. Eventually it led to Louis XIV taking absolute power, but this would be several years afterwards. There is way too much plot to summarize here, so I will just give the basics. At the time of Twenty Years After, the four musketeers--d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis--have gone their separate ways. Only d'Artagnan is still a musketeer, and he has not heard from the others for a long time. D'Artagnan has not received a promotion in twenty years, in spite of all his services to the queen, and he feels frustrated. He is also unlucky in love. His beloved Constance had died at the end of The Three Musketeers, poisoned by the evil Milady, and he has never found true love since. In Twenty Years After, he has a relationship with his landlady, Madeleine, but the reader is left with the impression that there is no deep love in that relationship. (Note to people who have seen the 1998 film The Man in the Iron Mask: the affair between d'Artagnan and the queen does not happen in Dumas' novels. It was invented for the film. D'Artagnan is not the real father of Louis XIV.)
Mazarin calls on d'Artagnan and offers him his longed-for promotion if he will carry out a mission for him. D'Artagnan is no great supporter of Mazarin, but he wants his promotion, so he agrees. Mazarin tells him to find the three other musketeers, which he has a hard time doing at first, but a chance encounter with his former servant Planchet, who is now a supporter of the Fronde, gives him a clue. The first of his friends d'Artagnan encounters is Aramis, who has become a priest, even though he misses being a musketeer. He is also the lover of one of the most powerful women in France, Madame de Longueville, who supports the Fronde, as does Aramis. So Aramis refuses Mazarin's offer, but he does let d'Artagnan know where Porthos lives.
Porthos has married a wealthy widow, who has since died, leaving Porthos her vast estate. He wants a noble title to go along with his estate, and so he accepts d'Artagnan's offer to serve Mazarin, much to the disappointment of his servant Mousqueton, who is happy with his life as it is. D'Artagnan and Porthos go to find Athos, who, as is revealed in The Three Musketeers, is really the Comte de la Fère. He is living on his estate with his ward Raoul, the Vicomte de Bragelonne, who is really his son from a one-night encounter with the Duchesse de Chevreuse, another of the most powerful women in France. (It is not too much of a spoiler to say this. D'Artagnan guesses it right away when he sees the resemblance between them, and soon we learn it for certain when Raoul meets his mother, without knowing she's his mother.) Raoul has a similar role in Twenty Years After to d'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers: he is a young man out to prove himself in battle, and Raoul is also unlucky in love. He is in love with Louise de la Vallière, who will eventually become the king's mistress. (I have also reviewed Sandra Gulland's wonderful novel about her, Mistress of the Sun.) Raoul will become a major figure in the next three novels of the series.
Athos, like Aramis, supports the Fronde and will have nothing to do with Mazarin's offer. And so the musketeers spend much of the novel divided into two pairs on opposite sides: d'Artagnan and Porthos on the side of Mazarin and Athos and Aramis on the side of the Fronde. Much of the first part of the novel is about the politics of the time and d'Artagnan's encounters with his three friends. The action really begins with the plan to rescue the Duc de Beaufort, a grandson of Henry IV of France, who is very popular. Mazarin is jealous of Beaufort's popularity and has him imprisoned. Beaufort often plays tennis with his prison guard. (This is the game now known as real tennis, an ancestor of modern tennis.) Athos and his servant, the silent Grimaud, come up with a plot to help him escape from prison. Beaufort writes notes to them, which he hides under the lining of the tennis balls, then when he hits the balls outside the court, they reach his rescuers, with instructions for them. Athos and Grimaud, along with Aramis, succeed in their plan and Beaufort escapes. Mazarin sends d'Artagnan and Porthos to recapture him, but when a fight breaks out and they recognize their opponents as Athos and Aramis, they refuse to fight their old friends, and Beaufort goes free. Mazarin, of course, is furious, and so d'Artagnan does not get his promotion or Porthos his title. Soon after this, rebellion breaks out in Paris and the people build barricades in the streets. (This part reminded me of Les Misérables, even though these events took place long before Les Misérables.) D'Artagnan helps the queen and the young king escape from Paris.
Then we meet the real villain of the novel: Mordaunt, the son of Milady by her bigamous marriage with Lord de Winter. (So, it is not until about 300 pages into the novel that we meet the villain.) As readers of The Three Musketeers may remember, Milady was first married to Athos, and, because their marriage was never dissolved, her marriage to de Winter was not legal. Charles I of England has not allowed Mordaunt to inherit his father's title and property because of this, and so Mordaunt hates Charles I. The new Lord de Winter, the brother of Milady's second husband, is a strong supporter of Charles I, and he comes to France at the request of Queen Henrietta Maria of England, who has taken refuge in France, to ask Mazarin for support for her husband's cause. Mordaunt hates his uncle for his role, along with the musketeers, in his mother's death, and he is out for revenge. First he disguises himself as a monk and takes the confession of a man who has been mortally wounded in battle. This man turns out to be the executioner who killed Milady, and Mordaunt kills him. Then Mordaunt confronts his uncle, de Winter, hoping to find out where the four musketeers are, but de Winter will not cooperate.
Mordaunt works for Oliver Cromwell, helping the Parliamentary army against Charles I. He comes with a letter for Mazarin, asking help for the Parliamentary cause, and Mazarin accepts, just after refusing de Winter's request for help for Charles I. Mazarin sends d'Artagnan and Porthos to England with Mordaunt, and they go, not out of strong conviction, but because they hope to get what Mazarin promised them. Meanwhile, Athos and Aramis leave for England with de Winter to help Charles I. Mordaunt tries to attack them on the boat taking them to England, and Aramis wants to kill him, but Athos, the most principled of the musketeers, tells him to spare his life. But they manage to get a message to d'Artagnan and Porthos, warning them about Mordaunt.
The action then shifts to England with, once again, d'Artagnan and Porthos on one side and Athos and Aramis on the other. The two pairs of musketeers again encounter each other on opposite sides of a battle--the one in which Charles I is captured, which actually took place three years earlier, when Cromwell was not yet the leader that he became later on. As the editor of the Oxford World's Classics edition explains, Dumas' knowledge of English history was not as strong as his knowledge of French history. D'Artagnan and Porthos sympathize with Charles I in spite of their promise to Mazarin to help Cromwell, and they join Athos and Aramis in an attempt to save the king's life.
The next part kept me on the edge of my seat, even though history tells us how it turned out. The musketeers contrive an elaborate plot to rescue Charles I, with Athos digging a tunnel into his chamber, Aramis disguising himself as the bishop taking his confession, and d'Artagnan and Porthos kidnapping the executioner, so that the execution would be postponed for a day while another executioner is sent for, during which time Athos would help Charles I escape through the tunnel. Mordaunt spoils the plan when he takes the executioner's place, and executes Charles I himself. Dumas makes the reader really want the musketeers to succeed, even though we know that they could not.
I will not spoil the rest of the story, except to say that the musketeers return to France after more adventures, involving a boat full of explosives and a secret chamber in a castle where Mazarin is hiding a treasure. It has a very satisfying ending, with the musketeers triumphant and the villains dead or defeated. Dumas writes an exciting story, and Twenty Years After made me want to go on to the next volume, The Vicomte de Bragelonne.
Can Twenty Years After be read on its own? I think it can, because the story certainly stands on its own. There are, however, many references to the events of The Three Musketeers, so it is probably best to have read The Three Musketeers first, or at least to be familiar with one of its many adaptations. With its thrilling plot, it seems to me that Twenty Years After would make a great movie, but so far there hasn't been one. There was a 1989 movie called The Return of the Musketeers, with much of the same cast as the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, but it is only loosely based on Twenty Years After. Sadly, it is best known for a tragic accident on set in which actor Roy Kinnear was killed.
At over 800 pages, Twenty Years After makes for a long read, but it is well worth it. The first 250 pages, which are mostly about politics, are the slowest-moving, but after that, and especially after Mordaunt is introduced, I could not put it down, even though I have to say that Mordaunt is not as interesting a villain as his mother Milady. I would definitely recommend the Oxford World's Classics edition, edited by David Coward. The editor provides detailed endnotes and a glossary of historical figures, which definitely comes in handy for people who are not familiar with the times in which the novel takes place. The editor's notes explain how Dumas compresses time in order to move his plot along. The translation is from the 19th century, and it can read slowly at times, but not too much so. There is a new translation by Lawrence Ellsworth, but readers should be aware that the volume called Twenty Years After is really just the first half of the book. The second half has very recently been translated as Blood Royal. I have not seen either volume of the new translation, so I don't know how it compares, but I am very satisfied with the older translation.
Twenty Years After is available in many editions and formats. Unfortunately, the library does not appear to have the Oxford World's Classics edition or the new translation by Ellsworth, but this edition from Heritage Press is available from the Buhr Shelving Facility and online via HathiTrust. It is probably the same translation as the Oxford World's Classics edition, because that was the standard translation used until Ellsworth's was published.