Entirely by coincidence, I re-read the novel in November last year, before I knew about the BBC show. My impression of the novel and the character was therefore entirely unfettered by the BBC’s adaptation of the characters. The more I read, the more I realised that I was rooting for Milady - not because she was the “bad girl”, but because, as a character, she was very much ambiguous. The thing is, if you disregard what the characters (mainly Athos, later Lord de Winter and d'Artagnan) say about her, and disregard the authorial ex cathedra voice that keeps telling (not showing!) that she was a demon, Milady does absolutely nothing on the pages of the book that is in any way worse than what the musketeers do.
A lot has been said about how the show made a good job at presenting complex female character, as opposed to the one-dimensional novel ones. But: Milady in the novel is not one-dimensional at all. The way she is treated by the author and the other characters is one-dimensional. You could tell book Milady’s story just as it is in the book, leaving out the ongoing commentary of how evil a demon she is, and you would end up with a highly sympathetic portrait of a woman who is driven to more and more desperate actions by the limits of the world in which she lives, and by the men surrounding her. Pretty much like on the BBC show, only with more ambiguity, not less. (BBC Milady is presented as the Dark Action Girl and assassin from the get-go. Book Milady… isn’t. Not if you go by what she actually does.)
Milady is only the cardboard-cutout evil villainess in the novel, because we are repeatedly told by unreliable narrators that she is. As to what she does, the information provided are:
She was in a convent as a young girl (age unclear due to Dumas’ handwave-y approach), let’s say around 14-16. As the executioner tells the musketeers during the farce of a trial: “A young priest, with a simple and trustful heart, performed the duties of the church of that convent. She undertook his seduction, and succeeded; she would have seduced a saint”, and then: “The young priest was condemned to ten years of imprisonment, and to be branded. I was executioner of the city of Lille, as this woman has said. I was obliged to brand the guilty one; and he, gentlemen, was my brother!”
This pretty much sets the tone for how Milady is treated throughout the book: her characterisation is “evil”, and everything she does is interpreted through that lens. She is supposedly driven by the desire to do evil; but this is not how humans work. Dumas obviously wants us to agree with the executioner’s assessment of Milady, but I find it impossible to not find this backstory highly ambiguous. Just about every piece of information he provides, if you go by pure facts and disregard the speaker’s (and author’s) misogynic opinion, allows you to come to an entirely different conclusion than the characters. You could read it as a young nun genuinely falling in love with a priest. You could read it as a young nun being seduced/coerced/raped by a priest. The executioner clearly hates her for what she did to his - entirely innocent, I’m sure – brother; he wants revenge for the dishonour she, and in his opinion she alone, caused his family and hardly qualifies as an impartial witness.
Athos tells d'Artagnan: “My friend, who was seigneur of the country, might have seduced her, or taken her by force, at his will–for he was master. Who would have come to the assistance of two strangers, two unknown persons? Unfortunately he was an honourable man…”
Yes, Athos, well done on not raping a teenage girl. Again, the “honourable” action is entirely due to the spin put on it by the speaker and the author. We know nothing about Milady at this point, apart from the fact that she was “lovely” and lived with her “brother” - quite possibly the only choice that had been open to her after she was forced to leave the convent. Again, the situation is more than ambiguous and could be interpreted any way you like, if you didn’t take the speaker’s and the author’s opinion as gospel.
D'Artagnan’s reaction to Athos’ acting as judge, jury, and executioner is (at least in the English translation, emphasis mine) as follows: “Heavens, Athos, a murder?” cried d'Artagnan. - “No less,” said Athos, as pale as a corpse. Again, the ambiguity is right there: Athos admits that what he did was commit murder – not fulfil his duty as the feudal lord. BBC Athos was given a much nobler reason, namely “doing his duty”, to make him more relatable for the modern viewer. (Personally, I much prefer the darker Athos from the book, the BBC version has been too thoroughly whitewashed for my taste, but that’s not the point here.)
Then we have Lord de Winter, who lives happily side by side with his sister-in-law, a man whom [d'Artagnan] had seen load her with kindnesses. He never suspects her of anything, until the designated heroes tell him she’s evil. Then, he suddenly remembers, all those years later, that she poisoned his brother. There is no shred of evidence, no proof is ever presented, nor do I find his sudden epiphany particularly believable. It’s blatantly the narrative imperative at work: Lord de Winter has to believe that Milady killed his brother for the purpose of the Buckingham subplot.
The assassination of Buckingham is the best part of the novel, really, and the moment where I root for Milady the most. It is a political coup, ordered by the Cardinal. This is really important to keep in mind: Milady is an agent of the Cardinal, committing politically motivated killing on his behalf, just like the musketeers kill on behalf of the King. She is sent to England just like they are sent to La Rochelle and has to use the means available to her to carry out her superior’s orders. (Also, she doesn’t perform the act of killing herself, but in an inspired move makes somebody else do it.)
The worst she does on the pages of the book is poisoning Constance by the end of the novel. But I fail to see how her killing Constance is worse than, say, d'Artagnan attacking a complete stranger on his way to Paris for the purpose of taking his passport off him and leaving the injured man lying on the road to die a slow and agonising death. The difference is that a) d'Artagnan is the designated hero and b) injuring/killing a man in a duel is a man’s method and therefore “honourable”, whilst poisoning is a woman’s method and therefore evil. This is something I would have loved to see addressed in a modern adaptation.
I’m not saying Milady is an innocent angel, that’s not the purpose of this meta. I am merely trying to point out that her motives and her character development as presented in canon are open to a wealth of alternative interpretations. We have a young nun (by vocation? by choice? because she had been a disgrace to the family and had to be locked up? because she was an orphan? because she was a Huguenot who had to be “re-educated”?) who for reasons unknown ended up entangled with a priest (love? rape? lust? ignorance of what she was doing? where would a teenage nun have learned what it means to seduce a man and how to go on about it?), and got married to a local nobleman (because she wanted to? because she was after money and status? because – as the text implies – he wanted to have her and she had no other choice? she could’ve been in love with the man she was living with as her brother and could’ve known that marrying the Comte de la Fère was the only way to protect him). By the time she’s in her late teens or her early twenties, three of the seemingly safe niches she had carved out for herself - the convent, the life as the “sister” of a rural curate, her marriage - in an increasingly hostile world had been destroyed. It’s easy to understand why she becomes progressively angrier, more desperate and more ruthless as she gets older.
I do not want to see Milady whitewashed, she makes a wonderful antagonist. And it is certainly possible to believe Dumas’ very one-dimensional opinion of her and her motives and consider her “evil” and nothing else. But I would find it so much more interesting if her character arc was the result of bad choices (starting with falling in love with a priest in the convent and proceeding downhill from there), in combination with her being a wilful and headstrong girl who kept running against walls in a man’s world, rather than the fact that the was a demon from hell, which is the laziest of all lazy explanations.
In conclusion: Nothing about the novel version of Milady is clear-cut and one-dimensional. She is punished for being a woman and for using stereotypically feminine weapons: seduction and poison. But they are the only weapons available to her. I would love a modern adaptation to address the way male characters’ actions are being excused whilst the female character’s actions are being condemned: killing people in duels for fun (!) is fine; poisoning people for revenge is not. Thrashing your valet because he dared speak is the action of the most honourable and noble character in the book; punishing your soubrette for betrayal is not. Seducing a man out of genuine attraction (Milady with de Wardes) is not okay; seducing the maid to get into the mistress’ knickers whilst pretending to be the man she’s in love with (d’Artagnan with Kitty and Milady respectively) are the actions of the designated hero. The characters are morally judged by the authorial voice not for what they do, but for the roles he wants them to play in the narrative. Take the same characters and the same actions and leave out the author’s commentary, and you could be telling a completely different story.
According to the laws of dueling at that period, d'Artagnan was at liberty to assist whom he pleased. While he was endeavoring to find out which of his companions stood in greatest need, he caught a glance from Athos. He glance was of sublime eloquence. Athos would have died rather than appeal for help; but he could look, and with that look ask assistance.