Saturday, October 25, 2014


Seeking Sabatini ... and being frustrated!

The Gruppo Editoriale Informazione, Jesi, published online short biographical notices of famous Jesinos, among them Rafael Sabatini. The piece on Sabatini was probably written by the late Giuseppe Luconi (died mid-March 2014), and the following note proceeds on that assumption.

Like his compatriot, the late Claudio G. Fava, (died 20 April 2014) Luconi seemed to attach some importance to a circumstance which I find trivial and pointless, that in "the registry office" the novelist's name was entered as "Raffaele Sabbatini". Both Luconi and Fava found a significance which they did not explain in that double 'b'. Luconi gave the Sabatini home address in Jesi as "80/A, Theatre Piazza". In his article he stated that he had been in correspondence in 1970 with Dr Ambrose Sonder of the Ă‰cole Cantonale, Zug, and from him had obtained the following:

The boy was registered as "Raphael Sabbattini" [now it's a double 't' - what does that mean?]. In the "school journal" Dr Sonder found entries indicating that Rafael attended the German course from October 1889 to June 1890; that he continued in the school during 1891-92; and that he left it during 1892.

At the end of "the course" [not specified] Rafael had the best grades in catechism [!!] conversation, history, geography and calligraphy. The following year, cited as "third class of senior school", Rafael's best mark was only in calligraphy. He was "scolded for getting up late and for drinking cognac" but he was promoted all the same.

An attempt made to obtain clarification from Signor Luconi met with failure. Enquiries addressed to the Kantonsschule in Zug were infructuous, producing a denial that anyone by the name 'Rafael Sabatini' or variants of it had ever been heard of. An approach to the Associazione Culturale 'Res Humanae', Jesi, which had organised the Sabatini Conference in 2001, ended likewise at a brick wall.

What I sought from the latter, among other things, was this: is there any record circa 1875 of an uncle or other relative of Rafael from either the Sabatini or the Manghini/ Mengi side, who was a Franciscan?

The originally Benedictine Church of San Marco, outside the walls of Jesi, was donated by the monks to St Francis of Assisi. This apart, there are some noteworthy points from Rafael's words to an interviewer, and from his oeuvre:
1. Rafael told an interviewer (in 1926, Consolidated Press) that he had been "left with an uncle in a monastery" [see my Romantic Prince: Seeking Sabatini, p 15].
2. His descriptive writing about life in a monastery (see for example Garnache's visit to the Abbot of Saint Francis of Cheylas) has the quality of something experienced.
3. These are Franciscans in Rafael's books:
a) the formidable Abbot in Saint Martin's Summer who cooperates with Garnache to set all to rights at Condillac;
b) Fra Gervasio in The Strolling Saint, a force for good in the life of the effectively parentless Agostino;
c) the "saintly" maternal uncle of Colombo da Siena in Chivalry, who looks after the orphaned boy;
d) Saint Francis of Assisi himself, clearly loved and admired by Rafael;
e) in Bellarion a seeming Franciscan who is a criminal - but is in fact no friar, only a brigand in a Franciscan's robes;
f) significantly, at a time of darkness in Rafael's life, an authentic Franciscan, a peripatetic 'live newspaper' (historically accurate) who makes mischief for Anthony of Egmont, in The Romantic Prince, seriously affecting the course of Anthony's life, and Johanna's. The only bad Franciscan.

Does all this prove anything? Probably not. But it is matter for thought. Or so I believe, which is why I sought information about the possibility of a Franciscan uncle.

Friday, October 10, 2014


Curate's Egg: Cornwell Again, on CAPTAIN BLOOD

Bernard Cornwell’s Introductions to the three best-known novels of Rafael Sabatini are very similar in respect of his view of Sabatini’s life. But the Introduction to Captain Blood has a couple of good points along with poor ones. Some of the latter having been indicated previously need no repetition, save one instance. In restating his own contentions regarding Sabatini’s early life Cornwell is more categorical: “history was Sabatini’s passion. It was his escape, too, from a strange and probably unhappy childhood.” However, there is no occasion to flog that dead horse.

Cornwell begins with an opinion which is most welcome: he deplores the lazy habit of labelling Sabatini’s novels ‘swashbucklers’ with its consequent ill effect on the writer’s reputation.

He goes on to make a telling point. As he is an historical novelist himself he is the better placed to seize upon it. “How do you move an innocent man to the Caribbean? How does he become a pirate?”

Alas, Cornwell falls into the common error of reading into Sabatini’s most famous sentence, encouraged by its also being his epitaph, an interpretation slightly askew as he declares: “Sabatini shares those characteristics with many of his heroes,” and proceeds to remark on Peter Blood’s reflection that “man ... was the vilest work of God”, that the thought is reflected in many of Sabatini’s books. Setting aside theological argument about that superlative, “vilest”, – as if all God’s work were vile – I really cannot find any such thought present in Rafael’s novels, nor such a dark judgement as a constant in Peter Blood’s mind. “Such pessimism is relieved by laughter, by daring, and by heroism”, writes Bernard Cornwell. I daresay. But really, to bring up pessimism as a quality of Rafael’s mind and so of his novels would surely provoke his laughter. I recall his telling Mrs Oestreich at length about the new novel he was writing, this dying man, and how he hoped to complete it before he returned to England. Pessimistic? Hardly.

Certainly Rafael had the gift of laughter. There is evidence enough in his life as well as in his writing. Did he think the world mad? From time to time that is a statement anyone might make. In the novel Scaramouche it had a meaning specific to its context. There are many – and I mean many – other novels in which the heroes are not represented as much given to laughter, or as thinking that the world was mad. Why did his wife carve the sentence as Rafael’s epitaph? For a start, it was not the only line she carved. It must be seen in context there, too. Secondly, it was his most famous, instantly recognisable, line.

But with one of Cornwell’s closing comments I concur. People could be (ought to be, I think!) inspired by the virtues of Rafael’s heroes, old-fashioned though these are.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Reflections on BELLARION

Picked up an old unsatisfactory piece, offshoot from last year's reading of the novel, and rewrote it today. A full commentary on the conclusion of the novel will appear in Reading Rafael.


“I am not good at inference.”

Between the fact and the meaning
a gulf unbridgeable
save by right intent;
only goodwill lays a highway
to limitless horizon.

Pride of race,
Pride in mind’s superior graces,
Intolerance of opposition –
Shall these be the foundation
Of wedded bliss?

The strangler’s cord avoiding,
Your enemy’s flaw exploiting,
Wounded in heroic fight –
Is Bellarion turned true knight
Whose lips you deign to kiss?

Princesses and ladies fair,
If her steady gaze you bear,
Truth shall lead you out of the maze.

~ E.M.R.H.              9 October 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014


False Perceptions of Rafael Sabatini

In an introduction to each of Rafael Sabatini's novels, Scaramouche and The Sea-Hawk, Bernard Cornwell, writing in 2002, made much of what he perceived as reflections of Sabatini's unhappy childhood and of his distress at his illegitimacy.  His was a 'perception' shared by many (including myself, once).  But it was a mistaken perception built on a foundation which later reading and reflection has shown to be unreliable.

Bernard Cornwell repeatedly acknowledges his debt to the pioneer of Rafael Sabatini studies, Jesse F. Knight, without whose long, dedicated endeavour to uncover and make known Sabatini's life, the writer might have continued in obscurity.  Although Jesse Knight spared no effort to find the truth, he could fall unwittingly into error like any other mortal being.

There are a few mistaken notions about Rafael Sabatini's life which may colour a reading of his novels.  Chief among them is the belief that his parents were not married when he was born.  The following are the recorded facts, the established practice concerning baptism and baptismal certificates which still obtain in the Roman Catholic Church, and a curious omission in the Dixon family's Sabatini "legendarium".

Vincenzo Sabatini and Anna Jelley (stage surname, Trafford) were Catholics, and neither was previously married to another person.  Rafael was born in Jesi, where Vincenzo's family lived, and surely baptised at the parish church, or some other Catholic church, of which Jesi has more than one.  (Jesse Knight does not name the church.)  Even today there are priests who will refuse to baptise a child born out of wedlock.  Rafael was born 139 years ago.  Since both parents were at hand, the priest would undoubtedly insist that they marry first and bring the baby back for baptism. 

Neither I nor any of a score of knowledgeable persons consulted have ever heard of a parish register of baptisms with a column for remarks such as "illegitimate child".  No birth certificate that I have seen carries such a column.  

What could have misled Jesse Knight into his belief that the illegitimacy was "recorded"?  (See Rafael Sabatini Yahoo Group Mail Archive, #1295 dated 24 November 2001; #1483 dated 8 March 2002 ; #1489 dated 9 March 2002 and The Last of the Great Swashbucklers.) 

In European countries and certainly in Ireland the baptismal register and certificate record the mother's maiden name.  This is of great assistance to persons tracing family connections, although that is not necessarily the reason for this practice.  A Spanish missionary priest baptising my youngest sibling in the chapel of a largely Spanish convent in north India, seven years into our parents' marriage, entered our mother's maiden name in the register and the certificate.  What is the present practice in England and in the US I cannot say.  I was baptised in a church in Bombay, where English customs still prevailed, it being not so long after the end of the British Raj in India.  From the record and my baptismal certificate anyone would suppose that my parents were the children of two brothers, since both had the same surname. A genealogist would not be pleased....

If that is what Jesse Knight expected to read in Rafael Sabatini's birth/ baptismal certificate, a Sabatini father and a Sabatini mother, he might easily conclude that the "record" proved illegitimacy.

He used frequently to mention tales about Rafael passed on to him by the Dixon nephews of Ruth Goad Sabatini (formerly Dixon).  They were from a common fund of Dixon lore about Rafael to which I humorously attach the label "legendarium".  I have recovered the letters in which some of these morsels are plain to read.  I may or may not recover any notes that Jesse Knight made when he met them in 1986 - if such notes were made.  There is no lack of exotic invention - quite possibly Rafael's own invention, he being inclined to a certain eccentricity of humour - with regard to Rafael's life, which Jesse Knight duly reported.  There is unfounded, as I have recently discovered, gossip and speculation with regard to Rafael's relations with Christine Dixon (formerly Wood) while she was his sister-in-law.  But there is no mention of Rafael being illegitimate.  Yet this is a thing which would surely have become known to Ruth Sabatini at some time?  To my knowledge birth certificates have to be shown to the parish priest when marriage banns are sought to be announced and a date is to be fixed for the wedding.

If Rafael's illegitimacy is so very doubtful, what happens to Bernard Cornwell's reading of Scaramouche and other novels?

Out of 34 novels by Rafael Sabatini, in how many does the hero's illegitimacy play a part in the plot?  In three.  Isn't that rather sparing for a man haunted by his illegitimacy?  (It is surely too much to suggest that Rafael's chief interest in Cesare Borgia lay in his being illegitimate?)  How does this plot element function in each of the three novels?

In The Lion's Skin the hero was not, after all, illegitimate.  The villain, his half-brother, was the illegitimate son, but did not know it.  The hero makes the discovery near the end of the novel and it comes about by chance.  It must give him quite a shock (yet nothing is made of this) to find out that he had almost taken revenge on his father based on suppressio veri and suggestio falsi by his beloved mother, who knew very well that she was properly married.

In Scaramouche the hero's illegitimacy is consonant with the commedia dell'arte strand in the plot, as is the disclosure near the end.  Illegitimacy does not direct or impede his choice of action.  (A case can be argued for an emblematic or symbolic role for the hero's illegitimacy in the context of the three-novel epic Rafael wrote, but that is matter for another place.)

In The Marquis of Carabas only the hero is unaware of his illegitimacy, and therefore of the motive for all the attempts made on his life; unaware, too, of the deception practised by his much-loved mother.  Since he is quite confident of being the legitimate heir, he doesn't agonise over his birth at any time until the very end - when it proves to be no obstacle to his impending marriage.

Rafael Sabatini was not the first or the last story-teller to use illegitimacy as a plot-device, and in the light of his almost certainly legitimate birth he had no personal reason for putting into Andre-Louis' mouth the responses he makes concerning his ignorance of either father or mother.

In Part Two of Romantic Prince, Reading Rafaelthere will be found some evidence (including a photograph) which casts doubt on the validity of Bernard Cornwell's idea that Rafael experienced an unhappy childhood, whence arose his appetite for adventure stories, and histories, followed by his writing 'escapist' tales himself.

Because few people read past the top three favourite novels (Scaramouche; Captain Blood; The Sea-Hawk) it is easy for them to believe that Rafael's later novels are below par; that the death of Rafael-Angelo and of Lancelot junior (Lanty) caused a decline in Rafael's gifts as a novelist.  I trust that Seeking Sabatini banishes this other mistaken notion. It certainly has sufficient to prove false the perception of Rafael as a reclusive writer, an unclubbable man. There will be more in Reading Rafael, from fresh discoveries, to show that Rafael's silently suffering heroes are not all a reflection of the writer's hidden pain as a constant undercurrent in the novels. To think so is to have a distorted view of Rafael for which there is no justification.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Can anyone help to identify this picture, please?

Admittedly the quality of the photograph is very poor. It is a photograph taken in 1985 from a photograph or postcard perhaps dating back to the 1890s or early 1900s which was glued into an album. Then a scan was taken from the negative of the 1985 photograph. All procedures most likely to cause deterioration of the image!

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Part One of the book on Rafael Sabatini is ready:

447 pages; 8 plates; 100 numbered & autographed copies in the first edition.

The colour in the photograph is far more orange than the actual cover, which is a slightly deeper shade of cream, as the two scans show.

All very exciting. Was this how Rafael felt when he received the first copy of his first book?