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.