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.


Richard Oberdorfer said...

For all the comments re: characterizations and historical accuracy, one element in Sabatini's writing that deserves underscoring is the LENGTH of his novels. When I was in junior high, my mom steered me to the half-dozen she owned. I loved every one, and with her help we tracked down copies of all his books. Most eighth graders shy away from Dumas-length stories, but the Sabatini novels were not so intimidating. I am now almost 70,and thanks to the start Rafael and my mom gave me, I have been teaching History for over forty years!
Richard Oberdorfer
Chesapeake, VA

Ruth said...

That is an interesting point of view, and a just one. When one thinks about it, what a great deal is packed into The Marquis of Carabas, for instance, or The Sword of Islam, the historical and that which is personal to the hero, yet neither novel is very long.
How pleased Rafael would be (must be?) to learn that his novels led you into teaching History!