Friday, February 02, 2018


Rafael Sabatini was frequently written or spoken of as the "modern Dumas" or otherwise compared to Alexandre Dumas.  Not surprisingly he found such remarks and comparisons annoying.  A writer may himself acknowledge a debt if he chooses, but considering how quickly Sabatini found his own distinctive style, it was neither fair nor tactful of reviewers to reiterate remarks about him and Dumas either to praise extravagantly or, more often, to disparage.

However, Sabatini did not disprize the work of the famous French writer, and his own writing from the earliest short stories up to the first novel clearly reflect Dumas' influence.

Much of the action of The Lovers/ Suitors of Yvonne takes place in the Loire valley around Blois – frequently the setting for action in Dumas' historical novels, and the rest in areas of Paris which are immediately evocative of the early Musketeer novels.  There are more connections capped, of course, by the introduction of that special ingredient, the Duchesse de Chevreuse.

As it is in Dumas' novels so also in Yvonne, the sense of a particular time is strong enough, but in the former the actual dates are often inaccurate.  In Yvonne no date is cited, and indications of a date are thrown off insouciantly.  Dumas' cavalier way with the names of real (historical) people is matched by Sabatini in Yvonne by the conversion of Charles d'Albert, Duc de Luynes, into Albert de Luynes.  Dumas' Musketeer novels are full of tantalising allusions to names draped in veils of scandal and tragedy: Chalais, Cinq-Mars, Vitry, and Concino Concini.  In Yvonne, Sabatini reflected this habit (or formed it independently) in repeated allusions to the Mar
échal d'Ancre (Concino Concini).

Alexandre Dumas did not use the first person narrative mode, whereas Rafael Sabatini did so in four early novels, Yvonne (1902) being the first and The Strolling Saint (1913) being the last.  Among other points of divergence, one pertinent to Yvonne is that Dumas never made his Cardinal Mazarin speak so abruptly or so harshly.

Dumas would seem to give pride of place to history in the two great sets, the Valois novels and the Musketeer novels.  Important, sometimes chief, characters are not merely historical, they are at the centre of history in the selected period, among them being Henri II, Catherine de Medici, Diane de Poitiers, Charles IX, Henri III, the Guises, Marguerite de Valois, Henri IV, Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, Anne of Austria, Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Marie Antoinette.  Since history cannot be rewritten to provide a happy ending where there was only error and death, Dumas' novels have one kind of inevitability.  Sabatini only once wrote such a novel, The Minion (1930), and while his plots may have predictable endings, there is a sense in some that he might just as easily have chosen otherwise were he not mindful of his readership.  In Bellarion (1926) he seems to flirt with the idea of an 'unhappy' ending.

Very sensibly, after Yvonne Rafael Sabatini avoided writing any novel set in the courts of France or England during the same period as that covered by the Musketeer novels.  Short stories, ‘entertainments’ yes, novels no.  True, Bardelys the Magnificent and Saint Martin’s Summer are somewhat of the period in which The Three Musketeers is set, but so written as to avoid mention of Cardinal Richelieu or Anne of Austria, and placing the action far away from northern France.

For Dumas the pleasure of inventive storytelling was not satisfied in the histories of non-historical characters (The Black Tulip's Rosa and Cornelius Baerle).  He invented freely in his saga of D'Artagnan and his friends, which story was more important to him than historical dates and sequences.  In this respect Sabatini gave himself more scope for invention by taking his action only occasionally into direct contact with important historical personages.  Nevertheless, he sometimes dared to take certain liberties, rather skilfully, with his better-known historical characters, and with the far more numerous lesser historical personages he took a great many more liberties, sometimes quite outrageous ones!

To return to the similarities, Dumas was an omnivorous and voracious reader, as was Sabatini, and both were captivated by the theatre, each writing plays but the Frenchman's plays were by far the more successful.  Dumas did undoubtedly instil new life into the French historical novel, which is a claim no one could make for Sabatini in regard to the English historical novel, but the Anglo-Italian writer did do all his writing himself, whereas the Frenchman employed assistants whose work he rewrote.  Both novelists were noted for the excellence of their dialogue.  Sabatini, however, wrote superior accounts of duelling and fencing than Dumas ever did.

After reading the greater number of Sabatini's novels one gets the impression that the writer had well thought-out and - like Dumas - deeply felt views on certain periods of history, on what led to events, what really happened, and what inevitably followed.  Both Dumas, illegitimate and of part African part French aristocratic lineage, and Sabatini the Anglo-Italian descendant of a tailor, a builder-decorator and two opera singers, appear to have preferred a republic to a monarchy, and a meritocracy to an aristocracy.  Yet Sabatini also clearly preferred peaceful – because rational – change to violent destructive change among whose consequences is the near-perpetuation of old evils in a new guise (see the French Revolution novels).

Again like Dumas, Sabatini could be seduced by a king figure (for Dumas, Louis XIV; for Sabatini, Cesare Borgia) who stands in opposition to what each writer was convinced of, yet has a magnetic personality which overcomes their more reasoned beliefs.

Apart from other qualities for which Rafael Sabatini's novels were once admired and should be appreciated again, it is this sense of history in those of Sabatini's novels which are more historical novel than period romance, and which include much of his best work, it is this quality which makes these best of his novels much more than "swashbucklers" or "romances".  The path from that frothy entertainer, The Lovers of Yvonne, led to Scaramouche, Bellarion, The Marquis of Carabas, King in Prussia and The Gamester, among others.

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