Rafael Sabatini is our outstanding “costume” novelist. He is also an historian of repute, a dramatist who has won his spurs, and author of a play for the screen that has scored one of the greatest successes of recent years. It is needless to add that he is now a “best seller.”
Biographical details need not detain us long. Mr. Sabatini was born in 1875 at Jesi, Central Italy. He is the only son of the late Maestro Cav. Vincenzo Sabatini and Anna Trafford. He was educated at the École Cantonale at Zoug, in Switzerland, and at the Lycée of Oporto, in Portugal.
A perusal of his books makes it clear that he has always been a student of history, European as well as British. He has in fact an encyclopaedic knowledge of this branch of learning and (like his own heroes) he, with never a care, treads century after century underfoot. Incidentally, he is a terror to the modern biographer, because in comparatively few pages he can tell the story of the person he decides to honour, whereas it takes another and a lesser man a volume or two to do the same thing.
When Mr. Sabatini is not writing novels (of which he has a baker’s dozen to his credit), or historical works (he is the historian of Caesar Borgia and of “Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition”), he occupies his leisure in throwing off thumb-nail sketches of interesting incidents of the past. Many of these last he has gathered together in the two series of “The Historical Nights’ Entertainment.” Some idea of the wide range of knowledge of this author may be gathered from the contents of this work. Take a few of the titles gathered at random: “Casanova’s Escape from the Piombi,” “Count Philip Königsmark and the Princess Sophia Dorothea,” “The Murder of Amy Robsart,” “The Story of the St. Bartholomew,” “The Betrayal of Sir Walter Ralegh.” Who else could do this so easily and at the same time so thoroughly?
In these days we are rather apt to forget that the first duty of the story-teller is to tell a story. Judging from modern fiction as a whole, this first step is the most difficult.
At least it is less and less frequently attempted. The book that is described as psychological may be a very admirable treatise, it may make most interesting reading, but it can only be dubbed a novel by courtesy. And after all, when all is said and done, the novelist should write novels.
Mr. Sabatini believes surely that in a story something should happen – even in life something happens every now and then, though many present-day novelists have tacitly agreed to ignore the fact that there is in life anything more than character and dialogue. Since as a matter of fact there are thrills in life (one can imagine Mr. Sabatini saying), why should there not be thrills in pen-pictures of life?
The only trouble for what I will call the adventurer-novelist is that, be his inventive faculties however great, everything has been done before in real life. You invent a brand-new situation, and a kindly reader (to please you, forsooth) tells you that he read this in a newspaper of, say, December 21st, 1806. You invent a character from the inmost recesses of your mind – and then you meet him in the flesh. If there cannot be in creation what in the creator is not, apparently there cannot be in the creator what in creation is not.
Mr. Sabatini, however, takes his chances like a man, and he has been well rewarded for his courage. He has gathered unto him a host of readers and has delighted every man- (and woman-) jack of them. He is read with avidity in every English-speaking country, and I suppose his books have been translated into most languages. A man of simple, gracious manner, humble as to his achievements, albeit naturally not without some appreciation of his work, he has the defects of his qualities - from the point of the interviewer. I had the pleasure lately of a conversation with him that lasted more than an hour. My object was to lead him on to talk of his art; yet I came away without the subject being touched upon. I am sure however that he likes (as which of us does not?) discerning praise: I can only hope that he will think such praise as I humbly mete out is discerning.
What I particularly like about Mr. Sabatini’s heroes is that they are so splendidly human. Sometimes they do silly things – just for all the world as men do in life. Did not Lord Randolph Churchill at the critical moment in his career “forget” Goschen? Often the heroes are unduly trusting; but if they were not, how could the author use his splendid ingenuity in extricating them from tangles into which their blind faith has led them?
Also, many of the heroes have a flaw in them. I mention this as a merit. Marcel de Bardelys, when in wine, wagers that he will win for his wife a girl unknown to him and in whom he has no interest whatsoever. Even the fact that the period is that of Louis XIII is not an excuse, for however the morality of such a thing was then regarded, Bardelys is too much the grand seigneur to justify it to himself. He makes amends and, after much tribulation and many really serious inconveniences such as his life being in danger, he loses his wager and wins his delightful bride. Captain Blood is at least as real a character as that namesake of his who in the reign of Charles II contrived to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower. He had already had an adventurous career before Mr. Sabatini takes his story in hand. He then acquires a grievance in that, though innocent, he is at the Bloody Assizes sentenced to death by Jeffreys himself – the sentence being commuted to a living death as a slave in Barbados. Of course, Blood escapes. Perforce he becomes a pirate – a man of iron will, coolness, resource and courage – an admirable, gentlemanly pirate. He makes his mistakes, he none the less overthrows his enemies and ends as Governor of Jamaica. So may all gentlemanly pirates flourish! Perhaps the most amazing thing in “Captain Blood” is the fact that Mr. Sabatini shows the same intimate knowledge of eighteenth [sic] century ships and seamanship as he does of Mary Queen of Scots or Marat, or fencing at the old Italian Commedia dell’Arte. [This reference eludes me.]
One more example. This from “The Snare,” an admirable story of the Peninsular War. General O’Moy, Adjutant-General of the Forces in Portugal, for once in his life behaves badly. He believes his wife to be unfaithful to him with his friend, and disgraces himself utterly in his blind rage. He too, when his suspicions are proved unfounded, repents in sackcloth and ashes, and is forgiven by all concerned, including the reading public and (in this case) the theatre-going public, for Mr. Sabatini (with him, as the lawyers say, Mr. Leon M. Lion) has dramatised this novel.
Mr. Sabatini has the pleasant habit of introducing real characters into his historical romances. Thus in “Bardelys the Magnificent” you have Louis XIII in his habit as he lived; in “The Snare” there is Wellington to the life at the time of the construction of the Torres Vedras lines; in “Captain Blood” you have a pen-portrait of Jeffreys, not the Jeffreys as white-washed by Harry Irving, but the traditional ruffian as depicted by Macaulay. The only difference is in person - Mr. Sabatini presents him as he appears in a little known portrait:
Mr. Sabatini has in his novels the sanity of the historian; to his histories he imparts the gifts of which he is possessed that make his works of fiction so fascinating. He has the power of being dramatic without being melodramatic. He is more realistic than Scott and more romantic than Thackeray. It is no exaggeration to say that in his historical romances he has the sure touch of Dumas – and I do not know how to pay him a higher compliment; but to this I may certainly add that in every book Mr. Sabatini has written his own personality is stamped in it. If you pick up a volume by Mr. Sabatini and put it down before you have finished it, believe me the fault is not his.