Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini

Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini

A review by Rich Horton

I will begin with a disclaimer aimed at those who have navigated here from Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books page, who may complain that Scaramouche is hardly forgotten. I concede this of course -- but the collective title of my review series is "Old Bestsellers", and Scaramouche was indeed a bestseller, nigh on a hundred years ago -- at least, it is routinely described in such terms as "runaway bestseller"; and it has been filmed at least twice, in 1923 and in 1952. That said, it does not appear in the Publishers' Weekly list of the ten bestselling novels of 1921. Sabatini did appear on the list in 1923 (with The Sea Hawk, first published in 1915), in 1924 (Mistress Wilding, from 1910), and in 1925 (The Carolinian, from 1924). None of those three novels have the reputation of Scaramouche (though The Sea Hawk still has readers). (I should add that The Sea Hawk is NOT the source material for the Errol Flynn movie of that title.)

Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) had an interesting life. He was born in Italy to two opera singers, an Englishwoman (Anna Trafford) and an Italian (Vincenzo Sabatini). They were apparently not married when Rafael was born, which is reflected in the parentage of the protagonist of Scaramouche, though they may have married later (Anna referred to herself as Mrs. Sabatini, and the couple stayed together). Sabatini was raised mostly in England with Anna's parents while Anna and Vincenzo travelled, but after the couple settled down as singing teachers in Portugal, he moved back with them, and was schooled in Portugal and later Switzerland. At 17 he took a commercial job in Liverpool, and shortly thereafter began to write stories. though he was fluent in at least six languages, he wrote in English, he said, because "all the best stories are in English". Sabatini lived in many places, but his eventual permanent home was on the English/Welsh borderland.

(My source for most of this, by the way, is an excellent website, The Life and Work of Rafael Sabatini, compiled mostly by Jesse F. Knight.)
Sabatini's earliest stories are apparently lost, perhaps having appeared in local newspapers, but by the late '90s he was appearing in major magazines such as Pearson's. His novels started appearing in 1902, but his first major success was with Scaramouche, which appeared when he was 46. After its success, many of his earlier novels were reprinted, hence the bestselling status, years after first publication, of The Sea Hawk and Mistress Wilding. Captain Blood, perhaps his second most famous novel, followed quickly on Scaramouche in 1922: it was a fixup of several short stories (and the two subsequent Captain Blood books were overtly story collections). Sabatini complained somewhat about some of those reissues on the grounds that his earlier work was not nearly as good as Scaramouche, partly, he confessed, because "At the time of writing them, I had yet to make the discovery that, to produce an historical romance of any value, it is necessary first to engage in researches so exhaustive as to qualify one to write a history of the epoch in which the romance is set."

Sabatini's personal life was somewhat sad -- his only son died in 1927 in a car accident, and he and his wife divorced in 1931. He remarried, and his stepson died crashing his plane shortly after joining the RAF.

The first line of Scaramouche is one of the most famous in literature: "He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." It does slow down a bit after that, for the first few chapters, before gaining momentum. The main character is called André-Louis Moreau, an illegitimate child raised by a country gentleman who calls himself the boy's godfather or uncle -- tongues wag, of course, though we are told that honest and bluff Quintin de Kercadious, Lord of Gavrillac (in Brittany), always denied to his ward that he was the boy's father.

André-Louis becomes a lawyer, and rather a cynic, in particular fond of mocking his best friend Philippe de Vilmorin's revolutionary views. But when Philippe is goaded into a duel by the odious Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr, after the latter ordered the shooting of a poacher on his property, André-Louis vows take up his friend's cause, largely because that will annoy the Marquis -- and perhaps also because the Marquis is courting Andre-Louis's cousin Aline, and he is disgusted that she seems ready to sell herself for a title.

Soon André-Louis is fomenting revolution in the provincial towns of Rennes and Nantes, and he becomes a wanted man. Aline urges him to flee, and he does, meeting up with a traveling band of players in the tradition of the improvisatory Italian Commedia Dell'Arte. It is about at this point that the novel takes off. André-Louis is beguiled by the beautiful lead actress of the troupe, Mlle. Climène Binet, and he volunteers to join them as property-man and carpenter -- and also to use his knowledge of the classical theater to help the leader, M. Binet (Climène's father), in preparing scenarios. Before long André (as he now calls himself, surname Louis -- a pretty transparent alias) has taken on the traditional trickster role of Scaramouche, and he has completely reformed the troupe, making them a remarkable success with his new scenarios and his acting. And he has also become engaged to Climène. But when Climène agrees to become the mistress of a nobleman -- no other than the Marquis de la Tour D'Azyr -- André is enraged and foments a riot, hoping the crowd will punish him.

His acting career over, he proceeds to Paris, now awash in revolutionary sentiment. André apprentices himself to a fencer, and soon becomes pretty much the greatest swordsman in the history of the world, inventing new techniques that will later become standard textbook fare. He tries to ignore the political torrents swirling about him, but he is drawn into things when the aristocrats -- led, naturally, by the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr -- begin baiting leading men of the more democratic party into duels.

Things move quickly from this point ... we see, of course, a duel between André and the Marquis, and André's fraught reunion with his stepfather and with Aline, still being courted by the Marquis, and, oh yeah, the French Revolution ... followed by the onset of the Terror, and a decision for André-Louis, not to mention resolution of the issue of his parentage. (Easily enough guessed!)

It's really great fun: there's no way around that. It's nicely written, funny when it needs to be, and stirring when it needs to be. There's a love story (or two or more), none of which fully convince (mainly because the story is so focused on the men that we never really get to know the women well enough). The main drawback is the way André-Louis is so perfect -- suddenly a great orator, then a great actor (not to mention a budding playwright who it seems would have rivaled Molière had he stayed with it), then the greatest fencer of all time, then a significant politician (though to be fair not really a leader in this area). This stuff is fun, but perhaps just a bit too much. Still, I really enjoyed it, and it's easy to see why it was so popular.

Sabatini wrote a sequel, Scaramouche the King-Maker, published in 1931. It was not well-received. The 1952 movie version of Scaramouche, which starred Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, Janet Leigh, and Mel Ferrer (big enough names, anyway), seems to be popular but in synopsis it looks to have played way too fast and loose with the plot and the motivations of the novel. The climactic swordfight is famous as one of the longest in movie history.

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