The Great Escape

Philip Purser

  • The Fortunes of Casanova, and Other Stories by Rafael Sabatini, selected by Jack Adrian
    Oxford, 284 pp, £15.95, January 1994, ISBN 0 19 212319 X

That the literary name of one age can mean nothing to the next is both a truism and a comfort; it would be depressing to have to think that in 40 years, or even five, people might still be reading the effusions of – well, write in your own candidates from today’s bestseller lists. What does seem to be less predictable is the process that will sometimes restore a lost household name.

Jack Adrian is a professional resurrectionist originally specialising in crime and adventure fiction. Lately he has expanded to take in other genres, but his hunting ground – or boneyard – is still popular English fiction from about 1880 to 1950, in particular the magazine stories which were an important source of income for writers of that period. So far, this year, Rafael Sabatini and E.F. Benson have been given the benefit of one of his handsome and scholarly Oxford selections, and there is an anthology of historical stories still to come. Benson has already enjoyed two revivals of favour in the last 25 years, first in 1968-70 when his Mapp and Lucia stories were republished in hardback by Heinemann and in paperback by Penguin, and then in 1985-6 when the Mapp & Lucia television series prompted a flurry of interest in some of his other familiars, such as Mrs Ames. Sabatini, in contrast, fell into oblivion within ten years of his death in 1950, and has never risen again. Neither of the local libraries I use had any of his works on their shelves, while a rummage through four good second-hand bookshops produced only one find.

In his heyday he was extraordinarily successful, even by the standards of an age of book-buying which regularly allowed publishers to tag their latest printing ‘45th thousand’ or ‘87th thousand’. On top of such sales, Sabatini’s books furnished Hollywood with five very successful films – Scaramouche, Captain Blood, The Black Swan, which won an Academy Award, and two versions of The Sea Hawk. As indicated by these titles, or even more by the name of Errol Flynn (as star) above two of them, Sabatini was not only a ‘history-teller,’ as George MacDonald Fraser defines his art in a foreword to The Fortunes of Casanova, but one who delighted in a spot of swashbuckling. At the same time he was recognised as a serious historian who had published authoritative biographies of Torquemada and Cesare Borgia.

He was born in 1875 of an Italian father and an English mother, both opera-singers. They travelled the world in the course of their engagements, settled for a while in Portugal and eventually retired to Italy, where Maestro Sabatini took pupils, among them the Irish tenor and future Papal Count John McCormack. Rafael spent much of his boyhood with his maternal grandparents in Liverpool and always regarded England as his home. At 17 he started work as a clerk in a Liverpool coffee-importing business while writing in his spare time. By the turn of the century he was earning enough from the magazines to give up his day job, though it was to be another twenty years before Scaramouche, closely followed by Captain Blood, made him a rich man. Even then he lived quietly, most of the time in a cottage near Hay-on-Wye. (In the largest of the second-hand emporia of that bookselling town, when I inquired the other month, they had never heard of him.) His life had its share of sadness: his first marriage failed, his only son died in a road accident; when he married again and acquired a stepson of whom he grew very fond, that young man joined the RAF in the Second World War and was killed in full view of his parents. He had told them that to celebrate gaining his pilot’s wings he would fly his Hurricane over their home. As he turned away it crashed into the hillside across the valley.

Sabatini wrote on throughout all these disasters. His last novel appeared only a year before he died. He hadn’t at first confined himself to historical subjects but they were what he liked best, and he was happy to follow that line when it proved to be successful. Most of the stories from which this volume is assembled were written in the middle years of his career. All but three are appearing between hard covers for the first time – no Jack Adrian compilation for the general reader neglects to offer the aficionado the bonus of at least one new treat. Sabatini is most at home in the 18th century. He likes rogues, Jacobites, highwaymen and resourceful tricksters; nine stories taken from Casanova’s memoirs, never arranged together before, give the collection its title. The 17th century is next favourite, neatly represented here by ‘Kynaston’s Reckoning’, a curious and sexually cagey story featuring a boy actor mentioned in Pepys. There is one plunge back to the 16th, for an early tale of the Barbary Corsairs whose exploits Sabatini would also draw on for The Sea Hawk and, many years later, The Sword of Islam.

He was renowned for his openings. Place, period and character are instantly established. This is how one of the highwaymen tales, ‘The Poachers’, begins: ‘They were a hangdog-looking pair as they rode into Liphook on that sunny morning in May. One was short and weedy, with bony shanks and a hungry countenance, the other was a little taller and a deal bulkier, but bloated of face and generally flabby. They were dressed in a soiled and tawdry imitation of their betters, and each looked every inch the gallows-bird that he was.’ A couple of adjectives too many, perhaps, but it would be difficult not to get the little snapshot Sabatini has framed. His language seems to vary considerably. One story will bristle with archaisms such as ‘lacquey’ for ‘lackey,’ or oaths like ‘Name of a name!’ and ‘By the Madonna!’ Another will be free of gadzookery while cleverly preserving a formality of speech to distance it from the reader’s own times. ‘Therein, of course, you lie,’ the Corsair tells his Genoan prisoner in the Corsair story, ‘Brancaleone’s Terms’. This encounter is also a good instance of Sabatini’s preference for results won by ingenuity or audacity rather than a fight. He is very good on fights if a fight there must be, but his plots owe more to gestures, misunderstandings and other reliable human elements. It is interesting to see how contemporary reviewers pigeon-holed him. ‘No man writes historical romances so well,’ said the Pall Mall Gazette. Lewis Melville described him as ‘our outstanding costume novelist’. ‘The prince of story-tellers’, said another, unnamed, reviewer.

Was he? I was never greatly attracted to costume novels, even in adolescent years when I was devouring fiction, so can draw only limited comparisons. But I remember dipping into a stout anthology called Famous Escapes and being enthralled by Casanova’s escape from the Leads. I thought it might be instructive to compare the narrative expertise of Sabatini’s version with others from the same period. The best, not surprisingly, is Casanova’s own account in the Arthur Machen translation, full of the relentless detail which a practised raconteur perfects in the course of repeated tellings. Casanova points up his own courage and resolution by running down everyone else’s, particularly that of his accomplice in the escape, Friar Balbi, but wins over the reader by buttonholing him directly. In The Casanova Fable William Gerhardie and Hugh Kingsmill throw away all these possibilities by transposing the story into the third person, and furthermore adopt a disapproving narrative voice; their odd little book is eventually going to turn into a mock-judicial arraignment of the great lover. Richard Aldington (The Romance of Casanova) likewise adopts a God’s eye-view, makes Balbi a lay figure called Marco and invents a barmy alternative outcome whereby Casanova is recaptured and brainwashed. Sabatini, who as a gifted linguist could have worked – and probably did – from the original, instinctively preserves the detail; his version of the complicated manoeuvre with a ladder when Casanova almost falls to his death is by far the clearest. He is the only one to give the length of the ladder in familiar terms. It’s 60 feet. Imagine trying to insinuate that through a dormer window while balancing on a steep, slippery roof.

On the other hand, he cuts off the story as soon as Casanova and Balbi are out of the prison and aboard the gondola which will take them to Mestre. The drawn-out but revealing diminuendo of their separate adventures before they finally escape the Republic is thrown away. Even more surprisingly, Sabatini alto uses a third-person narrative, although he must have known the advantages of the first person when the story is to be relayed through a character whose bombast – as with Casanova, or Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard, or his own Bardelys the Magnificent – is at odds with his behaviour. It may be that Sabatini intended his Casanova episodes to be read as bits of popular history rather than as ‘stories’, or simply that he feared they would have been too close to straightforward translation had he left them in Casanova’s own, unmistakable voice. Whatever the explanation, no more than average marks to R. Sabatini in the set-piece stage of the contest.

For his original composition we might as well take Bardelys the Magnificent; it is a prime example of what Jack Adrian believes to be Sabatini’s key contribution to the historical novel, the hero who, but for the grace of God, would be anyone else’s villain. We are in the France of Louis XIII and the Cardinals, a setting which Sabatini’s admired predecessor and mentor, Stanley Weyman, had already popularised in Under the Red Robe. Again, the opening lines invoke the basic conflict: ‘ “Speak of the Devil,” whispered La Fosse in my ear, and moved by the words and by the significance of his glance, I turned in my chair. The door had opened, and under the lintel stood the thick-set figure of the Comte de Chatellerault.’ Enter one player in a contest of jealousy and braggadocio between two of Louis’s favourites. The other, Bardelys, is telling the tale. Lying in wait for the reader is the realisation, within a page or two, that both these characters are louts. Bardelys is magnificent only in the ostentation of the feasting and drinking he lavishes on his cronies. De Chatellerault is a boaster who was sent by the King to win the hand, for political ends, of a fabled beauty in the Languedoc, and has just returned without her. At first Bardelys treats him as an honoured guest; when the others start taunting the visitor for his failure, he joins in like a schoolboy following the bullies. The two end up making a wager, despicable even by their own standards, and one that spells ruin for the loser.

In the course of his ensuing adventures Bardelys administers two savage beatings, one to his own faithful servant for telling tales, while suffering no scruples about running to tell tales of his own. He also has rather a tiresome habit of vowing to confess his deceits and then funking it at the last moment. But the plotting is masterly, a new twist or turn coming up just before the story can flag, and a redemptive moral really does emerge quite movingly. The danger and hardship and true love Bardelys encounters on his ignoble quest act as purifying agents. At the end he is a finer man – as, at his end is de Chatellerault.

The largest claim Jack Adrian makes for Sabatini is that he gave the historical novel a new lease of life. If he is referring to the period of Sabatini’s great success, in the Twenties and Thirties, he is right, in that this bonanza inspired a host of emulators. Pirate tales and French Revolution escapades proliferated. But surely there were plenty of able practitioners whose careers overlapped the early years of Sabatini’s, notably Weyman, Maurice Hewlett and my favourite, the Arthur Conan Doyle of the Brigadier Gerard stories and The White Company. As Adrian and Michael Cox’s Oxford Book of Historical Stories may confirm in due course, I suspect that there has been a continuous tradition from the great Victorians right through to Patrick O’Brian today.