Friday, February 24, 2017

Marietta: A Maid of Venice by F Marion Crawford

Much as I approve of the Victorian era in theory, I have to admit that in practice, I usually don't enjoy Victorian novels. (Unless they're by Anthony Trollope, and he is a different story). Recently, however, I decided to read F Marion Crawford's 1901 historical romance, Marietta: A Maid of Venice - and enjoyed it much more than I expected.

In 1470 Venice, the glassmakers of Murano enjoy a privileged position. Their social status permits them to intermarry with the nobility, and it's forbidden to teach their trade to foreigners, which ensures that the secrets of fine glassmaking never leave the lagoon. These two privileges benefit the wealthy Angelo Beroviero, a glassmaker who plans to marry his daughter Marietta to the young patrician Jacopo Contarini - but they pose a significant challenge for his young servant, Zorzi the Dalmation. Despite the law, Zorzi has learned the craft of glassblowing while assisting Beroviero, and has become a truly great artist - but being a foreigner, he'll never be able to go into business for himself, or to win the hand of Marietta, whom he loves.

When Beroviero sends him on a secret mission to Venice to arrange a meeting between Marietta and her intended husband, Zorzi stumbles upon a secret society and sets in motion a chain of events that threaten his whole future - his work, his love, and even his life.

Looking back, I can acknowledge that this story has its faults. The plot is not particularly tight, and some of the supporting characters are either underused or cartoonish. Contarini's villainous mistress, Arisa, is particularly deplorable - she's depicted as "savage" based purely on being Georgian and female.

But is that any worse than writers today who would depict her as being inherently righteous based purely on the same factors? More and more these days I'm finding I can identify the culprit in a murder mystery or guess the outcome of a sci-fi drama, just by ruling out the Minority Representation Characters - the real villain is never going to be the Moor, or the homosexual, or the difficult-to-communicate-with aliens. It's time we stopped evaluating moral worth based on social identity, and started evaluating it based on actual moral worth defined by Scripture.

Which I felt was actually something that Crawford overall did right; Arisa's character stood out as an aberration, a generally careful author falling into laziness. Because the main thing that impressed me about this book was how carefully and thoroughly it challenged the oppression in Renaissance Venice.

I recently read another book set in Venice, a twenty-first-century YA novel, and that one was very hamfistedly passionate about how badly women were treated in this time and place. I did not expect to find an author in 1901 getting passionate about the very same issues. Marietta, the title character, like every other girl in Venice, is expected to marry the man her father picks out for her. And if she refuses or disgraces herself, she'll be locked up in a convent whether she wants it or not. Crawford emphasises, again and again, the fact that Marietta is privileged to have a decent father who loves her and will listen to her, even as he takes for granted his right to dispose her life for her: many Venetian women didn't even have that much, and nobody thought twice of disposing them in the way that would be most profitable. 

The book was a breath of fresh air. Followers of this blog will be aware of how irately I react to hamfisted feminist critiques of past social eras. Too many ignorant feminists want to depict the entire past with a paint roller instead of a pencil. Any culture prior to 1960 (or 1980, or 2010) was a time of partriarchalist misery for women, right? Wrong: you can't just assume that every single person in every past culture in every part of the world believed the same thing about women. They were different. Some of them were quite good for women; many European cultures in the High Middle Ages, for instance. Some of them were terrible. Renaissance Venice seems to have been one such culture. And yet, the feminist answer is to say that men are baaaad, and women are goooood, and call for the latter to band together in a sort of revolution against the former.

The Christian answer is that men and women are bad and good, and that the line between good and evil goes right through the centre of every human heart; and that that is the great dividing-line, not the difference between the sexes. Men and women are allies in this fight. This is the truth that Crawford expresses in his book. Marietta's fight against the injustices her society imposes on women is a mirror of Zorzi's fight against the injustices his society imposes on foreigners. When Marietta finally confronts her father, she's described as "fighting for the liberty of her whole life". I was cheering all through the scene because it was such a brilliant picture of how Christians defy authority: with reason, respect, and love. Marietta is having no more of her father's nonsense, but she refuses to respond with fussiness, entitlement, or self-pity. It was great.

This book was all about patriarchal oppression, but I've rarely read anything less feminist. I loved it.

In addition, I really enjoyed how vividly the book was written, and the convincing detail about the art of glassmaking. Though not without flaws, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, informative, and stirring read.

Find Marietta: A Maid of Venice on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Mohawk Valley by Ronald Welch

Thanks to the good folks at Slightly Foxed, my adventures through history with Ronald Welch's Carey Family continues...

In Mohawk Valley, young Alan Carey is forced to leave Cambridge in disgrace after being accused of cheating at cards. Expelled from the college and a pariah among his erstwhile friends, Alan heads back to the ancestral home at Llanstephan to face his father, the formidable old Charles Carey familiar to readers from Captain of Dragoons. The Earl, together with his friend Mr William Pitt, comes up with a plan: ship Alan across the Atlantic to make his fortune and repair his reputation taking care of the Earl's properties on the American frontier. Once in America, Alan finds his hands full learning woodcraft and dealing with untrustworthy stewards. But not all is peaceful in the backwoods, and political maneuverings in London and Paris threaten to bring war on the frontier.

You guessed it: this is the book about the French and Indian War. Overall, I have to say that this is my least favourite of the Carey Family series so far. The plot was more episodic than most of Welch's other books, and I didn't at all care for the portrayal of one of the villains as a Scripture-quoting fanatic who first cheats and then attempts to murder our hero. The New England Puritans had their oddities, especially as time went on, but as a general rule they were sincere, law-abiding people, and I felt that by making their sole representative in this book a villain, Welch was trying to say something about the Puritans, and sincere religious faith, as a whole.

Still, there was plenty to like about Mohawk Valley. Ronald Welch wrote for young people, especially young boys, but I usually find his books full of thoughtfulness on topics of maturity and manhood. One thing that I think all his books have in common is that they challenge their young heroes, and through them the readers, with difficult decisions and tasks. And one of the reasons why this is so challenging to the reader is that Welch does a very good job of showing how difficult his heroes find their tasks: he writes sympathetically to their fears and doubts in such a way that he seems sympathetic to the fears and doubts of the reader too.

So, in Mohawk Valley, Alan Carey faces nearly the most depressing fate for any young member of the English nobility: when he elects to fight a duel to clear his name, his nerves fail him and he drops his pistol, convincing everyone present that he's not just a cheat but also a coward. Alan heads home convinced that he's shamed not just himself but also his family name and his swashbuckling old father. The rest of the book is about how he rediscovers his courage and self-respect, even as he relinquishes his status as an English nobleman for the harsher and more egalitarian life of an American backwoodsman. There's more than one way of being brave, and more than one way of being noble, the book seems to say: if you fail at one thing, pick yourself up and try another. I can imagine that being a fairly encouraging thing for a young man to read.

The last third or so of the book is taken up with the French and Indian War, with fairly detailed accounts of the battle of Ticonderoga and the fall of Quebec. As usual, Welch writes about wars without criticising the diplomatic decisions that cause them, but his battle scenes are always vivid, visceral and intensely serious.

Mohawk Valley may not be my favourite Welch book, but it contains all the things that make the rest of the series worth reading: historical detail, military realism, and sympathetic characters facing tough decisions. The series is currently in print in beautiful limited editions available from Slightly Foxed - particularly recommended for home educators!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini (re-read)

Late last year I re-read a couple of Rafael Sabatini novels: The Sea-Hawk, and Bardelys the Magnificent. I'd already reviewed Bardelys here on Vintage Novels quite early on, but re-reading the book convinced me I should say something more about it.

It has a pretty classic set-up for the plot: in Louis XIII's France, the fabulously wealthy Marquis of Bardelys is goaded into wagering his entire fortune that he will be able to win the heart and hand of Languedoc heiress Roxalanne de Lavedan. Matters are quickly complicated when a series of coincidences brings Bardelys to the de Lavedan chateau not as a marquis but as a wanted fugitive. Under these false colours, the Marquis is astounded to discover himself falling genuinely in love - but not everything about the wager is what it seems, and Bardelys's deceptions quickly put him not only in danger of losing Roxalanne but also of losing his life.

I remembered Bardelys the Magnificent as a fun, melodramatic romance with plenty of sword-fighting, danger, and intrigue, which is what we all really want from Sabatini. But although it's not one of his more famous works, I was pleasantly surprised, this time, by just how good it was. The plot (as you can tell from the summary given above) is not particularly credible, but it makes up for that by being extremely well-paced and full of twists and turns so poetically satisfying that one doesn't mind the stretches. The love story, as usual, features the two protagonists doing awful things to each other, but it doesn't come with anywhere near the same level of unfortunate implications as in some of Sabatini's other novels - The Sea-Hawk, for one.

I note that in any good love story, the characters must do increasingly terrible things to each other; and this is because every good story and every good character arc is, ultimately, about repentance. I've been reading John Truby's amazing book The Anatomy of Story over the last few weeks, and he makes this point as well: the aim is to force a character to come to a moral decision between two choices. And this is what Sabatini does well in this book. Later in his writing career, Sabatini would come to blame all his heroes' hardships on Fate. Nothing that happens to them is their fault - and it makes for terrible stories. In Bardelys, there is a little of this unsatisfying philosophy, but the main focus of the story is on the protagonist's moral growth. By taking on a new identity, he puts himself in a position to see his old self - the Marquis of Bardelys - more clearly, through the eyes of others. And by falling for Roxalanne, he is motivated to leave behind what he sees for a new life and in many ways, a new identity.

Which is, perhaps, burdening a hilariously melodramatic potboiler with just a little too much significance. This is a completely preposterous story, after all. But it owns that fact, and somehow, despite its vintage cheesiness, I found it affecting. If it's cheese, it's cheese of the very best quality: and it works. If you love vintage swashbucklers such as The Prisoner of Zenda or The Mark of Zorro, don't miss Bardelys the Magnificent.

You can find Bardelys the Magnificent on Project Gutenberg, Amazon or The Book Depository.

A silent film of Bardelys the Magnificent made in the '20s was recently rediscovered. I haven't seen it, but I'd love to. Have you seen the silent film or read the book? What did you think?

Friday, February 3, 2017

Poem: One Tuesday in Summer by James McAuley

Well, 2016 went out, and 2017 came in, and I am back, looking bronzed and fit. You'll have to take my word for it, of course, but that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

For a month when I tried not to do anything, I feel January was pretty productive. I wound up with a lot of thoughts about OUTREMER, and I've even started laying the groundwork for the second draft, in a leisurely sort of way. February is shaping up to be rather frantic, so we'll see how far I get with it.

One thing that's happening this year: someone is having a centenary. James McAuley is not just (in my opinion) one of the greatest Australian poets ever (and a bonafide Aussie larrikin), but Wikipedia credits him with engineering "a significant setback for modernist poetry in Australia". He's also simply a personal favourite. And he was born on October 12, 1917 - a hundred years ago this year.

So it seems appropriate for the first post of 2017 to be a poem by James McAuley. Here's one that's been a favourite for several years.



One Tuesday in Summer
James McAuley

That sultry afternoon the world went strange.
Under a violet and leaden bruise
The air was filled with sinister yellow light;
Trees, houses, grass took on unnatural hues.

Thunder rolled near. The intensity grew and grew
Like doom itself with lightnings on its face.
And Mr Pitt, the grocer's order-man,
Who made his call on Tuesdays at our place,

Said to my mother, looking at the sky,
'You'd think the ending of the world had come.'
A leathern little man, with bicycle-clips
Around his ankles, doing our weekly sum,

He too looked strange in that uncanny light;
As in the Bible ordinary men
Turn out to be angelic messengers,
Pronouncing the Lord's judgments why and when.

I watched the scurry of the small black ants
That sensed the storm. What Mr Pitt had said
I didn't quite believe, or disbelieve;
But still the words had got into my head,

For nothing less seemed worth of the scene.
The darkening imminence hung on and on,
Till suddenly, with lightning-stroke and rain,
Apocalypse exploded, and was gone.

By nightfall things had their familiar look.
But I had seen the world stand in dismay
Under the aspect of another meaning
That rain or time would hardly wash away.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Best of 2016

Well, strictly speaking I'm supposed to be on holiday right now, recovering from a hard year's work and reading my Annual Holiday Epic, but one of the many small pleasures of the Christmas season includes sitting down to look back at the year's reading and hand out some tiny awards.

Also, it's terribly sad this year, but I haven't started the Annual Epic yet. After The Song of Roland last Christmas, I wanted to read another chanson de geste, the Spanish Song of the Cid this time. Unfortunately, I ordered it in at the library in the delicious and toothsome-looking new Burton-Raffel translation - and it hasn't yet appeared. Instead, I'm tiding myself over with Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave - finally.

Otherwise, it's been a really good reading year. According to Goodreads, I got through 113 books this year, which is only slightly down from last year's 119.


Favourite Re-Reads

For me, to re-read a book is in itself a major recommendation, so it often seems unfair to have my re-reads compete against my new reads. In 2016 I re-read 16 books. Here are my top five:

The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart - I appreciated this story far more the second time around - a moody gothic romance complete with mistaken identity, mystery and murder. I thought it also had a bit more substance than I usually find in Mary Stewart's novels.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome - Another readaloud with my sisters, this book is a comedic gem from Victorian England that somehow manages to be every bit as fresh and funny today. Packed full of quotable gems and outrageous situations, it's hard to believe this classic started life as a travel guide. Full review here.

Paradise Restored by David Chilton - since I'd only read it once, many years ago, this one was well overdue for a re-read. Still my favourite theological work, it's an excellent introduction to the interpretation of biblical typology, and a great introduction to optimistic eschatology.

The Song of Roland, trans. Dorothy Sayers - my Annual Epic for 2016 and a vital bit of cultural research for OUTREMER, this poem came alive for me this year in a way it never had before. Probably written during or shortly after the First Crusade, it's a magnificent glimpse at the mindset that produced it. See my detailed review here.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien - you knew this would be on here. Words fail me. Still the best. Book of the year. Some thoughts are available here.


Non-Fiction of the Year

My non-fiction schedule is pretty crowded these days, as my constant fiction output requires a constant, and strenuous, non-fiction intake, whether historical/cultural research or writing and marketing craft. But I do get to read a bunch of books for my own enjoyment: this year, some of the standouts include theological tomes from Ray Sutton (That You May Prosper) and William Symington (Messiah the Prince), William Dalrymple's outrageous romp of a travel book In Xanadu, and Dinah Roe's quadruple biography of a unique artistic family, The Rossettis in Wonderland. And this year, I think I'm actually going to tie two books for Non-Fiction of the Year, because they were both so important in different ways.


Saving Leonardo was every bit as good as I'd hoped, and then some. You could call it a course on art history from a philosophical standpoint, or you could call it a philosophy course with really, really high-quality illustrations. Pearcey focuses mainly on modern schools of artistic expression, and ably explains exactly what philosophies undergird cubism, expressionism, surrealism and more. And while she critiques each of these philosophies from a Christian perspective, she's quick to demonstrate how each of these different schools have been used by Christian artists. It's incredibly rare to find an approach to fine art that both respects it for its philosophical and artistic value, and critiques it from a Christian viewpoint. Saving Leonardo is an absolutely essential book - I can't recommend it highly enough.


The other must-read in my non-fiction stack this year is The Tyrannicide Brief, a gripping and illuminating biography of John Cooke, the humble barrister who was sent the brief to prosecute Charles I. As a QC practicing in the very areas he's writing about - war crimes and tyranny - Geoffrey Robertson is uniquely qualified to provide a detailed, yet never dry analysis of the legal and political issues at stake in Charles I's trial and execution. In three sections, the book deals with the history of tyranny and war that led up to Charles's trial; the unprecedented event of the trial itself; and the denouement ten years later, when John Cooke and a small group of fellow regicides were put cruelly and arbitrarily to death. It is a long-overdue recognition of a man and a movement far ahead of their time, who did more perhaps than any other single generation in history for liberty and justice. I cried.


Fiction of the Year

Coming up with a single fiction book to recommend each year is about as much fun as pulling teeth, and I've made it hard for myself by disqualifying re-reads (and thus The Lord of the Rings), but let me try. This year I read Pierce Brown's whole Red Rising trilogy, and I read it immoderately, in three gulps, until it was done, and then sat up and begged for more. It's a genre-busting, blood-soaked dystopian space opera extravaganza, with about three times the smarts, three times the conviction, and three times the heart of just about every other YA bestseller I read this year - with one important exception, which was everything I read by Rosamund Hodge. 

I was intrigued by Cruel Beauty and its bitter and bracing look at sin and guilt, and I loved her Gilded Ashes novella, but it was Hodge's second book, Crimson Bound, a Red Riding Hood retelling with some serious teeth in it, which reduced me to tears and made me a confirmed fan. Hodge writes about guilt-ridden bad people undergoing long and painful repentances, all wrapped up in YA fantasy trappings of love triangles and fairytale references. How dark do you like your chocolate? This is 85%.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, a more classic YA novel, was so good that after reading it for the first time this year and loving it, I went on and read it a second time, aloud, with my sisters. It only improved on closer acquaintance. Not just an exciting tale of adventure and (perhaps) magic in Elizabethan England - this book is something more, a beautiful and sometimes heartwrenching story of trial and redemption.

Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset is probably the book I should be naming Fiction of the Year. It's a solid five star, it's the grand finale to the wonderful Chronicles of Barset, and it came packed not just with adorable characters and horrifying plot twists, but also with social commentary that had me cheering in delight. Trollope ranks about level with Jane Austen in my pantime of Great Authors now, and this was my favourite book of his yet.

All the same, I can't help being me, and so Fiction of the Year goes to...


As you know, I've been living and breathing Crusader history for the last two years, and The High Crusade (see my full review!) probably did better than any other book I read this year (with the sole exception of actual original source materials like Letters from the East or The Song of Roland) at expressing the delightful quirks and contradictions of the medieval character. 

Also, knights versus aliens. How could anything be better?


2016 in Writing

In 2016, I managed a total raw wordcount output of about 325,000 words, give or take, which included:
  • finishing the first draft of OUTREMER, my mega-project on the 200-year history of the Crusader States;
  • second-draft and polishing on Death Be Not Proud, a romantic suspense fairytale novella now available as part of the Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales collection;
  • the first drafts of two new fairytale novellas, Ten Thousand Thorns (which is Sleeping Beauty in the style of a wuxia martial arts epic) and Lady Disdain (which is King Thrushbeard in the style of a vintage swashbuckler). 
As you can imagine, I'm now rather badly in need of a holiday. So, farewell! I'll be taking January to relax and recharge, and will see you all in February with more reviews, and hopefully some more news on upcoming projects! Merry Christmas (it's not Epiphany yet, after all) and a happy new year to all of you!

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

Merry Christmas to you all for next week! As usual, I've been flat out trying to fit one last writing project into the year before gratefully slipping into much-needed oblivion over the holiday period. And, because I'm lazy, and you're all busy with Christmas anyway, I thought I would merely mention, in an off-hand sort of way, that I've just finished work on another fairytale novella first draft. This one is the long-awaited retelling of my favourite fairytale of all time, King Thrushbeard. Obviously, a story this special to me needs to be retold in a pretty special way; and so this one was not an easy story to write.

However, the first incoherent draft is written, and it's in the style of a vintage swashbuckler (because secret identities and antagonistic love stories fit so well into this genre), and it's set during the English Civil War. The working title is Lady Disdain, and so far I'm happy about how it's come together!

As usual, I read a number of books to prepare myself for this story, and one of the books I read (in addition to a couple of melodramatic Rafael Sabatini swashbucklers and Geoffrey Robertson's absolutely smashing The Tyrannicide Brief) was Rosemary Sutcliff's The Rider of the White Horse.

This particular novel is one of the stories Sutcliff wrote specifically for adults, not children. Now granted, all the books of Sutcliff's that I've read have been of such quality that distinctions like "adults'" or "children's" cease to apply. It's been a while since I read Sutcliff's great YA novels - The Eagle of the Ninth, The Shield Ring, and many others - but I felt that The Rider of the White Horse was pretty similar in tone and quality.

Anyway, The Rider of the White Horse is a historical novel covering the first few years of the English Civil War in Yorkshire, from the beginning of the war in 1642 to the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Our protagonist is Anne Fairfax, the wife of Sir Thomas Fairfax who would become the commander in chief of the New Model Army and de facto ruler of England in the turbulent years of the Rump Parliament. 

When this story begins, however, Sir Thomas is only an obscure Yorkshire gentleman, quiet, reserved, and plagued by recurrent illness. Anne, his wife, loves him deeply but feels that her love is not returned. When war breaks out, Anne accompanies Thomas on campaign and through danger, sickness, and even captivity, finds a measure of happiness she never had in peacetime.

The Rider of the White Horse was an absolutely beautiful novel in a whole number of different ways. Sutcliff could weave sheer magic with words, and under her pen, the Yorkshire backdrop to her story, the sensitive characters that people it, and the battlefield action that punctuates it, are all marvellously vivid. And although the plot was a little tenuous, as befits a relatively true-to-life, character-driven portrait of real people and events, there was plenty of action and danger to keep a plot-lover like me interested. 

The historical detail in the book was wonderful. A few passages, especially near the beginning, were a little exposition-heavy, and there are a couple of places where there's room to challenge Sutcliff's evaluation of the history: I thought the foreshadowing of the King's death was a little heavy-handed, for example; according to Geoffrey Robertson there's good reason to believe that no one seriously imagined trying the King for his crimes, let alone cutting off his head, until 1648. Robertson also argues pretty persuasively that at the time it happened Fairfax was not opposed to the execution of the King, as Sutcliff states. But generally the historical detail in the book seemed effortless - more as if Sutcliff was writing of things she remembered, than things she had researched and imagined.

As for the love story, I'm in two minds about it. On the one hand, the characters of Anne and Thomas Fairfax, and the slow, bittersweet growth they go through, is written with a great deal of sensitivity and subtlety. It was beautiful, and moving, and satisfying - within the novel. The problem appears when you step outside the world of the novel, and consider the historical facts within the context of the larger history. As my friend Christina pointed out when we discussed this book a few months ago, Lady Anne Fairfax certainly accompanied her husband on campaign, which was rather unusual for the time. What was not at all unusual for the time, was the Puritan ideal of companionate marriage, in which, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before in history, a married couple were expected to love, confide in, rely upon, and befriend each other. Given that the historical Anne Fairfax was so ready to put herself in danger and discomfort in order to accompany her husband on campaign, and he found it so important to have her, isn't is more natural to draw the conclusion that the Fairfaxes must have had an unusually close and happy marriage?

From the novel, it seemed clear to me that Sutcliff's Thomas Fairfax is a deeply reserved man with a deep love for his wife but without the gift of being able to communicate it to her in ways that she understood. At least that's the impression I got from the way the characters interacted - but Sutcliff seemed to be trying to convince me that this gentle and self-sacrificing character did not really love her. Not really. Christina suggests, and I tend to agree that on the contrary, a real seventeenth-century woman would have interpreted this as love, and that both Sutcliff's personal and cultural background may have conspired to prevent her recognising this. Culturally, in the 1950s, the ideal of marriage was pretty out of joint with the Puritan companionate ideal: many wives spent their time in the home, bored and unfulfilled, waiting for their husbands to come home and pay attention to them. There was an unnatural division between husband and wife, an expectation that the husband would get fulfilment via meaningful dominion work, while the wife would get fulfilment through the meeting of her emotional needs. In the Puritan ideal, however, both parties have their emotional needs met through the kind of shared dominion work that the historical Fairfaxes obviously undertook. They are a team; they are not shunted off into separate blue-and-pink universes.

Rosemary Sutcliff's tragic personal life may have also contributed to her skewed romantic paradigm. If I'm informed correctly, she had a love affair with a married man who told her although she was his true love, it was impossible for him to divorce his wife to marry her. After the affair was over, he later did divorce his wife and remarry--to someone else. So, Sutcliff's most powerful personal experience of love was also one of waiting for a man to tire of his quest and meet the woman's emotional needs - but perhaps that's a paradigm that comes out more clearly in Sutcliff's novel about Sir Walter Raleigh's wife, Lady in Waiting.

All of which are fascinating thoughts, and perhaps a useful indication of why Sutcliff chose to tell the story she did. Nevertheless, it's undeniable that in The Rider of the White Horse she has told her story with wonderful skill and feeling.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini

Rafael Sabatini has never approached membership in my great pantime of favourite authors, but ever since I discovered his outrageously melodramatic swashbucklers (while studying law and in need of some light relief), I've had a soft spot for the author of Captain Blood, Scaramouche and Bellarion the Fortunate.

Recently, I decided to re-read one of his most well-known novels, The Sea-Hawk.

Our story opens in Elizabethan Cornwall, where the young privateer Sir Oliver Tressilian is determined to marry his love Rosamund Godolphin despite her brother's objections - there has been bad blood between Tressilians and Godolphins for generations. When Rosamund's brother is discovered lying dead in the snow with a trail of blood leading to Sir Oliver's door, Rosamund becomes his enemy - but not half as deadly an enemy as Lionel, the younger brother Sir Oliver is trying to shield.

A rollicking tale of love, hate, and betrayal ensues, sweeping its characters from the cold coast of Cornwall to the blue sweep of the Mediterranean where the corsairs of Barbary ply their trade, led by the mysterious and inscrutable Sakr El-Bahr, the Hawk of the Sea...

I was captivated by this story the first time I read it, but this time I came away feeling that the whole was somewhat less than the sum of its parts. After all, The Sea-Hawk has everything...duels, pirates, treachery, kidnappings, galley-slaves, romance, palace intrigue, a gutsy heroine, moral dilemmas, and more. It's exciting. The hero and heroine both do terrible things to each other, only to repent of them later. There's a real sense of eucatastrophe when their hilariously tormented love-affair finally comes right, and I felt I could really cheer for Rosamund as a heroine in the final chapters, when she comes in to save the day rather like Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

And yet.

Sometimes Sabatini clicks for me. I've reread both Captain Blood and Bardelys the Magnificent a number of times, and both of them are hugely enjoyable. The Sea-Hawk was awfully close, but never quite closed the deal. Partly it could be the odd pacing. The first third of the book occurs in Cornwall five years before the second two-thirds of the book in Algiers, which gives the story a slightly disjointed feeling. Much of the middle section is taken up by the villainous harem intrigues featuring the wife of the basha of Algiers, a character who didn't interest me in the least. And then there's the main character's rather flippant attitude toward religion, as he sees no problem with changing his allegiances at the drop of the hat for personal gain.

These are drawbacks, but I think the most unsettling thing, for me, was the centrepiece of the book, in which the heroine is sold to the hero in the slave market at Algiers. It makes for good melodrama as he takes her home and gloats over her, and the second half of the book goes a long way towards redeeming him as he starts to realise that a) he still loves her and b) his lust for revenge has put her in terrible danger. However, it's the old have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too trap so many authors fall into: Sabatini has obviously gone to such outrageous lengths, shifting his characters through many an implausible imbroglio to maneuver them into position, just so that this scene can happen. Although the characters spend much of the second half of the book regretting that the scene did happen, it did happen and we got our guilty frisson out of it. 

So, much of this book was pure fantasy, and in retrospect, a rather unhealthy fantasy to boot; but all the same, it was a fun read, with an ending that satisfied. The Sea-Hawk falls on the guilty end of the guilty-pleasure scale, and I'm not convinced it justifies its existence. But, it still has some good elements...

How's that for a rousing recommendation?

You can find The Sea-Hawk on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.

Guess what? They made a film very loosely based on The Sea-Hawk, starring Errol Flynn as the titular pirate! Rather understandably, given the book's structural oddities, the film has nothing whatsoever to do with the book, except for being set during the reign of Elizabeth I and featuring a privateer as the main character. It's not a bad black-and-white swashbuckler though.

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