Ah, Sabatini. Writer of trashy vintage swashbucklers that have somehow become classics.
You don't go to a Sabatini novel for three-dimensional villains or deep insights into the human condition. You go for two things, and two things only: One, swashbuckling adventure. Two, implausibly antagonistic romance.
In some ways, The Magnificent Bardelys is the only Rafael Sabatini novel ever written. All the others are shadows of it. If one ever got to the place where Plato keeps all his archetypes (see also: Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion) the Platonic archetype Sabatini novel would be The Magnificent Bardelys. All his other works would have been absorbed back into it. Never before have villains been so despicable. Never before have two lovers put each other through so much.
To be sure, The Magnificent Bardelys is not Sabatini's best novel. That would probably be Captain Blood. And The Sea-Hawk is also rather quintessential as far as Sabatini novels go. But if you asked which of Sabatini's novels I hold the tenderest regard for, it would be this one.
Attend, therefore! The Marquis of Bardelys has it all. He's wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of avarice. He's best friends with King Louis XIII (of Three Musketeers fame). He's young, good-looking, high-born, and a magnificent swordsman. He can't move without tripping over the beautiful women, young and old, at his feet.
He has one enemy: the Count de Chatellerault, who is consumed with jealousy for his position and wealth. When the Count returns from Languedoc complaining bitterly of the cold reception given him by the lovely and chaste heiress Roxalanne de Lavedan, the Marquis can't help teasing him about it. No man, says the Count, not even the magnificent Bardelys, can touch that cold heart. The Marquis rather thinks he can—and stung by envy and anger, the Count proposes a wager. The Marquis must conquer the heiress of Lavedon within three months...or lose his entire fortune.
Believing that the heart does not beat that will not fall to his charms, and reluctant to appear cowardly before his friends, the Marquis accepts the wager and sets out for Languedoc. Unfortunately, rebellion is brewing in the southern provinces and before he knows, Bardelys is caught in a tangled web of spies, intrigue, stolen identities, and love. He expected to make Roxalanne de Lavedan love him; he did not expect to lose his heart to her at their very first meeting.
What was that little saying of Shakespeare's about the path of true love being tortuously convoluted? He must have been thinking something along the lines of the story in this book. The Marquis loves Roxalanne. He is not who she thinks he is. She has fundamental objections to his behaviour. There is a lot of melodrama. Melodrama happens, when the woman of your dreams tries to have you killed.
I slept ill when at last I sought my bed, and through the night I nursed my bitter grief, huddling to me the corpse of the love she had borne me as a mother may the corpse of her first-born.
You would not believe the vicissitudes that befall this luckless pair--terrible misunderstanding follows upon terrible misunderstanding, and the whole is punctuated with duels, uprisings, beheadings at dawn, betrayals, and passionate declarations of everlasting hatred. It's hilariously over-the-top fun from beginning to end.
I generally read this kind of book in mid-semester, when my brains have been addled by the hard study of law. I found it very soothing indeed, although of little real substance.