Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Gates of Doom by Rafael Sabatini


In this fun but silly book, Sabatini weaves a melodramatic story of adventure, intrigue, romance, and not one but two cases of mistaken identity! Captain Harry Gaynor, a faithful Jacobite agent seeking to topple the Hanoverian monarchs of early eighteenth-century England, is known to the authorities only as “Captain Jenkyn,” a daring, bold, and cunning spy. Then Lord Pauncefort, one of the Jacobite conspirators, tries to save himself from bankruptcy and debtor's prison by betraying the plot, revealing the true identity of “Captain Jenkyn,” and blackmailing the heiress Miss Hollinstone into marrying him. Will Captain Gaynor escape the gallows? Will he be in time to save Miss Hollinstone from Lord Pauncefort's evil clutches?
This book—certainly one of Sabatini's lesser efforts, though not as bad as Fortune's Foolis a good example of all Sabatini's faults. Captain Gaynor's highest loyalty is to the Stuart monarchy—to the point where he tells the heroine that he would sacrifice himself for the Jacobite cause and, though he loves her desperately, wouldn't think twice about sacrificing her to it as well—and yet Sabatini uses the plot unashamedly as a MacGuffin, even telling us at one point that he doesn't intend to tell us anything about it. If you don't know anything about Jacobites when you start reading this book, you will certainly know no more about them when you've finished. This approach renders the book as history-free as possible, and also seriously impairs the hero's characterisation, since that cause is supposed to be his main motivation.
Instead of historical detail and a real investigation of the issues at stake in the Jacobite rebellions, Sabatini focuses on adventure and melodrama. Not that the adventure is very good, either. Lord Pauncefort, though the evillest, is also the cleverest person in this book. It would have been nice to see the characters engaged in a battle of wits, but until he has a bright idea late in the plot, Captain Gaynor is a pretty passive character. 
 
Which leads me into an interesting train of thought.
The alternative to Captain Gaynor's passiveness, and the antidote for the plot's faults, would be for the hero and villain to engage in a break-neck passage of wits as Captain Gaynor (instead of giving up) continues trying to salvage the Jacobite cause. That's what spy stories are for, after all, aren't they? Clandestine battles of wits waged beneath the calm surface of polite society—even Baroness Orczy got that right.
But Sabatini's worldview doesn't allow for any of this. Again, as in Fortune's Fool, the real motive force of the plot is not Captain Gaynor's vision for a restored Stuart monarchy; but simply Fate. Fate happens, and Captain Gaynor reacts. You can't wage a war of wits in a world ruled by Fate; all you can do is try to minimise the risks, cut your losses, move on. 
 
And here, hidden deep within the plots of two vintage novelists, is an odd little proof that Calvinism is not fatalism. Because in Buchan's books, which are ruled by Providence in the same way that Sabatini's novels are ruled by Fate, you do get complex battles of wit in exactly the same way that you don't in Sabatini. The characters even refer to it as “the game” in Buchan: a giant game of chess played between shadowy masters. 
 
And there is a very good reason for this difference between Sabatini and Buchan. Because the difference between Providence and Fate is that Providence is a Person, and can be trusted. Also, since Providence is a Person, He works primarily through ordinary human beings—which means that those who trust in Providence and do their duty, no matter how hopeless it seems, may indeed end up defying all the odds and triumphing in the end.
But this is an attitide Sabatini does not appear to hold. And that prevents his books having much depth, it seems.

3 comments:

Jenofonte said...

Then, why should anyone read silly books? This one may be a silly book as you say, but I like it, because Harry Gaynor and Damaris Hollinston made me dream.

Suzannah said...

Sounds like your silly tolerance threshold is lower than mine ;). Glad you enjoyed this book!

Jenofonte said...

Oh, yes!, I am tolerant with writers who sympathize me, even if their arguments are weak (from Sabatini I like the flowery language) . I can enjoy "War and peace", also "Arabian Nights" and "Alice in wonderland", but sometimes I can also enjoy a sweet meringue, why not? My English is far from be good, but I really like your blog, thanks for consider me.
P.S. Did you read Paul FĂ©val?

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