Friday, February 19, 2016

Lord Vanity by Samuel Shellabarger

As a longtime fan of melodramatic vintage swashbucklers, I'd often heard of the American historian and author Samuel Shellabarger. You might know of him too: his his most well-known book, Captain from Castile, was made into a classic vintage movie with Tyrone Power (which I have not seen). Yet somehow, every time I considered reading one of his books, something put me off. It wasn't until a desire to learn a little about Venice prodded me to pick up Lord Vanity, which I happened to have lying around, that I actually got around to it.

Richard Morandi, the illegitimate and unacknowledged son of an English lord, holds down a modest job in the theatre world of Venice until one night, working as a musician at an aristocratic house-party, he is asked to play a supporting role in some amateur theatricals. Coached by the mysterious adventurer Marcel Tromba to impersonate a worldly-wise nobleman, Morandi comes away from the party with a taste for high life, an offer to see the world as Tromba's apprentice and ally--and a conflicting interest in Maritza Venier, an idealistic young ballet dancer who despises the moral bankruptcy of high society. Through many ups and downs, Morandi uses his wits, his acting skills, and his sword to pursue both his desire for wealth and power and his love for Maritza, always aware that he will ultimately have to choose between them.

This is a long, episodic historical novel that ranges as far afield as Quebec, where our main character takes part in Wolfe's campaigning against the French. I was impressed by the level of historical detail Shellabarger has mastered for this book: the period really seemed to come alive, whether he was discussing Venetian architecture or military tactics in the fall of Quebec. The book also moves along pretty well, full of spies, sword-fights, escapes, and love-affairs as it is. Sadly, I found the whole thing rather tiresome.

I didn't like the main character. Richard starts off fairly young and even naive, and the book is one of those have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too books about someone being tempted away from the straight and narrow, having lots of fun doing it, and then coming to repentance right at the end (after having had All The Fun). I had a wistful hope the book would be better than this: all the way through it, Maritza, who is a delightful character, acts as the book's exemplar of goodness and purity. And (spoiler?) Richard does come around to her way of seeing things at the end. But that happens after he's been enjoying the fruits of sin for a while, whether it's in his impersonation of an aristocrat or his affair with the self-centred and amoral Comtesse des Landes.

It's easy even for the reader to enjoy the high-society atmosphere of intrigue, danger and decadence which tempts Richard away from his quiet life. But though that was fun for the first sixty pages, it palled pretty quickly after that. Maritza's evaluation of 1750s aristocratic society is correct: it's shallow, amoral, unreal, and unsatisfying. But the book still wants us to spend more than four hundred pages there being entertained by the very things it affects to despise.

Though this was a vivid and engaging historical novel, I really don't think I'll be reading any more Samuel Shellabarger anytime soon.

Find Lord Vanity, if you must, at Amazon.

2 comments:

Joseph J said...

One of my chief complaints about contemporary storytelling - I see it all the time in movies - is a sort of latent hypocrisy. The plot will pay lip service to a good-versus-evil framework, but the execution will revel in all kinds of questionable behaviours and passions. A morally correct tale will successfully engender a love of beauty, truth, and goodness by implicit and explicit means. Not only the intellect but the passions must be led and shaped in the right way.

It can be tricky. How to portray evil is an unsettled problem in my mind. Can one ever make it attractive or interesting? It would seem necessary for various reasons. I think artists of good will must examine these questions before and during the creation process. Ultimately art springs from the heart, and a sound heart will produce sound art.

Suzannah said...

Joseph, I think it's fine to show the appeal in evil, you just also have to show the consequences and try to give an even more attractive picture of goodness. It's not always easy to hit the right balance, even when you want to. Wasn't it Blake said Milton was on the devil's side without meaning it? But the world is also full of hypocritical books--I would definitely call The Count of Monte Cristo, fun as it is (and much superior to this one), one of these have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too books. Really wanting to provide a vision of virtue is an excellent first step!

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