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?