Tuesday, 18 January 2000

Rafael Sabatini: Scaramouche (1921)

Edition: Pan, 1961
Review number: 423

Like his contemporary Jeffrey Farnol, Sabatini was an immensely popular author of historical thrillers. Sabatini, however, seems today to be less dated, possibly because his novels are more literary and better researched, giving a greater sense that they are anchored in the periods in which they are set than Farnol's. His dialogue in particular is not so artificial.

Scaramouche is probably Sabatini's best known novel (though a couple of others were made into films which themselves are much more famous - Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk). Set in revolutionary France, it tells the story of the transformation of cynical Breton lawyer André-Louis Moreau into radical orator, fugitive, play actor and fencing tutor as he is swept into the turbulence following the murder of his friend Villemorin.

Unusually for popular fiction depicting the Revolution, no attempt is made to romanticise the aristocracy. They are frequently portrayed as a cultured contrast to a bestial peasantry. (This is what Baroness Orczy tends to do in the Scarlet Pimpernel novels, for example.) Instead, in keeping with Moreau's cynical outlook, neither side is drawn in a very positive light; mankind in general is bestial.

The troupe of actors joined by Moreau is a travelling group of improvisers, a traditional commedia dell'arte company. This section is the most interesting part of the novel, and the quality of Sabatini's research is shown by the way that he gives an excellent (one of the best short accounts I have read) summary of the traditional characters which make up such a troupe and some of the scenarios they used as the basis for their performances. He also, being a good writer, brings alive these pages with a sense of the atmosphere that these performances must have produced. Moreau eventually ends up playing the part of Scaramouche, the cynical plotter, both in the company and in his own life, hence the title of the novel.

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