Saturday, October 25, 2014


Seeking Sabatini ... and being frustrated!

The Gruppo Editoriale Informazione, Jesi, published online short biographical notices of famous Jesinos, among them Rafael Sabatini. The piece on Sabatini was probably written by the late Giuseppe Luconi (died mid-March 2014), and the following note proceeds on that assumption.

Like his compatriot, the late Claudio G. Fava, (died 20 April 2014) Luconi seemed to attach some importance to a circumstance which I find trivial and pointless, that in "the registry office" the novelist's name was entered as "Raffaele Sabbatini". Both Luconi and Fava found a significance which they did not explain in that double 'b'. Luconi gave the Sabatini home address in Jesi as "80/A, Theatre Piazza". In his article he stated that he had been in correspondence in 1970 with Dr Ambrose Sonder of the Ă‰cole Cantonale, Zug, and from him had obtained the following:

The boy was registered as "Raphael Sabbattini" [now it's a double 't' - what does that mean?]. In the "school journal" Dr Sonder found entries indicating that Rafael attended the German course from October 1889 to June 1890; that he continued in the school during 1891-92; and that he left it during 1892.

At the end of "the course" [not specified] Rafael had the best grades in catechism [!!] conversation, history, geography and calligraphy. The following year, cited as "third class of senior school", Rafael's best mark was only in calligraphy. He was "scolded for getting up late and for drinking cognac" but he was promoted all the same.

An attempt made to obtain clarification from Signor Luconi met with failure. Enquiries addressed to the Kantonsschule in Zug were infructuous, producing a denial that anyone by the name 'Rafael Sabatini' or variants of it had ever been heard of. An approach to the Associazione Culturale 'Res Humanae', Jesi, which had organised the Sabatini Conference in 2001, ended likewise at a brick wall.

What I sought from the latter, among other things, was this: is there any record circa 1875 of an uncle or other relative of Rafael from either the Sabatini or the Manghini/ Mengi side, who was a Franciscan?

The originally Benedictine Church of San Marco, outside the walls of Jesi, was donated by the monks to St Francis of Assisi. This apart, there are some noteworthy points from Rafael's words to an interviewer, and from his oeuvre:
1. Rafael told an interviewer (in 1926, Consolidated Press) that he had been "left with an uncle in a monastery" [see my Romantic Prince: Seeking Sabatini, p 15].
2. His descriptive writing about life in a monastery (see for example Garnache's visit to the Abbot of Saint Francis of Cheylas) has the quality of something experienced.
3. These are Franciscans in Rafael's books:
a) the formidable Abbot in Saint Martin's Summer who cooperates with Garnache to set all to rights at Condillac;
b) Fra Gervasio in The Strolling Saint, a force for good in the life of the effectively parentless Agostino;
c) the "saintly" maternal uncle of Colombo da Siena in Chivalry, who looks after the orphaned boy;
d) Saint Francis of Assisi himself, clearly loved and admired by Rafael;
e) in Bellarion a seeming Franciscan who is a criminal - but is in fact no friar, only a brigand in a Franciscan's robes;
f) significantly, at a time of darkness in Rafael's life, an authentic Franciscan, a peripatetic 'live newspaper' (historically accurate) who makes mischief for Anthony of Egmont, in The Romantic Prince, seriously affecting the course of Anthony's life, and Johanna's. The only bad Franciscan.

Does all this prove anything? Probably not. But it is matter for thought. Or so I believe, which is why I sought information about the possibility of a Franciscan uncle.

Friday, October 10, 2014


Curate's Egg: Cornwell Again, on CAPTAIN BLOOD

Bernard Cornwell’s Introductions to the three best-known novels of Rafael Sabatini are very similar in respect of his view of Sabatini’s life. But the Introduction to Captain Blood has a couple of good points along with poor ones. Some of the latter having been indicated previously need no repetition, save one instance. In restating his own contentions regarding Sabatini’s early life Cornwell is more categorical: “history was Sabatini’s passion. It was his escape, too, from a strange and probably unhappy childhood.” However, there is no occasion to flog that dead horse.

Cornwell begins with an opinion which is most welcome: he deplores the lazy habit of labelling Sabatini’s novels ‘swashbucklers’ with its consequent ill effect on the writer’s reputation.

He goes on to make a telling point. As he is an historical novelist himself he is the better placed to seize upon it. “How do you move an innocent man to the Caribbean? How does he become a pirate?”

Alas, Cornwell falls into the common error of reading into Sabatini’s most famous sentence, encouraged by its also being his epitaph, an interpretation slightly askew as he declares: “Sabatini shares those characteristics with many of his heroes,” and proceeds to remark on Peter Blood’s reflection that “man ... was the vilest work of God”, that the thought is reflected in many of Sabatini’s books. Setting aside theological argument about that superlative, “vilest”, – as if all God’s work were vile – I really cannot find any such thought present in Rafael’s novels, nor such a dark judgement as a constant in Peter Blood’s mind. “Such pessimism is relieved by laughter, by daring, and by heroism”, writes Bernard Cornwell. I daresay. But really, to bring up pessimism as a quality of Rafael’s mind and so of his novels would surely provoke his laughter. I recall his telling Mrs Oestreich at length about the new novel he was writing, this dying man, and how he hoped to complete it before he returned to England. Pessimistic? Hardly.

Certainly Rafael had the gift of laughter. There is evidence enough in his life as well as in his writing. Did he think the world mad? From time to time that is a statement anyone might make. In the novel Scaramouche it had a meaning specific to its context. There are many – and I mean many – other novels in which the heroes are not represented as much given to laughter, or as thinking that the world was mad. Why did his wife carve the sentence as Rafael’s epitaph? For a start, it was not the only line she carved. It must be seen in context there, too. Secondly, it was his most famous, instantly recognisable, line.

But with one of Cornwell’s closing comments I concur. People could be (ought to be, I think!) inspired by the virtues of Rafael’s heroes, old-fashioned though these are.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Reflections on BELLARION

Picked up an old unsatisfactory piece, offshoot from last year's reading of the novel, and rewrote it today. A full commentary on the conclusion of the novel will appear in Reading Rafael.


“I am not good at inference.”

Between the fact and the meaning
a gulf unbridgeable
save by right intent;
only goodwill lays a highway
to limitless horizon.

Pride of race,
Pride in mind’s superior graces,
Intolerance of opposition –
Shall these be the foundation
Of wedded bliss?

The strangler’s cord avoiding,
Your enemy’s flaw exploiting,
Wounded in heroic fight –
Is Bellarion turned true knight
Whose lips you deign to kiss?

Princesses and ladies fair,
If her steady gaze you bear,
Truth shall lead you out of the maze.

~ E.M.R.H.              9 October 2014