Scaramouche: Sabatini's Best
Tristan Fry of Exodus Books, 10/17/2008
"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony." These opening lines of Scaramouche are describing the novel's hero, André-Louis Moreau, but they might be just as fruitfully applied to the author himself, Rafael Sabatini.
Sabatini, who helped to revive the failing historical romance genre at the turn of the nineteenth century, has delighted readers of his fiction for years with his perceptive wit, epic adventure, and keen sense of the romantic. Building upon the shoulders of those authors who had preceded him, such luminaries as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, he breathed new life into a genre that was faltering under the attacks of those who advocated realistic naturalism in fiction.
Sabatini was a skillful author, artfully constructing a fictional story within a historical backdrop; and the novel that we are considering, Scaramouche: a Romance of the French Revolution, is perhaps the most skillful work that he produced in his long career. It is certainly the most popular of his novels, and one of my favorite pieces of historical fiction.
Rafael Sabatini was born in 1875, in Jesi, Italy, the child of two opera singers. His father was Italian, but his mother was British, and it was her language that he adopted for his written works. After studying at the Lycée of Oporto, Portugal, and the École Cantonate of Zoug, Switzerland, he took a job with a Liverpool newspaper, a position he eventually left to pursue a career as an author and historian.
Success did not come easily: though he published his first novel, The Lovers of Yvonne, in 1902, it was not until 1921 and the publication of Scaramouche that Sabatini attained a wide readership on both sides of the Atlantic. He followed the success of Scaramouche with the publication of another masterpiece of swashbuckling fiction, Captain Blood: His Odyssey, in 1922.
He continued to write prolifically until his death in 1950. The plot of Scaramouche is one that would rival the best adventure stories ever written in the historical romance genre. The novel opens in the "sleepy Breton village" of Gavrillac, in France, just prior to the French Revolution. André-Louis Moreau, a young lawyer of unknown parentage, has been raised by his godfather, Quintin de Kercadiou, Lord of Gavrillac. André possesses a "whimsical" mind, "rare gift of graceful expression", and a powerful gift of oratory. He seems perfectly suited to make a success of the practice of the law, and at twenty-four, his future seems to be amply provided for.
His peaceful existence, however, is about to be brought to an indignant end by an outrageous act of premeditated cruelty. The villain of the piece, the Marquis de La Tour d' Azyr, is a wealthy landowner near Gavrillac. He is known for his "beastly" temperament and rapacious cruelty, and he has an opportunity early in the novel to demonstrate these characteristics. His gamekeeper, acting under explicit orders from the Marquis, shoots a peasant, by the name of Mabey, who is caught in the act of stealing pheasants from one of the Marquis' traps.
André's closest friend, Philippe de Vilmorin, a divinity student and revolutionary, is outraged when he hears of "an act of tyranny so absolute and merciless", and he confronts the Marquis in the hope of gaining reparation for Mabey's widow and children. The Marquis, stung by Philippe's impassioned rebuke, provokes the younger man into a duel, and kills him. André, to whom Philippe was "almost [a] brother", immediately recognizes the injustice of the duel. The Marquis is reputed the best swordsman in France, while Philippe was a divinity student, a man of peace, who knew only the rudiments of the art of self-defense.
André also realizes that the Marquis killed Philippe because he possessed "a too dangerous gift of eloquence". The Marquis perceived Philippe and his "gospel of freedom" as a threat to the aristocracy, to the established order of which d' Azyr is a part. André will not allow the voice of his dead friend to be silenced, and so he swears that Philippe's "thoughts shall find expression in my living tongue." "For your [Vilmorin's] eloquence and your arguments shall be my heritage from you. I will make them my own. It matters nothing that I do not believe in your gospel of freedom. I know it — every word of it; that is all that matters to our purpose, yours and mine," he says vehemently.
André is a lawyer who must step outside the limits of the law and the unjust civil system to bring justice. When he finds that no official will dare to touch a man of the Marquis de La Tour d' Azyr's standing, he becomes a revolutionary orator, stirring great crowds with his impassioned speeches. Eventually, hunted by the authorities, he takes refuge with a band of traveling comic improvisers, assuming the role of the wily clown, Scaramouche. Concealed behind the makeup and costume of Scaramouche, he awaits his chance to settle his score with the Marquis. Though Sabatini's plot is laced with excitement, it is the engaging complexity of his hero, André-Louis, which makes the book so much fun to read.
André is anything but your two-dimensional romantic hero. Slightly built, a "wisp of a fellow", with lank black hair, André hides his pain by adopting a poise of mocking indifference. His sense that "the world [is] mad" (a premonition born out in the events of the French Revolution) drives him to morbid humor and satire, which he relishes. André is a sardonic dealer in double meanings; so much so, in fact, that one frustrated character exclaims, "How is a plain man to understand you?" His character is perfectly adapted for that of Scaramouche, "the impudent little skirmisher", and so the role that he plays on stage he also plays in life. He is a rat attempting to best a lion (the Marquis de La Tour d' Azyr).
Moreover, because of his own lack of knowledge of his parentage, he possesses a degree of social fluidity (as pointed out by Gary Hoppenstand in the "Introduction" to the Signet Classic edition of "Scaramouche". This is born out by the fact that within two eventful years he becomes by turns a lawyer, a revolutionary orator, an actor, a fencing master, and a representative of the people in the French Assembly. Each step and occupation brings him closer to a climatic confrontation with his hated nemesis.
Yet André is a peculiarly lovable and sympathetic character, too. His path to revenge instead turns out to be the path to mercy and growth of character. He is forced to grow; in his quest he discovers the meaning of true love; his ending is wonderfully satisfying. By the end of the novel, I felt as though I knew André-Louis Moreau as a close friend. I would urge anyone who enjoys historical fiction, or indeed good literature of any genre, to read Sabatini. There was some minor objectionable language that I noted in one chapter, but the author minimized its effect while staying true to the distasteful character he was portraying. There is also a structurally central intrigue involving a theatre girl, but this too was handled tastefully. Here Sabatini illustrates the bad consequences of bad choices. These minor objectionable features are far outweighed by the bulk of the book, but I felt that I should note them for those who would like to know. I would recommend the book for an age range of thirteen or fourteen years and up.