This article was originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1927.
At the Home of Rafael Sabatini
by Charles S. Olcott
In the summer of 1921 we chanced to be spending our vacation on the coast of Maine. It was a place where sea and mountains meet together, with charming inlets and rippling brooks; where pines and spruces climb to hundreds of islets, dimly visible in the ocean mists; a surf-lashed coast of craggy rocks and pebbly beaches, where the spray of the salt sea blows inland, adding an indescribable brilliance to the blossoms in hundreds of gardens overflowing with infinite varieties of roses and sweet peas, hollyhocks and dahlias, poppies, asters, petunias and clematis, their mingled perfumes made more fragrant with the breath of pine and cedar.
It was one of those delightful spots where Nature calls to the open, with every allurement to which the heart of man is attuned to respond, and where, except in the stormiest of days, hotel verandahs are perpetually and properly deserted. And yet I have to confess that on the very first day after our arrival, and a lovely day it was, I spent the whole of my time in a rocking chair, alone, on one of these unromantic porches. I had put four books in my bag for possible rainy days. On the evening of our arrival, I had placed them on a table wondering which should come first. I do not recall the names of the other three, but I picked up one at random and read a few chapters. The next morning, disregarding all the allurements of Nature, all the possible forms of recreation, and everything else that a vacation naturally suggests, I sought a corner of the verandah, determined to finish that book, and there I stayed until it was done. I laid it down at last with an inward exclamation, 'Who is this man, Sabatini? He writes like Dumas! And yet I have never heard of him!' A few days later I met a friend who chanced to remark, 'By the way, I have just read a book which I think you would like. It reads for all the world like "The Three Musketeers" and yet I never heard of the author.' I started, 'Was it "Scaramouche"?' 'Yes,' said he, 'by a man named Sabatini. Do you know him?' 'No,' I replied, 'but I mean to.'
My friend and I had both been dimly conscious of something extraordinary, the birth of a great reputation. Few authors have ever sprung into popularity with more startling suddenness than Rafael Sabatini. Yet 'Scaramouche' was not his first book. He had been writing stories for twenty years. Several of these were sold in America, but in scant quantities. Even 'The Sea Hawk,' now widely known, 'went begging.' The Great War, when the public scarcely wished to think of a novel of any kind, was clearly responsible. But in 1921 the war was over. There was a reaction against war books, and so when an historical novel, with a thrill like Dumas, but a style all its own, suddenly came into view it was like the bursting out of the sun from behind a mass of cirro-cumulus clouds after a threatening morning.
Five years later we were dining in their London house, with Mr. Sabatini and his wife. And there, sitting in the study upstairs at the desk where all of his work has been done, he told me how Scaramouche came to pass. It was born, he said, chiefly of material gained while adapting and translating into English Maurice Sand's 'Masques et Bouffons,' which is a history of the Commedia del'Arte. He became deeply impressed with the arts of the improvisers of the theater, who so cleverly constructed play after play, always different, yet always with the same characters--Harlequin, Pierrot, Polichinelle, Pantaloon, Columbine, and many others, and last but not least Scaramouche. A group of strolling players, employing these arts, offered abundant field for imagination, while the French Revolution gave the historical background.
Fifty thousand words of this novel, he said were written and destroyed. He found he had made a false start and it was necessary to begin over. Here Mr. Sabatini quite unconsciously gave me the secret of his success. He is his own severest critic. The commonplace will not pass with him. I am sure if he had his own way, he would even now destroy the product of his first ten years' work--perhaps twenty years'. For as his standard has risen he now looks back upon his earlier efforts with a disapproval which the public does not share.
I had always supposed that the author must have gathered his material for 'The Sea Hawk' as the result of an extended residence in Algiers, but I could never quite understand how he could have lived there three hundred years ago. And yet he must have done so, for how, otherwise, could anyone reproduce the atmosphere of the Basha's palace, its furnishings, its manners and customs, or the speech of its people? How else reproduce the streets of the city, the slave market, the triumphal procession of the corsairs, and the scenes aboard the galleys? To my great astonishment Mr. Sabatini told me he had never been there, though he did study the Arabic language 'to increase his feeling for it.' Sir Oliver Tressilian was based upon a real character, Sir Francis Varney, an English gentleman who turned Corsair and in 1630 made just such a raid on the village of Baltimore in Ireland as Sir Oliver is supposed to have made on the Cornish village of 'The Sea Hawk.' The background of Algerian history and the piratical exploits of the Mediterranean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are of course sound.
All of this led naturally to 'Captain Blood,' and Mr. Sabatini told me quite frankly that the tale was based upon his reading of Esquemeling, the Dutch chronicler, who sailed with Sir Henry Morgan and recorded his exploits. Other contemporary authors were read, but it was a laborious task, for details were but scanty. Peter Blood, like Tressilian, was based upon a real character. A west country doctor, named Pitt, was tried for just such an act of charity to a wounded follower of Monmouth as that performed by Peter Blood. Like Blood, he was sentenced to transportation for the high treason of succoring a rebel, and actually shipped to the Barbadoes, and there sold into slavery in circumstances very similar. The realistic descriptions of Bridgetown, Maracaibo Bay, Port Royal, and other scenes of the Caribbean Sea are the result of careful reading and study, for Mr. Sabatini has never visited this side of the Atlantic.
'How did you come to write "The Carolinian"?' I asked. 'Well, as a matter of fact, I was afraid of it,' he said, 'for I have never been in America and did not know how I could visualize the people of 150 years ago without knowing better the Americans of to-day. But after a course of close reading of all that I could find contemporary with the American Revolution, I began to wonder whether what I had regarded as a handicap might not, instead, be an advantage. Thus, I took heart. I became greatly interested in the situation created by the scheme of Governor Rutledge to destroy the British army under Prevost which, with much else of vital interest, is fully set forth by Colonel Moultrie in his Memoirs. For more reconstruction of the topography of eighteenth-century Charleston I depended upon various works and maps, of which Ravenal's "Charleston" was the most comprehensive.'
'What about "Bellarion," the new book?' I asked. He replied that it is a story of North Italy in 1400-- the tale of a Condottiero or leader of mercenaries, that is, the Captain of a Free Company. For a century these 'free companies' roamed up and down Italy ready to hire out to anyone who would pay the price and not over scrupulous as to the quality of service required, provided it meant fighting and bloodshed. One of the most famous of these adventurers was Sir John Hawkwood, known to the Italians as Giovanni Acuta, who captained the 'White Company.' There were many of these men, mostly of lowly origin, but several of them rose to occupy thrones. Bellarion, he said, is a sort of composite portrait of several of the most prominent, and many acts attributed to him are based upon actual achievements, the aim being to give a picture of Italian camp and court life in the early quattrocento.
Mr. Sabatini said he would probably never again attempt a novel of so early a period, for the research necessary was particularly troublesome. This was because the story covers an epoch one hundred years before the invention of printing. It helps one to realize the enormous impetus given to writing of every kind by the advent of the printing press. Prior to that, manuscripts had to be copied by hand--a laborious process at the command of but few. There was no incentive to ordinary writing, for how could one write (any more than one could speak) without an audience? Many works of historical and literary value perished because of the cost of transcribing. To princes and other men of power the temptation to bias was very strong and indeed irresistible. For a man who could afford to pay a chronicler could readily enough exalt himself or traduce his enemies at pleasure, and this was often done.
'Did you not find a great deal of this when you were writing "Cesare Borgia"?' 'Yes,' Mr. Sabatini replied, and then explained to me how he came to write this work of history. 'I began it,' he said, 'out of curiosity and interest. But when I had gained a certain point of view my subsequent study was for the sake of verifying that impression.' He told me the preparation of this work had required ten years of hard work, digging into old Italian writings and also books in Latin, Spanish, and French. The scholarship that went into the writing of this one volume marks Sabatini as a great historian. His fame as a novelist has, of course, eclipsed his reputation as a historian, yet this very phase of his career is at the bottom of his success as a writer of historical romance. For Sabatini is meticulously careful in his use of historical material, as is indicated by the following paragraph in his Preface to 'Cesare Borgia':
The London home of the Sabatinis is in one of the attractive residential sections. It is a commodious two-story house, with a small plot of grass in front, shut off from the street and the neighboring houses by the usual English fences and hedges. In the rear is a garden, large enough for lawn tennis, a game of which both the author and his wife are particularly fond. At the extreme end is a fountain, with a figure of a water-babe designed and built by Rafael Angelo Sabatini, the author's only child, now seventeen years of age and getting ready for Oxford. A paved walk divides the tennis court from a rock garden with herbaceous border, and old- world flowers all in full bloom. Under the trees at the end, a group of easy chairs gave a particularly pleasant impression of comfort and happiness. As Mr. Sabatini and his charming wife sat there together in the chairs, the long row of flowers on one side and the windows of their cozy sun-parlor in the background, they made a pleasing picture of English country life, although we were in the heart of London.
Mr. Sabatini impresses one as a quiet gentleman of culture, quite unostentatious and unspoiled by the success which he has attained. He talks frankly of his literary achievements. To do less would be an affectation. But there is not the slightest evidence of vanity. You feel sure that he is just the same now as he was before he came into his fame. Although his father was Italian and he himself was born in Italy, his face does not suggest the Italian type; neither does it suggest anything typically English. He showed us pictures of his handsome father and his beautiful mother. There are family resemblances to both in his features. Yet, one is impressed not by these, nor by anything suggesting the artistic type, or the scholastic temperament. What one sees is a high and broad forehead and a pair of golden-brown eyes, the expressiveness of which defy alike the skill of photographer or portrait painter, or any attempt at description. It is in these eyes and in this forehead that one sees Sabatini the man.
I have said that there is no touch of vanity. One exception must be made, for in the hallway is a finely mounted salmon, weighing forty-six pounds, of which the author is frankly proud. Salmon fishing is, he says, his chief business in life. Tennis is his favorite game and writing novels his 'principal amusement.' And here we have his human side as well as his humor all at once. Mrs. Sabatini, too, is proud of two things--her 'Raph,' as she affectionately calls her husband, and her 'boy,' as she speaks of the six-footer who is now seventeen.
Some brief sketch of Sabatini's life, as given to me piece by piece, and at various times, may here be added. He was born in the little city of Jesi in central Italy, April 29, 1875. At about that time, his father, Vincenzo Sabatini, was approaching the end of a long and successful career as a leading tenor in Italian opera. He was widely known, not only in Italy, but throughout Europe, as well as in North and South America. Half a century ago the elder Sabatini and his wife made a successful concert tour in the United States.
The mother of the author was Anna Trafford, an English woman of excellent family. Displaying early very considerable musical talent, she was sent by her parents to Italy at the age of fifteen to study in the Conservatoire of Milan. It was at first intended that she should become a pianist, but while her studies were progressing it was discovered that she had a voice worth cultivating. She turned at once to this new phase of her musical education and with such success that she was soon launched as a prima donna. After singing in many of the Italian theaters, she accepted an engagement for a season at the Opera House in Manila, in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the successful tenor had found it necessary, for reasons of health, to make a voyage to the Indies. Thus it happened that the tenor, born in Italy, and the prima donna, educated there, met in a city half way around the world and then determined to link their fortunes not only on the stage of the theater but on the great stage of the world.
After a career of twenty-seven years, when his only son was seven years old, the singer retired from the stage and settled in Portugal, where he and his wife had won many friends by their talents and where they were warmly welcomed. It was while living here that he was knighted by Don Luis I, the grandfather of the present ex-King Manuel, for services to his branch of the arts.
The early schooling of Rafael Sabatini, or a part of it at least, was in the Lyce of Oporto, Portugal, where, of course, he spoke the language of the country in addition to his native Italian. At sixteen he was sent to the Ecole Cantonale at Zoug, Switzerland. German was there the official language, but French was the most generally known, and the author's first steps in literature were taken in French. He had also added Spanish to his linguistic attainments.
How he came to adopt English as the language of his best literary work--and, incidentally, how he attained his remarkable proficiency in it--is best told in Sabatini's own words. In a recent letter to the writer, he says:
Since that time Mr. Sabatini has been wholly devoted to literature. From 1913 to 1918 he was a director of the publishing house of Martin Secker, Ltd. But during those years much of his time was spent in the intelligence branch of the British War Office, where his extraordinary knowledge of languages made him invaluable.
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