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Who Sabatini Really Was

by Nathan Tims

Throughout history there have been many noted novelists, authors, and writers of excellent skill. These individuals often are under appreciated as their prose, poems, and articulations moved the souls of many and encouraged others to greater heights of self-sacrifice. One such author is particularly unsung for authorial achievements and this gentleman's name is Rafael Sabatini. While Sabatini was a prolific author, with many books and short stories published, one short with the title Playing with Fire is a particularly wonderful example of this author's excellent style. Further, the story's main character, Spencer Baynes, is a perfect reflection of who Sabatini was in real life.

The plot for Playing with Fire is fairly simple: a gentleman by the name of Spencer Baynes caught his slightly silly headed wife, whose only real sin is being too fond of admiration, being kissed on the cheek by another man of the name Frank Montford, an up and coming politician. Baynes naturally assumes the worst, due to previous unfounded rumors, and privately challenges Montford to a duel. The duel decided upon was a simple game of poker the loser of which would have twenty-four hours to shoot himself. The end result of this odd and deadly serious duel was that Baynes lost and Montford won. Later the next morning, his wife, Emily, interrupted Baynes in his study while he was presumptively writing out his will and letters of farewell. It is there that she is able to finally explain and pour out the whole truth of the matter. After the explanation, but before she could enquire as to what he was working on so early in the morning, there was a ring at the door. Mr. Baynes opened the door to discover Montford. Through the subsequent dialogue, Montford admits to cheating at cards and thereby persuades Baynes to not commit the actions his honor and word demanded of him. The surprise ending is best finished in the author's own words:

"She never quite understood the reason of the welcome change that came over him from that day. But, for that matter, neither did he. For he never learnt that this Montford, whom he despised for a cheat, was no cheat at all—at least, not in the sense in which he had represented. Montford's only fraud had been his statement that he had cheated. And, after all, there was something heroic in that falsehood, of which he had availed himself as a last resource to save Baynes from the consequences of his anachronistic folly." (Ref 1)

From various references and hints in the story itself, we can safely assume that this apparently takes place sometime in the early nineteen hundreds in England. Mr. Baynes is considered to be, in the author's own words,"The Anachronism" due to Baynes' love and study of eighteenth century. Baynes' affection of the previous century was so profound that it tempered "…his point of view, his actions, and, at times, his very speech".

While Playing with Fire, like many of Sabatini's novels, have many underlying themes and principles there are actually four major themes in this particular story: the good and bad of holding to "anachronistic ideologies", the folly of assumption, heroics through selfless falsehood, and, lastly, romantic love. The majority of Sabatini's novels revolve around the romantic love, the folly of assumption, and heroics and so this is no surprise to the avid Sabatini adherent. The surprise is the way Sabatini approaches and discusses anachronism; at least it is a surprise until we look a little deeper at who Sabatini really was.

In the introduction of Spencer Baynes, Sabatini states that he was prone to "emotionalism" and "sensationalism", but was able to conceal these temperaments due to "iron self-control". Sabatini was raised in an atmosphere heavy with the English influence of his mother and the feisty Italian nature of his father, thereby contributing to a possible emotional and sensational. Rafael Sabatini, much like Spencer Baynes, spent much time studying and reading the previous centuries famous authors including Shakespeare, Alexander Dumas, Alessandro Manzoni, Jules Verne, and Sir Walter Scott (Ref 2). In addition to the famous authors works he also studied many histories of Europe and the Americas. Though it has not been documented that Sabatini trained as a fencer, it has been strongly suggested that he knew much about the theory, if not an actual fencer, due to the authenticity and language used in his novels. In the short story, Montford alludes to Baynes being an acknowledged fencer of excellent quality. Another indication of similarities between Baynes and Sabatini is that both had some difficulty with their wives, although Sabatini ended his with divorce after twenty-six years of marriage. Sadly enough, Rafael and his wife, Ruth, admitted that their marriage "had been an unhappy one" (Ref 2). While this is definitely not a good thing, it can be suggested that Sabatini's writings had real depth and emotion due to his difficult marriage. These difficulties might have started early enough to occur about the time Playing with Fire was written. While there is no direct statement to bear up such an idea, there is a sense in the short story that Baynes, though certainly loving and devoted towards his wife, is also slightly disillusioned and definitely upset with her actions. This story was published in February 1913, roughly eight years after Rafael was married, plenty of time for newlywed luminescence and illusion to fade, while Baynes had been married for five years. Finally, Sabatini lived in the same time period that Playing with Fire took place and most likely felt the kinship to Baynes anachronistic character and outlook on life.

All of these points serve to help us understand exactly who Sabatini was but even more it helps us to understand why Sabatini created his characters the way he did. Overall, Playing with Fire is an excellently written short story with classic Sabatini style, reflecting clearly the author himself. It is to be mourned that there are not more authors of comparable caliber with such a refined outlook on life.

Read Playing with Fire

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Last updated 27 February 2008. Review Copyright ©2008 Nathan Tims. Any concerns or problems about this site, please contact rimfire.