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"Now and then, especially when coincidence is more than usually stressed, sober reason comes to the reader's aid and assures him that this couldn't have happened. But sober reason will not preserve him from the hypnotic spell of a novel which for sheer suspense, deserves to be ranked with Sabatini's best."–Margaret Wallace, New York Times, September 5, 1937

The Lost King

The mystery of the lost Dauphin of France, Louis XVII, is the subject of this romance. The author assumes that Louis escaped from prison and lived to maturity in Switzerland. He made one abortive attempt to regain the throne, but on the news of Napoleon's escape from Elba, he returned to Switzerland, and resigned all thoughts of reigning over France.

published by The Riverside Press Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1937

The Lost King is in copyright.
Reprints are widely available, and reading copies can be found on most used book and auction sites.
The text of The Lost King
is not available online.

The Lost King tells the story of Louis-Charles de Bourbon—the ill-fated Louis XVII of France—whose death from neglect, in prison, at the age of ten, was only confirmed in April 2000 in newspaper reports of DNA tests performed on the dried and preserved heart of the prisoner(1). For generations, rumors persisted that the boy had been rescued and replaced by a double who died. Many pretenders came forward to fuel the rumors: the Duchesse d'Angouleme, the "Orphan of the Tower," the last surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, stated that 27 men had claimed to be her brother. (2) Herein we meet the twenty-eighth.

Part 1 of the novel depicts the origin and development of the plot to free Louis-Charles. At the center of the action is the celebrated spy-master, Jean de Batz, who recruits as his field agent a young art student, Florence de La Salle. La Salle pretends to arch-republicanism while working to effect the restoration of a monarchy that he hopes will restore to him the lands that should have been his by inheritance. And, in truth, Florence is a better agent than he is a painter: he is able to create likenesses of "remarkable fidelity," but, as his master, Jacques-Louis David, never tires of pointing out, La Salle lacks the "deeper vision that makes an artist."

La Salle himself interprets this failing as a mechanical defect—"a lack of touch." But as Sabatini will show, almost playfully, later on, the problem exists on another level entirely. La Salle's consciousness of his own cleverness often blinds him to the more subtle communications of those around him.

La Salle's daring extraction of the boy king from Temple Tower follows accounts offered in the early nineteenth century by novelists and some of the more notable royal pretenders, but Sabatini refines upon those narratives, stripping away fanciful details to demonstrate how such a rescue might actually have occurred. Tragically, the king is drowned in attempting to reach the safety of the Prussian court, and La Salle's "embryonic" hopes of king-making appear to be dashed permanently.

Years pass, and part 2 finds La Salle living precariously in Brandenburg, running an illegal gaming house and nursing a grievance. In France, a new Bourbon king has succeeded in alienating both the closet Bonapartists and that segment of the old French nobility who risked danger or endured hardship at home in the royalist cause (La Salle among them), only to be shouldered aside by returning Èmigrès after the Restoration.

The artist slumbering within La Salle is startled awake when he meets and befriends a young clockmaker, Charles Perrin Deslys, and discerns in the young man's arched brows, slightly hare-like teeth, and dimpled chin a surprising resemblance to Marie Antoinette–and to the drowned child whose likeness he had sketched repeatedly, under the supervision of David, during the boy's lonely captivity. Gradually, an idea forms in La Salle's mind, and with increasing confidence he sets out to recruit Deslys: "You don't know it, Charles, but in your face you have a fortune which I think I could shape for you soundly and surely."

La Salle interprets Deslys' initial reserve about assuming the king's identity as a lack of courage, and patiently, forcefully, reasons away all the objections raised by the younger man. Eventually, Charles agrees to participate in the imposture. But Sabatini has a fine joke to play on La Salle in part 3.

Although largely preoccupied with politics, the book is not wholly without a love story. Sabatini disposes of La Salle's romance thusly: "he had been at the point of death from smallpox, and ... he owed his life to the unrelenting care of a woman who had loved him, and who, taking the contagion, had died of nursing him." Deslys, however, has two women in his life: his supposed cousin, Justine Perrin, the only child of the well-to-do peasant family among whom he reached adulthood, is contrasted with Pauline de Castillon-Fouquières, a young aristocrat who is the first to acknowledge Charles as king upon his introduction to French society. Justine makes the–well–the penultimate sacrifice for a woman, in a vain attempt to save her "dear Charlot" from being led by La Salle into wicked mischief; Pauline, on the other hand, professes passionate love for the man, Charles Deslys, and urges marriage&150;until the moment it appears that he may actually be an imposter.

Typically for Charles, he cannot make up his mind. He vacillates between the two women, weighing his real affection for (and broken promise to) Justine against what he conceives to be an obligation of kingship: the need to provide France with a proper queen.

The Lost King was published in 1937, the year following the short and turbulent reign of England's King Edward VIII, known after his abdication as the Duke of Windsor. Can it have been chance that led Sabatini at this time to write a book, at least in part, about kingship?

It is interesting to speculate about how his readers might have reacted–not only to the title–but to remarks like the following, made by a sullen Louis-Charles, upon being denied free rein in the selection of his councilors: "You profess yourselves my servants, but you take the tone of masters. You coerce and constrain me. You deny me all initiative. You treat my wishes with contempt, and impose your own upon me."

The novel's 3-part structure allowed Sabatini to avoid potentially awkward gaps in time, while selecting, combining, and deploying historical and fictional material with economy and grace; however, it also gives the text a slightly "fractured" quality (evidence of hasty composition?). Individual chapters sparkle with the acute commentary and clever dialogue we expect from Rafael Sabatini, but readers may occasionally sense a lack of continuity in the tale. There is no straight shot to a breathtaking climax here, or a hero in the mold of Andre-Louis Moreau or Peter Blood. Yet this is a book as much about character–and as deeply revealing of it–as are the author's more conventional novels.

(1) See, e.g., Suzanne Daley, "DNA solves mystery of Marie Antoinette's son," Chicago Tribune, 20 April 2000, sec. 1, p. 9.
(2) Eric Rede Buckley, Monsieur Charles: The Tragedy of the True Dauphin (Louis XVII of France) (London: H. F. & G. Witherby, 1927), 196. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed., s.v. Louis XVII) notes 40 such claimants.

–Claudia Rex

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