"Mr. Sabatini makes the most of an almost
unlimited opportunity for historical parallels"
The King in Prussia
(also titled The Birth of Mischief)
'Charles Stuart-Dene, Marquess of Alverley, looked at humanity, and wondered why it was.' And, with this first sentence, the reader is off into another world. A world of love and adventure in the company of this slightly cynical, always impertubable, very British, and completely bold young man.
Alverley stands quietly observing a little scene in a petty German court. He is in the Porcelain Gallery with the local royal family. There are many of these tiny kingdoms full of intrigue and cruelty, music, heavy food, spartan virtues (and evils). The Crown Prince Fritz is completing the playing of his own composition. The curtain is already going up on a sinister prelude to the march of Prussian power.
To a greater extent than any other of Mr. Sabatini's novels, this reconstruction of another era throws a strong light upon the happenings of today. It seems a Germanic pattern that frustrated artists go off into schemes of military conquest. The heavy tread of Frederick's grenadiers has indeed echoed down to be heard by our own ears.
published by The Riverside Press Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1944
Before "Anthony Adverse", before "Gone With the Wind", long before "Forever Amber", Rafael Sabatini put the historical romance, dead for years, back on the literary map. His record-breaking "Scaramouche" was followed by "Captain Blood", "The Sea Hawk", and more than a score of other romantic novels stemming from great moments of history, and for over a quarter of a century the name Sabatini has been a hall-mark of distinction and quality in this increasingly popular field. To a meticulous documentation, he brings an exciting sense of character, dramatic zest, and a swift, clean prose.
"The writer of historical fiction," he says, "must inform himself as closely and accurately as possible of the realities of the life with which he deals. Before he can come to a book, he must have rendered himself by study and research so familiar with every phase and detail of the life of the period chosen that he can move at ease within it, and so produce his effects that his narrative, without being clogged by a parade of his knowledge, will yet be fully informed and enlivened by it. That, at least, is his ambitious aim."
Sabatini was born in Italy, received his education on the Continent,
and makes his home in Herefordshire, England. Probably no other man,
certainly no other writer, has taken more salmon out of the River Wye,
which flows below his garden terrace.
Rafael Sabatini had two things working against him in this novel. The book was published in 1944, during the second World War, so the events were better known to the populace which made the historical element not quite as compelling and which also imposed more structure on the plot than was probably good for it.
The second thing working against the book was Sabatini's own reputation as an author of swashbuckling romantic adventures. While era depicted in the Birth of Mischief (to use its original title, which I think is a better fit for the book) was certainly a feast for political intrigues, Sabatini doesn't really add to them and is accused by his critics for producing a book that was more "dry" history than historical adventure. There are plenty of weapons since most of the main characters are in the military, but very few opportunities to use them.
The first quarter of the book moves slowly, with the introduction of the main characters, few of which seem to be people of admirable qualities. Almost all, as usual in a Sabatini novel, are from the "upper crust." The protagonist, Lord Alverley, is an exiled English nobleman, who spends the bulk of the novel viewing the motivation of those around him with skepticism, a man in search of the irony in everyday life. The only two people he likes are his ill-fated cousin, Katte, whom he looks on as a brother, and Dorothea Ritter, with whom he falls in love, but can't marry because he already has a wife in England.
The fates of the three are dictated by their royal "friends." The Crown Prince Frederick, who prefers the arts of peace to those of War, is an egotistical, vain poser. His weakness causes Katte's downfall and forces Dorothea to flee to escape punishment. The King, his father, is a brutish thug of a man whose actions almost make one feel sorry for the Prince.
If you are expecting sword fights and damsels in distress, this is not the novel for you, but I found the depiction of the political climate interesting even though I was never drawn into concern for any of the characters. The ending seems a bit hurried, but not wholly unexpected.
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