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A Look at Sabatini's Sources for "The Night of Nuptials" and The Romantic Prince

by Claudia Rex

In the preface to the first volume of The Historical Nights Entertainment (1917), Rafael Sabatini introduces his project as follows:

In approaching "The Historical Nights Entertainment" I set myself the task of reconstructing in the fullest possible detail and with all the color available from surviving records, a group of more or less famous events. I would select for my purposes those which were in themselves bizarre and resulting from the interplay of human passions, and whilst relating each of these events in the form of a story, I would compel that story scrupulously to follow the actual, recorded facts without owing anything to fiction, and I would draw upon my imagination, if at all, merely as one might employ color to fill in the outlines which history leaves gray, taking care that my color should be as true to nature as possible...

How nearly I may have approached success—judged by the standard I had set myself—how far I may have fallen short, my readers will discern. I am conscious, however, of having in the main dutifully resisted the temptation to take the easier road, to break away from restricting fact for the sake of achieving a more intriguing narrative. In one instance, however, I have quite deliberately failed...

My deliberate failure is "The Night of Nuptials." I discovered an allusion to the case of Charles the Bold and Sapphira Danvelt in Macaulay's History of England—quoted from an old number of the Spectator—whilst I was working upon the case of Lady Alice Lisle. There a similar episode is mentioned as being related of Colonel Kirke, but discredited because known for a story that has a trick of springing up to attach itself to unscrupulous captains. I set out to track it to its source, and having found its first appearance to be in connection with Charles the Bold's German captain Rhynsault, I attempted to reconstruct the event as it might have happened, setting it at least in surroundings of solid fact.

"The Night of Nuptials," describes how justice is obtained by Sapphira Danvelt following the wrongful death of her husband Philip at the hands of Claud of Rhynsault, governor of the province of Zeeland. The central character in this story is not Sapphira, but rather Duke Charles of Burgundy, surnamed the Bold. In this respect, the story follows the pattern of its telling in the "Spectator", and it may be read as a "trickster tale," a genre descriptive of many of Sabatini's short stories, and one from which he obviously derived much enjoyment.

This story is of interest to readers, first in affording a glimpse of how Sabatini built imaginatively on his historical sources, for he identifies in his preface the precise passages in Macaulay and the Spectator that sparked his initial interest. Better yet, Sabatini returned to this tale in 1929, making it the basis for the novel The Romantic Prince.

In 1917, Sabatini described Sapphira's meeting with Duke Charles in this fashion:

Under the June sunshine the opulent city of Bruges hummed with activity like the great human hive it was. For Bruges at this date was the market of the world, the very centre of the world's commerce, the cosmopolis of the age...

It was past noon, and the great belfry above the Gothic Cloth Hall in the Grande Place was casting a lengthening shadow athwart the crowded square. Above the babel of voices sounded on a sudden the note of a horn, and there was a cry of "The Duke! The Duke!" followed by a general scuttle of the multitude to leave a clear way down the middle of the great square.

A gorgeous cavalcade some two score strong came into sight...

It was a splendid iridescent company, flaunting in its apparel every color of the prism...

...And then at last came the young Duke himself, in black, as if to detach himself from the surrounding splendour. He was of middle stature, of a strong and supple build, with a lean, swarthy face and lively eyes. Beside him, on a white horse, rode a dazzling youth dressed from head to foot in flame-coloured silk, a peaked bonnet of black velvet set upon his lovely golden head, a hooded falcon perched upon his left wrist, a tiny lute slung behind him by a black ribbon. He laughed as he rode, looking the very incarnation of youth and gaiety.

When Sapphira Danvelt, watching from the sidelines, cries out "Justice, my Lord Duke of Burgundy! Justice, Lord Duke for a woman's wrongs!" it is the golden-haired youth who picks her out of the crowd and brings her to the Duke's attention with a tug on his sleeve.

In the 1929 retelling, Sabatini's view of the world had grown darker and more complex. Sapphira—renamed Johanna—seeks the Duke in Brussels, "at a time when the snow lay thick upon the land, and the ice was everywhere..." As one among a horde of petitioners, Johanna faces weeks of waiting before finding a means of gaining the Duke's attention. However, if you look closely, I believe that you will find the golden-haired youth of 1917 reborn, not as the Duke's companion Count Anthony of Egmont, with whom he shares a few superficial traits, but in the person of a certain young archer who is nephew to the cardinal of Ghent. Other similarities and differences in plot and characterization between the short story and the novel are well worth exploring.


No. 491. TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 1712.

—Digna satis fortuna revisit.

VIRG. Aen. iii. 318.

A just reverse of fortune on him waits.

IT is common with me to run from book to book to exercise my mind with many objects, and qualify myself for my daily labours. After an hour spent in this loitering way of reading, something will remain to be food to the imagination. The writings that please me most on su