A Long Distance Interview with "Our Modern Dumas"
Rafael Sabatini on the Witness Stand
One of the first and most terrifying of experiences which the
literary English lion must face on reaching the port of New
York is an "interview." Then, often to his amazement, he is
questioned on any irrelevant subject that enters his
interlocutor's head and the result is a jumble out of which one
hopes the true man emerges in his true light. But what of the
English author who refuses to travel? How about Mr. Sabatini,
for instance, who counts his fans by the hundred thousand, not
one of whom knows anything about his personality. The custom of
interviews having been explained to Mr. Sabatini by letter, he
kindly consented to answer the following questions.
- "What about the trip to America? Are you really coming,
and if so, when?"
- "I certainly hope to come out to the States before very
long. If I hesitate at all it is because the fame of
American hospitality makes me fear that I may be killed
by kindness. The letters that reach me from the unknown
friends my books have made for me over there give me a
foretaste of this. In themselves they would be enough to
strip me naked of modesty were it not that this garment
was twenty years in the weaving on the loom of hard work
- "What of prohibition?"
- "Being a temperate man, it logically follows that I
abhor the very idea of prohibition. In my eyes a
teetotaller is quite as intemperate as a drunkard, and he
is without a drunkard's sense of decency. For whereas
most drunkards are ashamed of their intemperance, most
teetotallers glory in theirs, make a boast of it, and ram
it down the throats (literally, in the form of ginger ale
and such chemical abominations) of their guests and other
victims. A drunkard is usually content to be drunk
himself. He does not demand that the whole world shall be
drunk with him. A teetotallers insistsand when
possible enforces this insistencethat everybody
else shall abstain as well."
- "What do you consider to be your best novel?"
- "My best novel is always, in my opinion, my last. But
that is chiefly because by the time I have revised the
typescript and revised the proofs, the narrative is so
stale to me that I cannot bear the sight of its printed
page. Yet if I have a favourite, it is
Scaramouche. Perhaps this is inspired by
gratitude, for Scaramouche was my Columbus. He
discovered America for me."
- "How do you feel about the earlier books that once went
begging in this country and now are best sellers?"
- "I have lately seen more than one quotation in the
American Press of the pronouncement of 'The Head of a
great American Publishing House' (unnamed) to the effect
that: 'We were offered Sabatini years ago. We turned him
down.' That is accurate enough. But he goes on to say:
'But the novels that were offered us were not Captain
Bloods or Scaramouches or Sea Hawks.'
The implication is that he is much too shrewd a fellow to
have turned down one of these had he seen it in
manuscript. To me he appears to be speaking with the
voice of the American publishing trade in general. And
yet, 'The Sea Hawk', was written ten years ago,
was widely offered in America, but in vain. No American
publisher would touch it, and at last, in despair, I
consented to a sale of sheets by my London publisher to a
firm in New York. Further, Houghton Mifflin were not the
first American publishers to whom 'Scaramouche'
was offered. One New York house liked it well enough to
offer me fifty pounds outright for the American
copyright, but not well enough to improve upon that offer
when I confessed that I could not accept it. On the other
hand several of my earlier books (which 'the head of that
great American Publishing house' implies no
discriminating publisher could be expected to handle)
were actually set up and published in America.
'Mistress Wilding' just reissued by Houghton
Mifflin, is one of these."
- "Is the scene of your next novel laid entirely in
America, and how did you happen to become interested in
- "The scene of 'The Carolinian' is laid entirely
in America; indeed, as the title suggests, in Carolina.
The novel has grown out of a play that I wrote some years
ago in collaboration with J. E. Harold Terry. For a long
time I hesitated to tackle a phase of American history as
a subject to lay before the American public, lest these
good friends of mine should be afforded the means of
discovering me for an imposter."
- "Do any American authors, past or present, especially
- "I have not read many American authors, and it will be
understood that the few I have read are mainly those
working in the genre which I have, myself, adopted. Mary
Johnston impressed me profoundly when I was still a
youngster. The memory of two books of hers, 'The Old
Dominion' and "By Order of the
Company'read and re-read many years ago, haunts
me to this day. The secret of her power,which I did
not realize then but realize now, lies in the fact that
her writings read as the chronicling not of things
studied, but of things remembered, of things personally
witnessed. That, it will, I think, be generally admitted
is the highest quality you may look for in the historical
novel. It is a vitalizing quality, found only, and not
frequently, in historical fiction of the most modern. It
is the unobtrusive manifestation of that highest quality
in all art; the concealment of the art.
- "A fairly well known novelist of the modern realistic
school, by which I mean a synthetic author, an uninspired
university product, a chronicler of unimportant and
mainly sordid trifles, whose unimaginative and
uninventive art lies somewhere between the arts of
photography and journalism, whilst expressing, with that
presumption which is the chief asset of his class, his
contempt of the modern historical romance, has yet
condescended to bestow upon Sir Walter Scott a pontifical
benediction. Yet Scott, sound and scholarly though he may
be, is utterly without that great quality to which I have
referred. There is in reading him none of the illusion
that he is relating to you something at first hand. On
the contrary, he is almost at pains to reveal the means
by which he builds his narrative."
- "What fictional character appeals to you the most?"
- "The Egotist makes the strongest appeal to me. I confess
this is a commonplace choice, for just as down the ages
that is man's commonest conception of his god, so man
usually deifies the superlative human egotist whenever he
- "How do you amuse yourself; any comments on skiing,
- "My favorite amusement is writing novels. My chief and
most serious work in life is salmon fishing. To this I
devote enormous pains and labour, from the dressing of
the fly to the ultimate and occasional killing of the
fish. It is the one accomplishment about which I am
really vain, and in the pursuit of which I am intolerant
of competition. It leaves me cold that men should write
better novels than mine. But I hate the man who can kill
- "What are your methods of work? Do you write regularly
or irregularly, etc.?"
- "My methods of work are regular in conception, irregular
in fulfilment. The fact is that whatever I may resolve,
when I am at work upon a book I am at work upon it all
the time, and give myself little rest or recreation until
it is done. But when it is done, then my mind turns to
broken streams and whirling water and remains fixed upon
those delectable subjects just as obstinately."
- "How did you happen to choose English as your literary
language, rather than Italian?"
- "Accident determined the choice of a working language
for me. As a matter of fact, my first steps in literature
were taken in French. That was at the age of sixteen at
Zug, in Switzerland, where I was at school. I was one of
the two editors of a monthly miscellaneous magazine that
was issued and circulated sub rosa. We were tri-lingual
at the Ecole Cantonale, whose students came not only from
French, Italian, and German-speaking Cantons, but also
from France, Italy and Germany. The official language was
German; but French was the most generally known. Hence
our choice of the language.
- "In English at that time I could just about make myself
understood in simple matters. This little was thanks, of
course, to my English mother; and a little it remained,
because English was unknown to my father, whence it
follows that Italian was always spoken at home. To this
day it is the language I instinctively use in speaking to
my mother, and I should never think of writing to her in
any other, for, although an Englishwoman by birth, her
life from the early age of fifteen was chiefly spent in
Italy, and she is more fluent in Italian than in her
- "When and why did you go to England?"
- "My facility in learning languages,the only sign
of intelligence acknowledged in me during my
adolescenceis responsible for the rest, and was
very nearly my ruin. The fact that at eighteen I spoke
and wrote five languages with almost equal fluency, and
possessed the foundation of a knowledge of a sixth
(English) seemed to my father, who knew nothing about
such matters, a splendid equipment for a commercial
career. And England being preeminently the European land
of commercial careers, and containing moreover the near
relatives of my mother, who might be expected to take an
interest in me, to England I was dispatched, dedicated to
- "And when and why did you saddle up Pegasus?"
- "For a few years I was diligent in commerce, and it is
possible that I became less diligent. The cacoethes
scribendi was upon me and I found myself escaping as much
as possible from the temple of Mercury to go and do a
little market-gardening on the lower slopes of Parnassus.
I began to write for magazines, and actually, to my
overwhelming astonishment at first, to sell what I wrote.
I widened the field of my activities and embarked upon a
little casual journalism. And then one day the late Peter
Keary of C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd. wrote me a letter which
I shall never destroy. It was my passport to the career
of letters. Impressed by a short story I had written for
Pearson's Magazine, he invited me to write a book and
offered to commission it. Need I add that I closed with
the offer before he had time to reconsider it?"
- "How many Rafael Sabatinis are there? We have heard of
the one who sculpts, but what of the one recently
reported to have had his matrimonial hopes blighted by a
lady in Tokyo, in spite of the fact you never have been
- "The 'Texas girl now married to an army attache in
China' who, according to the Dallas Times-Herald, met the
romancer (myself) in Tokyo, and was the object of my
whirlwind wooing, proves herself by the statement the
greater romancer of the two. She is also the more daring,
because whilst I confine my fabrications to the dead, who
are no longer able to contradict me, she does not
hesitate to use the living as the characters of her
- "Lest I do her an injustice I will divulge the
alternative that occurs to me. It is that in addition to
the Rafael Sabatini who paints and sculptures and who has
already been confused with me, there is a third Rafael
Sabatini, a dangerous fellow who roams the world in quest
of amatory adventures.
- "That he is not always as unsuccessful as in Tokyo I
know from a rather bewildering letter that reached me
some eighteen months ago. It was from a lady (presumably
young, and let us hope beautiful) in Italy who had just
read 'Scaramouche'. But congratulation was only a
part of her subject. She addressed me with a fond
familiarity and cited in embarrassing detail certain
tender passages between us in the course of an alleged
voyage jointly undertaken some two years earlier from New
York to Naples. As I had never made any such voyage (just
as I have never been in Tokyo) the serenity of my
perfectly respectable family life was not compromised by
a communication which, but for the alibi, might have been
difficult to explain.
- "The article in the Dallas Times-Herald, when taken in
conjunction with that letter, leads me to the conclusion
I have mentioned, of the existence of this third Rafael
Sabatini, who is evidently an amorist of parts. I can
better suffer the attribution of his success than of his
failures. The Tokyo incident is not merely deplorable in
its futility, but is of a character altogether outside my
own experience. I proposed marriage to a lady only once
in my life. Her acceptance of the proposal (of which,
being of a cautious nature, I had assured myself
beforehand) has removed all necessity of repeating the
- "This last question you may consider 'too much'. But
would you feel like describing your personal appearance
with the same well known skill that you devote to Messrs.
Blood, Scaramouche, etc.?"
- "Of my personal appearance, all that I can tell you is
that it is considered typically, almost blatantly
English. I am fair-haired and fair-skinned, moderately
tall and vigorous, in this as in cast of feature
resembling my mother and my mother's family. My eyes,
however, are inherited from my father's people."
Articles & Images
Last updated 29 March 2008. Any concerns or
problems about this site, please contact Rimfire.