The Women of "Chivalry"
For a long time, I have been frustrated by reading adventure fiction. I was not very old when I recognized that female characters in the classics of this genre are generally stuck in supporting roles at best. Many of them seem to have all the personality of a wooden post and the only reason they are mentioned is that they are a goal, a reward, or an object of contention between Protagonist and Antagonist.
While I found it annoying, it did not keep me from reading and enjoying Dumas, Sabatini or Forester. Upon reading some of Sabatini's work which I had missed in my younger years, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a different portrayal of women in Chivalry, published in 1935, the year Sabatini married his second wife.
It is the end of the Age of Chivalry in Italy. Those with military might are reinforcing their cities to become the great Princes on which will hinge much of the intrigue of Renaissance Italy. Colombino is a mercenary captain who has worked his way up through the ranks to command the Company of the Dove.
Colombino is no ordinary soldier. He has come to embody the medieval Code of Chivalry even as it fades from the land, much to the consternation and amusement of his lieutenants. He desires to fight for what he considers is just and honorable causes. They consider him too young know to know that issues are seldom black and white. Through the actions of others, Colombino is forced to question his code and come to a better understanding of his world and what morality is really all about.
The "others" mentioned above are four women: Eufemia (the Countess of Rovieto), Samaritana (who later becomes the Countess of Ravenna), Valerie de la Bourdonnaye (the wife of the ambassador of France) and Caterina (Marchioness of Squillanti.) Each of them betrays the Colombino (on purpose or, in the case of Samaritana, after being tricked into it) and each of them alters the course of his life in some way.
The first hint I had that these would not be the standard caricatures of women was when Sabatini introduces Samaritana. She is different from Eufemia, who is introduced first, not merely in looks, but it how she acts and her motivations. The others are treated with the same level of detail. Sabatini seems to have gone out of his way to make each of them very different not only in appearance, but personality, morality, and, for want of a better phrase, personal goals. None of the descriptions could truly be said to be "stock" and all are realistic and understandable, with the possible exception of Eufemia who seems to be a little too obsessive and vengeful.
Most of the novels that I have read written this period would be content merely to introduce the woman, describe her betrayal and continue on with its effect on the hero. It would be his internal dialogue that would be the indicator of the changes in his code and outlook. By doing this, the women would become mere passive objects in the plotline.
But, Sabatini's women characters in Chivalry are very different. They are proactive and have minds of their own, each of which work differently. They don't sit around and wait for life to happen to them. Eufemia schemes, each one more grandiose than the last until she eventually turns out to be her own worst enemy. Caterina, blindly certain of her own attractiveness, causes the downfall of herself and almost all of those who surround her. Even Valerie, who is arguably the most passive of the women, alternates between defiance of and subservience to her husband. Sabatini makes her very restraint a conscious action.
Even when they are not part of the narrative, Sabatini does not leave his readers with the impression that time just stops for these characters. Samaritana, Colombino's beloved, is left out of the action for the bulk of the second half of the story, yet it is obvious when she re-enters the narrative that she's made decisions, had crises, and dealt with everyday life in the interim.
When she is introduced, Samaritana is willing to be led by the men in her life. She trusts her ability to judge character without question. Later, she must come to terms with the fact that she can make mistakes, like her judgment of Ottavio Moro. At the end, although she looks to Cosimo for guidance, she knows that the ultimate decision to yield Ravenna to Venice rests with her, proving that she is as worthy of being called honorable as Colombino is.
Sabatini's work is populated by pro-active, intelligent women, like Margaret Trevanion from The Hounds of God and Arabella Bishop from Captain Blood. Even those that we, today, might call "bimbos," (like Climene from Scaramouche) have their own understandable internal logic. The four ladies from Chivalry are not exceptions, as I was happy to discover, but I think they nicely illustrate a range of personalities which elevates this book from being just another romp around Renaissance Italy.
A separate review page on the novel Chivalry is available for you to share your thoughts about the book.
Return to Articles & ImagesLast updated 29 March 2008. Copyright 1999 by A.G. Lindsay. Article illustrations in the Public Domain. Any concerns or problems about this site, please contact Rimfire.