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From John Cloy’s Introduction to Scaramouche
When Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche: A Romance of the French Revolution was published in 1921, he was already an established author, with a dozen books to his credit. This swashbuckling novel, set during the French Revolution, won him an even larger audience and made him a tidy sum of money. Hailed as the “new Dumas” by his admirers, the author was welcomed by lovers of action literature, historical fiction, and period stories. The novel was initially turned down by several publishers before being accepted by London publisher Hutchinson, who happily watched it sell hundreds of thousands of copies (the American publisher was Houghton Mifflin). Scaramouche was instrumental in resurrecting a flagging literary genre, the historical novel. Although historical fiction had enjoyed a brief rebirth during the years of World War I (probably because of a widespread demand for escapist literature), its vogue had quickly faded as soon as the conflict ended.
Perhaps the popularity of that relatively new medium, the movie, contributed to Sabatini’s success with this somewhat unfashionable literary form. Scaramouche was made into several films, one starring box office idols Stewart Granger and Janet Leigh. The writer’s well-crafted prose, his meticulous historical research, fluency in at least six languages, cosmopolitan background, and singular ability to tell a story in an interesting manner probably, however, played a bigger role in his success. Markedly different from the productions of Modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce (who essentially abandoned straightforward narrative for a more internalized, mental approach to fictional presentation that basically ignored chronological constraints), Sabatini’s historical novels continued to sell during the period between the wars when the fortunes of other purveyors of historical fiction were generally at a low ebb.
Sabatini’s upbringing was certainly a contributing factor to his ability to write historical fiction. He was born in 1875 in Jesi, in central Italy, the son of opera singers. His father, Vincenzo Sabatini, was an Italian, while his mother, Anna Trafford, was of English stock. Rafael learned the rudiments of English as a child from his mother but did not master the language until he went to England as a teenager. He was exposed at a young age to Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German, all of which he spoke and wrote with facility. His schooling consisted of a year at the Lycée of Oporto, Portugal, where his parents had settled as music teachers, and several more years in Switzerland at the École Cantonale in Zoug. The young Sabatini’s years on the European mainland, with its crumbling castles, historical battlefields, and multicultural, often colorful populace, instilled in him a deep interest in history and reading that he never outgrew. A habit of omnivorous reading that he developed early in life built the framework for the painstaking research practices that he so fruitfully brought to bear on his historical novels.
Although Sir Walter Scott was not the first to compose historical fiction, any discussion of the subject brings his name to the forefront. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) is generally considered the first historical novel, this position justified by the author’s enthusiasm for period-era scenery like musty old castles and chivalric romance. A broadly accepted contemporary definition of “romance,” as set forth in Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785), is a narrative set in the past, as opposed to the novel that is set in the present. Scott and those who followed him generally adhered to this tenet (Drabble, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, p. 482; see “For Further Reading”). Scott’s fictional principles are laid out in the prefaces to his various novels. He viewed history as a subject that was repulsively dry and sought to present to his readers the spirit of historical events enlivened by fictional embellishments. He usually chose to present ordinary people as his protagonists and used actual historical figures as marginalia, almost as props for greater realism. Thus the writer attempted to remain true to both disciplines, history and literature. Scott took wide latitude with his historical facts and often strayed from the factual records—as when he portrayed the Saxons as ascendant in Ivanhoe (by that period the Normans actually had the upper hand). In his Scottish novels, he frequently altered details of English history to suit his purpose, which was to portray the spirit of Scotland and its struggles with realism and truth and without maudlin sentiment or overindulgence in rote recital of primary material, but not without creativity. Scott held that an imagination in the service of truth was superior to the antiquarian mode of history (Orel, The Historical Novel from Scott to Sabatini, pp. 6–14). He was often attacked by contemporary critics, although his books have survived and are still read. This longevity can be considered the ultimate test of literary merit.