Rafael Sabatini’s “Scaramouche”

February 26, 2014

As mentioned in our January 29 blog, our daughter Michelle suggested we pose one question to our Book Club members each month. By responding (on Facebook), we could thereby get more discussions in motion.

So here is Question #2: As you have journaled your book-related thoughts, what kind of mental dialogue with yourself has resulted? In other words, what do you find is most helpful in enabling you get to the essence of a given book?


Few historical novels are more beloved than this one. Certainly, it has long fascinated me. In fact, I have now read it around six times down through the years. And that’s unusual for I rarely read a given book more than once.

One reason for my returning to the book again and again has to do with my intense interest in the time period in which Sabatini sets the action: the French Revolution. That disruptive out-of-control time period that separates Louis XVI from the Napoleonic Empire. That French revolution breaking out a scant thirteen years after our American revolution.

Like most historical fiction readers, I’m not much interested in historical novels that are not true to their time period. I guess, in a way, I too like to have my general history reading sugar-coated by excitement and romance based on the author’s prior historical research of the time period.


Scaramouche has been filmed twice: first in 1923, and second (and more significantly) in 1952. Directed by George Sidney, and screenplay by Ronald Millar and George Froeschel. Star-studded cast includes Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, Janet Leigh, Mel Ferrer, Henry Wilcoxon, Lewis Stone, Nina Foch, Richard Anderson, and Robert Coote. The highlight is the climactic sword duel–longest in cinematic swashbuckling history.

The book begins with a famous line: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

It takes a little while to get through the scene that triggers the rest of the almost unputdownable plot. But there’s far more to the book than mere action, intrigue, and romance: At the heart of it is this great truth: To know all is to forgive all.

It is not a book to read and forget: rather it is a book that keeps on giving as long as you live.

Rafael Sabatini’s life (1875-1950) was almost as eventful as his action-packed novels. He was born in the then small town of Jesi, Italy, near the seaport of Ancona. Apparently, he was illegitimate [not even a factor today in American when almost half of all children are born out of wedlock]. You will note in Scaramouche that the stain of his own birth gave Sabatini the incentive to dig deep into the issue in his fiction. Sabatini’s parents were well-known opera singers who traveled the world. His mother was English.


Sabatini grew up in England and Portugal, exposed to many languages. Early on, he fell in love with the borderland between England and Wales. In Porto, Portugal, Rafael attended a Catholic school. A few years later, the Sabatinis returned to Italy, this time to Milan. The son was then sent to a school in Switzerland. Here he added French and German to his linguistic arsenal. He spent most of his teenage years here.

When he was seventeen, his father sent him to Liverpool, England to immerse himself in the business world. But he soon turned to writing romances instead. By 1899, he was selling his short fiction to national magazines such as Pearson’s Magazine, London Magazine, and Royal Magazine. But once he devoted himself to full-time writing, he generally produced a book a year.

During World War I, he became a British citizen. In 1921, it was Scaramouche that catapulted him to world-wide fame; in fact, the book became an international best-seller. In 1922, Captain Blood sold even more copies.


His novels were set all over Europe, and in the New World as well. If you are anything like me, you will have developed such an addiction to his historical fiction by the time you finish Scaramouche, you will set about tracking down the rest of them for your library. Here they are:

  •  The Tavern Knight, 1904
  •   Bardelys the Magnificent, 1906
  •   The Trampling of the Lilies, 1906
  •   Love-at-Arms, 1907
  •   The Shame of Motley, 1908
  •   Saint Martin’s Summer, 1909
  •   Anthony Wilding, 1910
  •   The Lion’s Skin, 1911
  •   The Life of Cesare Borgia, 1912 (history)
  •   The Justice of the Duke, 1912
  •   The Strolling Saint, 1913
  •   Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition, 1913 (history)
  •   The Gates of Doom, 1914
  •   The Sea-Hawk, 1915
  •   The Banner of the Bull, 1915
  •   The Snare, 1917
  •   The Historical Nights’ Entertainment: First Series, 1918-1938
  •   The Historical Nights’ Entertainment: Second Series, 1919
  •   Scaramouche, 1921
  •   Captain Blood, 1922
  •   Fortune’s Fool, 1923
  •   The Carolinian, 1925
  •   Bellarion, 1926
  •   The Nuptials of Corbal, 1927
  •   The Hounds of God, 1928
  •   The Romantic Prince, 1929
  •   The Minion, 1930
  •   The Chronicles of Captain Blood, 1931 (or Captain Blood Returns)
  •   Scaramouche the Kingmaker, 1931
  •   The Black Swan, 1933
  •   The Stalking Horse, 1933
  •   Captain Blood, 1936 (or The Fortunes of Captain Blood)
  •   The Lost King, 1937
  •   The Sword of Islam, 1938
  •   Master-At-Arms, 1940
  •   Columbus, 1942

If possible, secure a Houghton Mifflin hardback with dust-jacket. However, Bantam sold untold thousands in paperback form.


Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”

September 25, 2013

Last month, I let you relax, walk the beach, and regenerate your batteries. But now autumn is here, school is in session, and it’s time to lower the boom on you! It’s time for one of the world’s greatest heavyweights. Heavyweights indeed: depending on a number of variables, an unabridged copy comes to somewhere between 1400 and 2000 pages.

But remember this: Don’t ever waste your time reading an abridged copy of any book worth reading! I always wonder when I look at an abridged book, How can any human being have the gall to conclude that s/he knows more about what is important in a book than the person who wrote it?

So I expect you to read every word in the unabridged version. But I am not a Simon Legree: Because I want you to take the time to really savor the book, I am permitting you to take two months to complete it. There won’t be another Book of the Month until December. First of all, purchase an unabridged you can mark up, reason being Les Miserables is one of the most quotable books ever written. An additional word of warning: In recent years more and more publishers have committed what I call a crime: publishing abridged versions of classic books without indicating inside the book that it is incomplete. So, do your homework in this respect.

* * *

Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885), French poet, novelist, dramatist, and leader of the Romantic Movement in France, lived life on the grand scale. Since his father was a Bonaparte general, Hugo’s early years were lived in luxury; but then came the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, and life got much harder. Suffice it to say that he is generally considered to be one of the towering figures in world literature.

Since it would take years to fully digest all that Hugo accomplished, I won’t even try, leaving such a fascinating journey to you. Most of the growth in my own life has resulted from just such side trips of discovery as I am suggesting to you now.

If you only tackle a few of Hugo’s books, I suggest you seriously consider The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Toilers of the Sea.

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Hugo spent fourteen years laboring on this monstrous book. I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering the novel on your own, so I certainly won’t spoil your reading pleasure by giving away the plot of what is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. I might even go out on a limb by admitting I have yet to read a more powerful or deeply moving book than this. When I completed it for the first time, I wrote down this summation: I am numb. It is a book to go back to again and again, for it is inexhaustible and it is suspenseful—a great read!

I think the best summation of its power was penned by the English scholar and critic, Algernon Charles Swinburne:

Les Miserables is the greatest epic and dramatic work of fiction ever created or conceived. The epic of a soul transfigured and redeemed, purified by heroism and glorified through suffering; the tragedy and comedy of life at its darkest and its brightest, of humanity at its best and at its worst.

Vincent Hopper and Bernard Grabanier, in their two-volume Guide to World Literature (Barron’s Educational Series, 1952), declared that Les Miserables “is one of the most moving appeals ever made in the history of literature to our common humanity; only a great soul could have written it.” They also point out that it is more a collection of novels than just a novel.

Don’t be tempted to lose interest when Hugo appears to have forgotten what he was writing about, and wanders off in what will seem to be a totally irrelevant direction. Those side trips will all prove their relevance later on; and if you failed to carefully read them, I guarantee you will end up failing to internally capture the power of the novel! Indeed, those side-trips have developed world-wide fame on their own—especially the passages depicting the Battle of Waterloo, the sewers of Paris, the flight of Jean Valjean, the portrait of the Bishop, the drama of the candlesticks, and the description of the Benedictine monastery. Indeed, the book might aptly be likened to a vast mosaic or puzzle: as you read along you will keep slotting in images, many seeming not to fit in anywhere, but by the moving conclusions, all the pieces will finally be placed—and you’re left with the completed masterpiece. Interestingly enough, John Steinbeck, much later on, borrowed from Hugo in his own sidetrips in The Grapes of Wrath.

Welcome to one of the world’s greatest books. I look forward to hearing back from you after you return from Victor Hugo’s world, from experiencing first-hand the French Revolution.