We have all heard of the films; Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Saramouche, The Black Swan. What many people do not know is that before they were films, they were books, wonderful books, by the same masterful and prolific author.
Rafael Sabatini wrote from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th, his most famous and best-selling works (like the aforementioned) came out in the Teens and Twenties. He defined “swashbuckling adventure” (though many of his stories did not take place on a ships). One could say he took the tradition of Victorian adventure literature and did it two better.
First, he grounded his characters and stories in real history. He researched his backdrops extensively and felt that, even if his characters were fictional, the world they inhabit should be as real as possible. And in mining the real history, he found the events to enrich his stories (just as Augustick pointed out), such as Peter Blood’s trajectory changing experiences in the Monmouth Rebellion and its aftermath. This historical foundation also adds complexity to the personal stories set within tumultuous times.
Secondly, he made his characters more human. Watching the films, one would find it hard to think of the characters played by Flynn and Powers to be anything but heroic archetypes. In the books they are flawed and their flaws often draw them into danger, or greatly complicate their lives, in character-driven plots.
I loaned Captain Blood and Saramouche to a co-worker and something he pointed out is that Sabatini’s vocabulary and sentence structure is impressive compared to much of today’s popular literature. His writing his not merely effective and evocative, it is artful (without belaboring). He was an international best seller, yet he did so without talking down to his audience. (Probably a sign how far our educational system has slipped.) And it is not limited to his vocabulary. He tackles not only historical events, but religious attitudes, philosophical movements and every strata of society. And for all this, his books are wonderfully entertaining adventures, often with touches of slapstick and cynical humor.
If you want to give him a go, his works are in public domain and easily accessible.
I think Sabatini’s work influenced several historical authors, including my favorite: Patrick O’Brian, a man who wrote meticulously researched, wonderful historical adventures. (And more on him in another post.) I think anyone who loves literature should pick up at least one of Sabatini’s books and read it. It good to remind ourselves that literature can be fun.
(Because Gods know the schools do their damnedest to beat it out of us.)