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Captain Blood Day: Bardelys the Magnificent

September 19, 2012

Happy Captain Blood Day, everyone! You can observe this holiday by reading adventure novels, trading witty barbs with people trying to unjustly sentence you to death, or, okay, talking like a pirate. But only if the pirate is Peter Blood.

I felt bad posting a negative review of a Sabatini book on Captain Blood Day last year, so this year I made sure to choose a book I know I like. And actually Bardelys the Magnificent is super appropriate as a follow up to The Suitors of Yvonne. It’s not just that it’s full of French courtiers for whom dueling is always a viable problem-solving tool — Bardelys the Magnificent came out four years after The Suitors of Yvonne and it frequently reads like Sabatini’s (successful) attempt to reshape that book into something, you know, good.

The bottom line is that sometime between 1902 and 1906, Rafael Sabatini acquired a knack for writing likable main characters, and I have yet to come across a later instance where it failed him. So there’s Gaston de Luynes, who is massively hateful, and then in between there’s the guy from The Tavern Knight, who’s just kind of irritating, and then there’s Bardelys, who’s got really poor judgment and terrible timing, but who I like quite a lot.

Bardelys is a marquis or something, fabulously wealthy and a favorite of the king, who is one of the Louis — XIII, I think. He throws a lot of parties and he has a lot of friends. Chatellerault, a rival for the king’s favor, isn’t really one of them, but when he returns to Paris after an unsuccessful attempt to woo Roxalanne de Lavedan — at the behest of the King — he shows up at Bardelys’ house. No one really likes Chatellerault, so Bardelys is worried about fights breaking out, but eventually things start to calm down. Which is when Bardelys starts making fun of Chatellerault for not being able to succeed with Roxalanne. Poor judgment, bad timing.

Bardelys, Chatellerault and all their friends and acquaintances are both bored and extravagant, so the argument results in a wager: Bardelys has three months to court Roxalanne. If he wins, Chatellerault’s estates are his. If he loses, his estates are Chatellerault’s. Super poor judgment. But the wager has been made, so Bardelys heads off to Languedoc, more concerned about the fact that the King is upset with him — he’d prefer that Roxalanne marry Chatellerault — than with the fact that Languedoc is currently home to a rebellion by Henri II, Duke of Montmorency. Bad, bad timing.

Actually, pretty much as soon as they arrive in the area, Bardelys and his retinue stumble upon a dying rebel in a shed. His name is Lesperon, and before he keels over he asks that Bardelys take his papers and deliver them and his farewells to his sister and his fiancee. So it makes sense that Lesperon is on Bardelys’ mind when he stops at an inn later. It makes less sense that when he sees some soldiers and hears them say that they’re looking for someone, he assumes that the King has sent them after him rather than that they’re rounding up rebels. So when they ask him his name, he says “Lesperon.” Massive self-absorption, lousy judgment, incredibly precise bad timing.

His escape from the soldiers brings Bardelys, wounded, exhausted and without his retinue, to the Lavedan estate, where he falls in love at first sight with Roxalanne de Lavedan, climbs to her balcony, and faints. By the time Bardelys wakes up, her father the Vicomte has gone through his pockets and concluded that he’s Lesperon. And by the time Bardelys understands what’s going on, the Vicomte has revealed that he’s part of the rebellion, too, and Bardelys is scared of what would happen if he revealed that he was really a well-known friend of the king. This one, to be fair, is mostly really, really bad luck.

Roxalanne and Bardelys fall in love, obviously, but Bardelys is too busy agonizing over what to tell her about himself and darkly hinting at what a horrible person he is to tell her how he feels. Bad judgement. Then he sleeps in on the day when Lesperon’s fiancee and her brother come to visit, so they don’t see him and everyone becomes convinced that he’s behaved badly towards Roxalanne and the fiancee, which okay, isn’t totally wrong, but: bad timing. Then it’s out of the frying pan of Roxalanne’s disdain into the fire of being arrested — as Lesperon — for treason by the adorable Monsieur de Castelroux. Which actually goes a far way to sorting out Bardelys’ problems, because Castelroux is a reasonable guy and also they happen to run into the fiancee’s brother. Except that then there are more frying pans, more fires, and a very enjoyable forerunner to the courtroom scene in Captain Blood. Plus a duel, a couple of audiences with the King, and Bardelys’ super gross attempt to extort Roxalanne into marrying him (bad judgment) followed by massive amounts of regret (bad timing).

Obviously Bardelys is not without his flaws, but — and I doubt very much that this was intentional — he’s an extremely consistent character, especially in his flaws. I’m tempted to track down a copy of the 1926 movie and make a drinking game of it, only if I try to drink every time Bardelys displays bad judgment or bad timing, I don’t think I’ll make it to the end of the movie. Anyway, Bardelys the Magnificent doesn’t really need a drinking game — it’s fun on its own.

As I said earlier, a lot of this is familiar from The Suitors of Yvonne — the person in a position of power sending someone to woo a young woman out in the country, the hero falling in love with the young woman in question, honorable arresting officers, using the expression “out of the frying pan, into the fire” as the primary inspiration for the plot, etc. So what makes this whirlwind of consecutive impending disasters so much better than that one? Mostly Bardelys, and the fact that he’s capable of displaying a touch of humility, and also of not being magnetically attracted to duels. He’s got that essential Sabatini hero trait, the ability to keep cool under fire, and if he’s not as brilliant as the best Sabatini heroes, he makes up for it by being ridiculous in a kind of endearing way. Let me put it this way: there’s a reason Sabatini’s career didn’t really take off for another fifteen years, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t an excellent adventure novelist long before that.

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9 comments

  1. I should probably start checking the publication dates so I can form intelligent opinions about relative quality. But also I just re-read The Trampling of the Lilies, and even though it is in all ways vastly inferior to Scaramouche, I really really love it.


    • Publication dates are something I hadn’t thought about much until I checked on when this was written. And have you read any of his short stories? Because The Suitors/Lovers of Yvonne may be his first novel, but he’d already written a bunch of stuff and I haven’t read any of it.

      Every time you mention The Trampling of the Lilies you make me want to read it but you also make it less likely that I’ll read it any time soon because the fear that I’ll run out of Sabatini books at some point is always in the back of my mind, and I want to save a good one for last.


  2. I have not read any of the short stories, alas.

    That is putting a lot of pressure on Trampling of the Lilies. I hope it doesn’t disappoint. It does, of course, have a tall, good-looking young man in sober, well-cut clothes and a tricolor sash, so how can you go wrong?


  3. I think we should designate this “Let’s have the same conversation about The Trampling of the Lilies we had on this day last year” Day. Since that’s apparently what we do.


    • Fine by me.

      But on a different note, I just read the first sentence of what may be Sabatini’s first published story, and I had to share:

      “Kuoni von Stocken, the Hofknarr of Sachsenberg, heaves a weary sigh and a strange, half-sad, half-scornful expression sits upon his lean sardonic countenance, as, turning his back to the gay crowd of courtiers that fills the Ballroom of the Palace of Schwerlingen, he passes out on to the balcony, and bends his glance upon the sleeping town below.”


      • That’s amazing. I’m not sure there have been enough lean, sardonic men in the history of the world to populate all the Sabatini novels, though….


  4. I started reading Captain Blood on Talk Like a Pirate Day, yay! (By complete coincidence… for some reason I thought it was in March.) Peter Blood is a total badass.


  5. I’ve read several of Sabatini’s short stories. The romantic ones tend to be depressing (sympathetic but annoyingly self-sacrificing hero does not get the girl); the historical/thriller ones are clever but frequently rehash episodes that appear in previous or subsequent novels written more elegantly and/or in greater detail.

    For the Sabatini novel with the most relatable hero–by which I mean whose personal motives are most easily understandable by modern standards (rather than some 17th-century unwritten code of honour)–you should read The Lion’s Skin. It has duels, but it’s not a swashbuckler like Captain Blood. There’s more social satire in it than any other Sabatini I’ve read. It’s a sort of spy adventure-cum-drawing room comedy, almost like Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer with a dash of political intrigue. And plenty of rapier wit, naturally.


    • I’ve now read a whole bunch of the earlier short stories, and yeah, collectively they’re kind of grim. I find that authors who do both short stories and novels do tend to recycle plots.

      I haven’t read The Lion’s Skin yet, but it sounds like lots of fun. Thanks for the rec!



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