The Laughing Cavalier

December 25, 2008

I forget, now, whether The Scarlet Pimpernel was my first adventure novel. I’m pretty sure that I read it before The Three Musketeers, The Four Feathers, The Prisoner of Zenda, or Scaramouche (my first Sabatini). So there was this time when The Scarlet Pimpernel was the only great adventure novel I had read. And it coincided with a time in my early teens when I was just discovering the wealth of reading material available on the internet. And during that time, I came dangerously close to joining the online Scarlet Pimpernel fandom.

See, I found this website called Blakeney Manor, and they had the texts of about twenty Scarlet Pimpernel sequels and prequels. Which is, you know, a lot of books. For free. Somehow related to a book that I loved. And if the first one I read hadn’t been so silly, I might have read them all. So I’m pretty thankful that I decided to read them in chronological order, and that the one I started with was The Laughing Cavalier.

The Laughing Cavalier is predicated on the idea that the subject of the eponymous Frans Hals portrait was an ancestor of Sir Percy Blakeney. So, basically, we end up with a novel set in the Netherlands (to satisfy our Frans Hals quota) about a 17th century adventurer who, because he is Sir Percy’s ancestor, must be part English, and because he is the subject of that Hals portrait must be smiling constantly. And I do mean constantly.

Besides smirking, and laughing, and making his eyes twinkle a lot, and posing for his good buddy Frans Hals, Sir Percy’s less-than-illustrious forebear mostly hangs out with two pals called Socrates and Pythagoras. He himself goes by the name of Diogenes. This is silly, but doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that Pythagoras is the fat one and Socrates is the skinny one, in spite of the evidence of all the available portrait busts indicating that the real Socrates looked somewhat like the popular conception of Santa Claus. I mean, I know it’s a small detail, but would it have killed Baroness Orczy to make Socrates the fat one?

Anyway, Diogenes and his friends are hired by Nicolaes Beresteyn to kidnap his sister Gilda, who has overheard him and his friend Lord Stoutenburg plotting to assassinate the Stadtholder. Lord Stoutenburg is typically villainous, down to loving Gilda as well as he is capable of loving anyone — which I gather is the novelist’s equivalent of allowing that the dead enemy commander fought bravely. Nicolaes is just as typically the inexplicably evil brother. (Perhaps one day someone will explain to me why adventure novels are so full of inexplicably evil younger brothers. It happens too often to be simply coincidence.) Nicolaes did win me over, though: you know the bit in Frankenstein where Victor gets a letter from Elizabeth that’s largely concerned with a girl named Justine? And she’s like, “remember this girl who lives in your house, and who you’ve known for ages and get along really well with? Let me tell you all about her, just in case her life history has slipped your mind”? Lord Stoutenburg tries to do that to Nicolaes, telling him all about the news his spies have brought him that day. At which point Nicolaes remind him that actually, he was standing next to Stoutenburg at the time, and already knows all of this. Granted, it’s the only display of backbone we see from him during the entire book, but I don’t ask for much.

Anyway, Diogenes and Gilda fall in love, and there’s some swordfighting, and an unpleasantly stereotyped Jew, and people talk about tulips a lot, just to show that they’re Dutch. And that’s about it. I won’t even try to say that this was a good book, but it was a lot of fun to ridicule.


  1. I’ve always found The Scarlet Pimpernel to be, far and away, the Baroness’s best work. Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is pleasant, but insipid.

    I actually haven’t tried the Pimpernel-adjacent books. Should I? Or should I just stick to reading every Sabatini I can find, however formulaic I find them/how truly terrible they are (this is not to say I don’t love them…I do, very much)?

    Also, are you capable of reading the end of Rupert of Hentzau without sobbing uncontrollably? And I’m sure you’ve seen the Stewart Granger Prisoner of Zenda, but, if you haven’t, do.

    • I really like Lady Molly, and sometimes I like The Old Man in the Corner series. It depends on how I’m interpreting it.

      Pimpernel is by far the best though.

  2. If I sob uncontrollably while reading, there’s probably something else going on, but I definitely tear up at the end of Rupert of Hentzau. I wasn’t aware that there was a Stewart Granger Prisoner of Zenda. Is it better than the Ronald Colman one? I find Stewart Granger kind of ridiculous in Scaramouche.

    I actually have Lady Molly lying around somewhere, but I’ve never got around to reading it, and The Laughing Cavalier is the only Pimpernel series one I’ve read. I’ve assumed that Orczy was sort of like A.E.W. Mason, and wrote one masterpiece and piles of books that are so bad they’re hilarious.

    I pick up every Sabatini I come across too, and I think my best find has been The Snare. Recently, though, I bought The Lost King, which follows the life of the Dauphin after the French Revolution, and I actually haven’t been able to get through it.

  3. The Lost King, if it’s the one I remember, is pretty awful. There’s only so much you can do with the Dauphin, obviously–not a lot of suspense on the “will he accede to the throne?” question, really. I don’t remember them by title, usually, although I think I’ve read The Snare (but cannot remember the plot). I rather liked the one about Agostino and his morbidly religious mother Monica.

    Which is A.E.W. Mason’s masterpiece? I must admit to having read only The Four Feathers. If there’s one better than that, I’m pretty excited.

    Stewart Granger is ridiculous in Scaramouche, but I still love it. There seems to be a tendency to silly up Sabatini when filming (something that rather disappointed me in the Errol Flynn Captain Blood–while Peter can be absurd, it is not his salient feature). His Prisoner of Zenda is fabulous (although, since it is in color, his lack of red hair is more obtrusive), and has the added bonus of Deborah Kerr as the princess and, the kicker, James Mason(!) as Rupert. I would check it out.

  4. The Snare is the one that starts, “It is established beyond doubt that Mr. Butler was drunk at the time,” and goes on to talk a lot about Wellington’s prohibition of dueling. I don’t remember one with anyone named Agostino — Bellarion is the only Italian-themed one I’ve read, I think. Do you remember having read one with Dutch burghers? I don’t remember what it was called, but it was a fun one.

    The Four Feathers is, as far as I can tell, Mason’s masterpiece. His best known other works are some very silly detective novels featuring a sort of proto-Poirot called Hanaud. I recommend The Prisoner in the Opal, which is full of Satanists and mummies and premonitions of evil.

    I will check out the Granger Zenda, but I can’t imagine that even James Mason could be a more awesome Rupert than Douglas Fairbanks Jr. If you haven’t seen the ’37 one, you really should. It’s also got C. Aubrey Smith and a very young David Niven. And Raymond Massey.

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