Captain Blood Day: The Romantic Prince

September 19, 2013

So, Captain Blood Day. Yay!

Actually, though, I completely forgot about it until last week, so instead of thinking seriously about which Sabatini book I might want to talk about next, I just grabbed The Romantic Prince off my bookshelf. I read it once before — whenever Batman Begins came out, if the ticket stub I was using as a bookmark is any indication — and I recalled being pretty pleased with it.

If you’ve spent any significant amount of time reading Redeeming Qualities, you’ll know that I’m kind of fascinated by the way novelists solve problems. In particular, there’s a thing you get a lot in romance and adventure novels, where the hero is situated in such a way that it would be dishonorable for him to take any action whatsoever to resolve whatever issue he’s having. And often, as it is here, the issue is mostly just that the hero can’t be with the heroine. And sure, I love the resultant pining, but I also love watching the author’s resultant struggle to steer the characters to a happy ending without in any way impugning their honor. That’s Rafael Sabatini’s principal task in The Romantic Prince, so obviously it’s a lot of fun to me. It doesn’t hurt that the actual barriers keeping Count Anthony of Guelders and Johanna Claessens apart are strong enough that Sabatini doesn’t have to resort to the completely avoidable misunderstandings he seems to like so much.

Anthony is the fictional eldest son of the real Duke of Guelders. He’s also the cousin and best friend of Charles, Duke of Burgundy. But mostly he’s a classic Sabatini character: he begins the book by deciding that the world he lives in is no place for a gentleman. He leaves Charles’ court to travel around incognito and try to be more like Jacques de Lalaing and ends up falling in with a hapless Zeelander named Philip Danvelt. Danvelt introduces Anthony to Johanna Claessens and her father, a rich burgher, and it quickly becomes clear that Anthony and Johanna are exactly the right amount of ridiculous for each other. Anthony knows that it’s not really appropriate for him to make the daughter of a merchant his countess, but it takes the Governor of Zealand having him escorted back to Charles’ court by force to stop him from marrying her anyway.

Eventually Johanna marries Danvelt, making everything super uncomfortable for everyone. This is where Sabatini stops adding obstacles and starts solving them, predictably but also interestingly. Sire Claude de Rhynsault’s pursuit of Johanna and prosecution of Danvelt may look like problems, but they’re actually the machinery that’s eventually going to free Johanna from Danvelt and Anthony from Charles.

So yeah, I like The Romantic Prince. I enjoyed the intricacies of the plot, the heroine who for once doesn’t believe literally everyone else in the world over the hero, and, perhaps most surprisingly, the cast of characters. Sabatini’s prone to making almost everyone but the hero and heroine totally morally bankrupt, to the point where characters who start out by seeming like okay people are, by the end, cringing and groveling and turning on anyone who’s ever been nice to them. The only Sabatini novel I can think of with even half a dozen really likable characters is Captain Blood, which is maybe one of the reasons why it’s my favorite. The Romantic Prince doesn’t have anything like Captain Blood’s merry band of pirates, but Sabatini does reverse his usual MO by making Danvelt initially seem like a completely worthless human being and then giving him bits and pieces of his humanity back. It would probably be more accurate to say that he goes back and forth, but Danvelt is a better person in his last appearance than in his first, and I’m counting that as a win.

Another character worthy of note is Kuoni von Stocken, Rhynsault’s fool. You may recognize the name from “The Fool’s Love Story” — the hero of that story and the not-quite-villain of this one both seem to have taken their name from a Swiss (?) legend that I’d be able to relate if I knew German, or if Google Translate was better. This Kuoni, like Sabatini’s earlier character of that name, is a jester, but he’s got beady eyes and evil features instead of the other’s lean sardonic countenance, and spends most of the book treating other people as his puppets. And yet he too gains some humanity, and is kind of hilariously perplexed by any actions that aren’t guided by self-interest in ways he’s familiar with.

You can read also read a version of the story upon which Sabatini based The Romantic Prince here. Sabatini also did a short story version more closely based on the original for his Historical Nights’ Entertainment. The Historical Nights’ Entertainment version sticks closely to the historical account, but somehow I like the shorter, simpler version best. Still, I can see why Sabatini can’t go for the original, more satisfactory ending: once Sabatini creates Anthony to be the hero of the story, Charles has the potential to become a deus ex machina, and while most of the changes Sabatini makes are at Charles’ expense, I see why it has to be that way — or why Sabatini feels that it does, at least.

Anyway, happy Captain Blood Day. As ever, if you’re going to spend September 19th talking like a pirate, make that pirate Peter Blood.



  1. Begorrah.

    • I don’t know if you can access Project Gutenberg Australia from the US, but they have tons of full novels by Sabatini, including Romantic Prince: http://gutenberg.net.au/plusfifty-n-z.html#letterS

      I’ve always loved how Sabatini wove real historical characters and events into his fictional plotlines. You’re learning and being entertained at the same time! It’s like Schoolhouse Rock in book form!

      • I don’t know why I didn’t think to check PG AU — thanks for correcting my oversight. (I’m not sure it’s strictly legal to access it from the US, but it’s certainly possible.)

        I love seeing historical characters show up in Sabatini novels and finding out whether he loves or hates a given historical figure. Especially since he doesn’t overdo it and try to include all the historical figures. I don’t know if I really trust his depictions of them, though.

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