You like pirates? Adventure? The Wronged Man as heroic archetype? Heroes who read Horace? Look no further.
Meet Peter Blood, doctor, dandy, seaman, scholar, whose Irish brogue becomes more pronounced in times of excitement or when it suits him to be a papist. And meet Rafael Sabatini, the master of the swashbuckler. This story is one of the great works of the genre, a rich historical fiction. Sabatini blends exciting plotting with compelling characters, and delivers them wrapped in gorgeous, stylish prose that sweeps you along. There are heroes, yes, and villains too, as you’d expect, but the hero, while thoroughly decent, is by no means without flaw. He is a good man in a bad world, striving to do well, to do right, to cling to the “rags of honour” which remain; yet his tongue is sharp, his temper fearsome, and although he is repelled by them his thoughts are not always pure. It is only because he has had to struggle to keep his hands as clean as possible that he is so affected by being called thief, pirate and murderer, and yet he laughs at himself for his softness and decency, which he still cannot renounce, despite the misanthropy which at times seizes him. His self-doubt humanises him in a way the ever-confident hero of a simpler adventure story could never aspire to.
This is probably as long as a novel I read for this is going to get. There are limits to the speed at which I can read. I could, I think, talk about it all night. Sabatini, like Austen, has his own jabs at the nature of the medium. He pre-empts the criticism that his plot is relying on coincidence by arguing that only the small-minded would sneer at coincidence in fiction while failing to notice it in their own lives and history at large. He speaks wryly of Wolverstone’s natural ability as a historian – with the sort of imagination that “knows just how far it is safe to stray from the truth” – and demonstrates a keen understanding of the way in which stories change during transmission when he has Lord Julian report an event to which we have already been witness.
And, as I have said, his prose is enticing, splendid, evocative. Never mind such frequently-cited lines as “the executioners were kept busy with rope and chopper and cauldrons of pitch”. Try his characterisation of despairing anger:
It came to Mr Blood, as he trudged forward under the laden apple-trees on that fragrant, delicious July morning, that man – as he had long suspected – was the vilest work of God, and that only a fool would set himself up as the healer of a species that was best exterminated.
Of emotional façade:
His lips were twisted into a wry smile, and there was pain in the blue eyes that gleamed so vividly under his black brows, pain blending with the mockery of his voice. But of all this it was the mockery alone that was perceived.
And simply of glorious scene-setting:
The vessel was bearing down upon them, her mountains of snowy canvas bellying forward, the long pennon with the cross of St George fluttering from her maintruck in the morning breeze, the gilded portholes in her red hull, and the gilded beak-head aflash in the morning sun.
Captain Blood has it all. Adventure, romance, redemption. Its alternative title is Captain Blood: His Odyssey, and the choice of words is apt. Just like Odysseus, we root for Captain Blood. We revel in his victories, whether they are gained by strength, cunning, or bluff. We sympathise with him and we want nothing more than for him to find his way home. We hate those who work against him, and we love those who love him. And his ready wit, sardonic though it is, leavens a story which (with its Jean Valjean-like story of the innocent or at least decent man designated an incorrigible villain by society) might have tended to the portentous. “A man must sometimes laugh at himself or go mad,” Blood himself tells us. “Few realise this. That is why there are so many madmen in the world.”
Author Rafael Sabatini
Best character Peter Blood himself. I’d intended the “best character” element to be someone other than the star, but Blood is (to me, at least) just too compelling. “It is not human to be wise. It is much more human to err, though perhaps exceptional to err on the side of mercy.”
Best minor character This could have been so many people, but here goes: Henri d’Ogeron. Because showing open contempt for the murderer who has you in his power is of a piece with the triumph of decency over depravity which is Blood’s fundamental narrative.