Having read and loved several of Rafael Sabatini’s books in the past (I particularly recommend Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood), I decided to try this one next, mainly because I was intrigued by the title, The Historical Nights’ Entertainment. First published in 1917, this is a collection of thirteen stories each giving an account of a dramatic historical event. The stories are difficult to classify as they are not exactly fiction but not quite non-fiction either. This is how Sabatini himself describes the book in his preface:
In approaching “The Historical Nights’ Entertainment” I set myself the task of reconstructing, in the fullest possible detail and with all the colour available from surviving records, a group of more or less famous events. I would select for my purpose those which were in themselves bizarre and resulting from the interplay of human passions, and whilst relating each of these events in the form of a story, I would compel that story scrupulously to follow the actual, recorded facts without owing anything to fiction, and I would draw upon my imagination, if at all, merely as one might employ colour to fill in the outlines which history leaves grey, taking care that my colour should be as true to nature as possible.
It seems that some of these stories involve a lot more ‘filling in’ than others so, although the ones that I was already familiar with do seem to stick quite closely to the facts, I wouldn’t assume that the others are completely historically accurate. Each story is probably best approached as just a basic introduction to a fascinating episode from history and used as a starting point to explore the topic in more depth later.
So what are the stories about? I’ve mentioned that a few were already familiar to me, so I will talk about those first. Two of them – The Night of Holyrood and The Night of Kirk O’Field – are set in 16th century Scotland and deal with the murders of David Rizzio and Lord Darnley (Mary, Queen of Scots’ private secretary and alleged lover and her husband, respectively). Another, The Night of Betrayal, tells the story of Antonio Perez, Philip II of Spain and Ana, Princess of Eboli – a story of particular interest to me as I read Kate O’Brien’s That Lady, on the same subject, last year. This version is narrated by Perez, rather than concentrating on Ana’s side of the story as O’Brien’s book did, so gave me a different perspective on the same events.
The Night of Witchcraft and The Night of Gems cover, respectively, the 17th century French scandal known as The Affair of the Poisons and the fate of a diamond necklace thought to be one of the factors that discredited the French monarchy and led to the French Revolution. I have read about both of these before but, this time, these stories didn’t add much to my existing knowledge.
What else is there? Well, there’s a dramatic account of Casanova’s escape from the Piombi prison in Venice, a tale set during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and several more stories based on historical murder cases, including the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden at a masked ball and the death of the Duke of Gandia (also known as Giovanni Borgia). But my favourite was probably The Night of Nuptials, in which Sapphira Danvelt tries to obtain justice from Charles the Bold of Burgundy following the wrongful hanging of her husband. I loved the twist at the end of that one! Sabatini must have liked this story as well because he apparently returns to it in his 1929 novel The Romantic Prince, a book I haven’t yet read.
There are two more volumes in the Historical Nights’ Entertainment series but I’m not sure whether I’ll be reading them. Although most of the stories in this collection were interesting, there were only two or three that I really enjoyed; I will continue to read Sabatini’s longer novels, but the format of this particular book didn’t appeal to me as much.