Catching up…three historical reads

I usually try to write about each book I read as soon as possible after finishing it, but sometimes that doesn’t happen and I find myself with a backlog of reviews to write for books read earlier in the year. Here are three historical novels that I read a few months ago and haven’t got around to writing about until now.

I was drawn to The Minion (1930) both because I’ve loved some of the other Rafael Sabatini books I’ve read and because it is a fictional account of the Thomas Overbury Scandal, a 17th century murder case I’ve previously read about in The Poison Bed by EC Fremantle and The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen. Set during the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland, the novel follows the story of Robert Carr, a young man who becomes a favourite of the king. The ambitious Earl of Northampton sees a chance to get closer to the throne by encouraging his great-niece, Frances Howard, to begin an affair with Carr, but the romance is opposed by Carr’s friend, Thomas Overbury. When Overbury is found dead in the Tower of London, suspicion falls on Carr and Frances.

As a fan of Sabatini, I have to confess I didn’t really like this particular book very much. Unlike the other novels of his I’ve read that have mainly fictional characters and storylines, this one is based very closely on real history and I think maybe he felt too constrained by historical fact to be able to create a compelling, entertaining story like his others. The characters seemed quite lifeless and the writing felt a bit dry – not really his usual style at all. Having said that, the history on which it is based is fascinating and Sabatini makes no secret of how he feels about the petty rivalries of the Jacobean court. It’s still an interesting read, if not a great example of Sabatini’s work.

If you want to know more about the Thomas Overbury affair, try the Fremantle novel instead – and if you’re new to Sabatini, start with Scaramouche!

Joanna Hickson has previously written several novels set during the Wars of the Roses, one of my favourite periods of English history. Her latest book, The Lady of the Ravens (2020), opens just after the final major battle in that conflict – the Battle of Bosworth, which resulted in Henry Tudor taking the throne as King Henry VII. This novel looks at the events of the early part of Henry’s reign from the perspective of Joan Vaux, lady-in-waiting to Henry’s queen, Elizabeth of York. We see how precarious Henry’s grip on the throne is, with challenges from various Yorkist pretenders, and the steps he takes to deal with these threats, and we are given some glimpses of his children, including Prince Arthur, his eldest son who is betrothed to Katherine of Aragon, and the future Henry VIII, seen here as a charming, confident young child, already popular with his father’s subjects.

Joan herself has very little, if any, direct involvement in the political intrigues of the court, which perhaps makes the story less exciting than it could have been, but she does form a strong bond with Elizabeth, bringing her close to the lives of the royal family. Joan’s own family life is also explored; I don’t know how historically accurate the book is regarding her personal relationships, but the fictional Joan appears to have been quite fortunate in her marriage to Sir Richard Guildford. It might not exactly be love at first sight, but she and Richard soon learn to get along with each other and, for an arranged marriage in the 15th century, it’s not an unhappy one. As for the ‘ravens’ of the title, they are the birds that live at the Tower of London; as legend has it, if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall, so Joan, who has become fascinated by the birds, does her best to protect them from those who wish to do them harm.

I didn’t find this quite as interesting as Joanna Hickson’s previous book, The Tudor Crown, maybe because that one was about Henry Tudor and took us straight to the heart of the action, whereas the choice of Joan as narrator of this book, as I’ve said, means a slower pace and a more domestic story. Still, I enjoyed it and was pleased to see that there’s going to be a sequel.

Having enjoyed some of Margaret Irwin’s other books, particularly the first two of her Elizabeth I trilogy (I must read the third one soon), I had high hopes for this one, about Charles II’s younger sister Henrietta – known as Minette. Royal Flush (1932) is a straightforward fictional retelling of Minette’s life, beginning with her exile in France as a child during the period of her father, Charles II’s, beheading and the rule of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. Growing up at the French court, it is at first hoped that Minette will marry the young king of France, Louis XIV, but when another bride is chosen for Louis, Minette finds herself married off to his younger brother Philippe instead.

I won’t say any more about the plot as you will either already be familiar with Minette’s history or, if not, you won’t want me to spoil it for you. However, if you’re completely new to her story, be aware that the book is quite slow and detailed and possibly not the best starting point (although this is the first novel I’ve read specifically about Minette, I’ve come across her many times as a secondary character in books like Dumas’ Louise de la Vallière and Margaret Campbell Barnes’ Lady on the Coin and I found it very useful to have that little bit of prior knowledge about her). I do like Margaret Irwin’s writing and the old-fashioned charm of her novels, which have quite a different feel from most of the historical fiction being published today, but I think this is the weakest of her books that I’ve read so far.

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Have you read any of these – or any other books by these authors?

The Historical Nights’ Entertainment by Rafael Sabatini

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.

Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini

I love Rafael Sabatini’s books. His classic tale of the French Revolution, Scaramouche, and his two famous pirate novels, Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk, have been some of my favourite reads of the last few years, while Bellarion was a great book too. I’m now beginning to explore his more obscure books and chose this one, Bardelys the Magnificent, more or less at random when I was putting my Classics Club list together. I hoped it would be a good choice – and it was!

The story is set in 17th century France, during the reign of Louis XIII, and is narrated by the wealthy Marquis de Bardelys, a ‘libertine, a gambler, a rake, a spendthrift’ and a favourite of the King. As the novel opens, Bardelys is hosting a party in Paris at which his rival, the Comte de Chatellerault, makes an unwelcome appearance. It is well known that Chatellerault has recently tried and failed to win the hand in marriage of the beautiful Roxalanne de Lavedan and as Bardelys and his friends tease the Comte about his failure, the discussion becomes more heated. Before the night is over, Bardelys finds himself wagering his entire fortune that he can succeed where Chatellerault could not – and he sets off the next day for Languedoc, the home of Roxalanne.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and following a series of misunderstandings, Bardelys arrives at the Lavedan estate under a mistaken identity. When he meets Roxalanne and discovers that he is genuinely falling in love with her, he knows that he should tell her the truth about who he really is, but as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to do this. To complicate things further, Bardelys learns that the man whose identity he has stolen is a wanted traitor. Our hero’s life quickly becomes such a confusing mess that it’s difficult to see how anything can ever be resolved! Will he lose his fortune, his life, or the love of Roxalanne – or will he somehow manage to keep all three?

Bardelys the Magnificent is one of Sabatini’s earliest novels, published in 1906, and although I did find it weaker than the others I’ve mentioned above, it’s another entertaining adventure with all the drama, romance, political intrigue and sword fights that you would expect. As a character, I found Marcel de Bardelys less memorable than other Sabatini protagonists such as Andre-Louis Moreau, Peter Blood and Oliver Tressilian, but he is still interesting and engaging. I referred to him as a hero above, but he is not particularly heroic at all – he is selfish and irresponsible, he makes one mistake after another, and his original reason for wanting to marry Roxalanne is hardly very admirable. Despite all of this, I still had some sympathy for him and wanted him to succeed – and, thankfully, he does also develop as a character as the novel progresses. While concealing his true identity, he finds out what people really think of him and sees himself as he appears to others.

Although I wouldn’t recommend Bardelys as the best place to start with Sabatini, if you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll enjoy this early example of his work as much as I did. I’m looking forward to exploring more of his lesser-known novels and hope my next choice will be another good one.

This is book 11/50 from my Classics Club list.

The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini

The Sea Hawk I love Rafael Sabatini! I can always count on him when I’m in the mood for a good old-fashioned adventure story (which is often) and The Sea-Hawk has it all: treachery, betrayal, revenge, duels, kidnapping and piracy on the high seas. It’s a similar story in some ways to his later pirate novel, Captain Blood, but I think I enjoyed this one slightly more.

Published in 1915, The Sea-Hawk is set in the sixteenth century during the reign of Elizabeth I. Our hero is Sir Oliver Tressilian, a gentleman and former sailor from Cornwall who has worked hard to restore his family’s reputation which had been tarnished by the behaviour of his late father. Sir Oliver is betrothed to the beautiful Rosamund Godolphin who returns his love despite the fact that her brother Peter hates the Tressilians due to a family feud. When Peter is killed in a duel the blame falls on Oliver – and while the reader knows that Oliver is innocent, Rosamund does not. Things quickly go from bad to worse for Oliver and he finds himself sold into slavery and sent to the Barbary Coast at the oars of a Spanish galley.

At home in England Rosamund continues to believe Oliver to be the murderer of her brother, while the real culprit stays quiet and benefits from Oliver’s absence by claiming his estates, as well as the woman he loves. Several months later, in Algiers, we meet a Muslim corsair known as Sakr-el-Bahr, or ‘hawk of the sea’. Sakr-el-Bahr’s pirating skills have won the admiration of Asad-ed-Din, the Basha of Algiers, who claims to love him as a son – but this has made him a target of the Basha’s Sicilian wife, the scheming Fenzileh, and her jealous son Marzak. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell you that Sakr-el-Bahr is, of course, Sir Oliver, who is preparing to return to Cornwall to take his revenge…

Having read three of Sabatini’s other novels, I’ve come to know what to expect from him – and The Sea-Hawk definitely lived up to my expectations. I’m finding that his books all follow a similar pattern (at least, the ones I’ve read do) in which the hero suffers a betrayal or injustice of some kind, undergoes a transformation and plots his revenge/attempts to clear his name, while being completely misunderstood and misjudged by his love interest. Sir Oliver is a great character; he’s not always easy to like, but considering everything he is forced to endure, it would be difficult not to want things to work out for him in the end. Rosamund is a frustrating heroine, though, being so quick to think the worst of Oliver – but to be fair, she doesn’t share the reader’s knowledge that he is innocent.

The setting is great too. I particularly loved the chapters set in Algiers, in which Sabatini immerses us in the culture, religion and history of the Barbary coast, with some vivid descriptions of the labyrinths of narrow streets, souks and slave markets, and the courtyards, archways and orchards of the Basha’s palace. The focus on the Barbary corsairs rather than the pirates of the Caribbean gives the book a different feel and a different atmosphere from Captain Blood – and I was pleased to find that there was plenty of land-based action as well as ship-based (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m not usually a big fan of books set at sea).

As I’ve now read the four novels which are probably Sabatini’s most popular – Scaramouche, Captain Blood, The Sea-Hawk and Bellarion – I would appreciate any recommendations as to which of his books to read next.

Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini

Bellarion This was the book chosen for me in the Classics Club Spin last November. I was supposed to post my review by the 4th January, but Christmas, other books and life in general got in the way of finishing it on time. Well, better late than never!

Rafael Sabatini is best known as the author of Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, but he also wrote more than thirty other books including this one, Bellarion – or Bellarion the Fortunate, to give it its original title. Bellarion was published in 1926 but, like most of Sabatini’s novels, it is set much earlier – in Renaissance Italy, in fact: a world of warring city states, tyrannical dukes and beautiful princesses, of powerful condottieri and bands of mercenary soldiers, of sieges and battles, poisonings and conspiracies.

Our hero, Bellarion, is an intelligent but naïve young man who has been raised in the monastery of Cigliano and believes that there is no such thing as sin. Shocked by his heretical ideas, the abbot sends him off to university in Pavia, hoping that he will learn something about the world while he is there. Almost as soon as Bellarion leaves the abbey, he becomes the victim of a bandit pretending to be a friar. With his money and letter of introduction stolen from him, and wrongly accused of being the bandit’s accomplice, Bellarion flees to the Palace of Casale in Montferrat where the Princess Valeria agrees to protect him.

Montferrat is currently under the rule of Valeria’s uncle Theodore, who is acting as Regent until her brother, Gian Giacomo, is old enough to take his rightful place as Marquis. When Bellarion uncovers a plot by Theodore to destroy his nephew and keep the throne for himself, he becomes entangled in a complex web of conspiracy and intrigue that will lead him to the Duchy of Milan and the court of its cruel and brutal young duke, Gian Maria Visconti.

Under the command of the famous condottiero (mercenary leader), Facino Cane, Bellarion quickly rises to become one of the greatest military captains of his time, finding that brains and quick wit can make up for a lack of physical ability and clever strategies and trickery can often work where strength and force fail. Even as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the affairs of Milan, Bellarion never forgets that everything he does is for the benefit of Montferrat and his beloved Princess Valeria. Unfortunately, Valeria has completely misinterpreted his motives and is convinced that Bellarion is her enemy rather than her friend. It seems that all his efforts could be in vain…

I loved this book, as I expected to, having enjoyed two of Sabatini’s others. Scaramouche is still my favourite, but I think I preferred this one to Captain Blood, mainly because I find stories set on land easier to read than stories set at sea! You do still need to concentrate, though, to be able to untangle the complicated political situations in Milan and Montferrat, to follow the rivalries between the two factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and to keep track of who is conspiring against whom. Also, because Bellarion is building a career for himself as a military leader, there are lots of battle scenes (large scale battles rather than the more intimate one-on-one sword fighting scenes in Scaramouche). If you’re like me and are often tempted to skip long battles and discussions of military strategies, you can’t do that here – you need to read them all carefully so that you can appreciate Bellarion’s genius!

I did have mixed feelings about Bellarion himself. There’s no doubt that he’s a fascinating character; his rapid transformation from a naive, unworldly young man to a great military commander and political mastermind is great to watch. At the beginning, with his mixture of youthful enthusiasm, innocence and intelligence, he reminded me of d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers; later, after rising from nowhere to become a trusted leader and master schemer, he reminded me not just of d’Artagnan but also Nicholas de Fleury from Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dunnett had read this book; there’s a scene with a captured supply train that made me think of The Game of Kings.)

However, there was something about Bellarion that stopped me from really warming to him as a character. I thought he was a little bit too clever and too aware of his own cleverness. You could say the same, I suppose, about Sabatini’s other heroes, Andre-Louis Moreau and Peter Blood, but they also had flaws and vulnerabilities that made them feel more human and more believable. I never felt that I really needed to fear for Bellarion; whatever difficult situation he got himself into I had no doubt that he would come out of it unscathed. I didn’t like Valeria much either – she annoyed me with her total misreading of Bellarion’s motives and the way she always thought the worst of him. To be fair to Valeria, though, she didn’t have the knowledge that we, the reader, had!

Bellarion is a fictional character, but many of the others in the novel are based on real historical figures. Characters such as Theodore of Montferrat, Facino Cane and his wife Beatrice, Gian Maria Visconti of Milan, and Bellarion’s rival condottiero, the Count of Carmagnola, are all people who really existed – although as I don’t know much about this particular period of history I wasn’t sure how much of the story was based on fact and how much on fiction until I did some research after finishing the book!

Despite not really caring for the main characters I did enjoy this book (another Classics Spin success!) and am looking forward to reading the other Sabatini novel on my Classics Club list, The Sea Hawk.

And the Classics Spin number is…

The Classics Club

Number 13

Last week I decided to take part in the Classics Club Spin. The rules were simple – list twenty books from your Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Monday) represents the book you have to read before 5th January 2015.

The number that has been selected this time is 13, which means the book I’ll be reading is:

Bellarion

Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini

Bellarion is a historical adventure novel published in 1926 and set in 15th century Italy. This is the synopsis:

Bellarion, a young man set on joining the priesthood, is diverted from his calling to serve the Princess Valeria. He remains with her for five years, serving her faithfully despite her cold response. Yet when the time comes for him to leave, they both find that the passion and romance of Italy has left its mark…

I loved the other two Sabatini novels I’ve read (Scaramouche and Captain Blood) so I couldn’t be happier with this result!

Did you take part in the spin? What will you be reading?

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Captain Blood

“Thief and pirate is what you heard Miss Bishop call me today – a thing of scorn, an outcast. And who made me that? Who made me thief and pirate?”

One of my favourite books of last year was Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini, a classic historical adventure novel set during the French Revolution. I loved it so much I immediately added two more of Sabatini’s books to my Classics Club list – Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk – though not without some reservations as these are both books about pirates and with my general dislike of books set on ships I thought the seafaring elements might be too much for me. I was wrong. Captain Blood is another wonderful book and I enjoyed it almost as much as Scaramouche!

Peter Blood, an Irish physician and former soldier, is arrested during the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 when he is discovered tending the wounds of an enemy of King James II. Wrongly found guilty of treason, he is lucky enough to avoid hanging but instead he is sent into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Here Blood meets two people who will have a huge influence on his future: Colonel Bishop, the cruel, brutal plantation owner and his beautiful niece, Arabella, with whom Blood falls in love. When the island is attacked by Spanish raiders, he seizes his chance to escape by commandeering one of their ships and after transforming himself into the notorious Captain Blood, our hero becomes a pirate both feared and respected throughout the Caribbean.

Sailing up and down the shores of Barbados, Jamaica and Tortuga, Captain Blood becomes involved in a series of exciting adventures and daring escapades, while being pursued by both Colonel Bishop and a Spanish rival, Don Esteban, who has sworn revenge – but what sets Blood apart from the other pirates he meets is his sense of honour and his dream of one day clearing his name and settling down to a peaceful life with Arabella. To the reader, it’s obvious that Peter Blood has become a pirate because he feels he has no choice – his only other option is to remain in slavery – but Arabella doesn’t understand this and when she tells him she can never love a “thief and pirate”, he must find a way to redeem himself in her eyes.

It amazes me that Rafael Sabatini’s books are not more widely read. As well as his great writing style, clever plots and vividly described characters, his novels also have well-researched and believable historical settings. While I was reading this book, I never questioned that I was in the Caribbean of the 17th century, just as when I read Scaramouche I was fully immersed in revolutionary France. And my fears that I might struggle with the pirate theme proved to be completely unfounded!

Sabatini keeps the sailing terminology to a level that even I could cope with and I found that even without understanding every nautical reference it didn’t affect my understanding of the story (which is what I also discovered when I read Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian earlier this year). Although there were a lot of sea battles, they weren’t too difficult to follow and in fact, not only could I follow them but I actually enjoyed them too, which is something I never thought I would say! I suspect that the descriptions of these battles were not completely realistic and in real life Blood would never have been able to overcome such great odds every time, but with my total lack of naval knowledge I’m happy to pretend that he could.

But Captain Blood is more than just a swashbuckling adventure story and even if it had only been half as exciting, I would still have loved it solely for the great characterisation of Peter Blood, a true romantic hero (in the old-fashioned sense of the term). Like Andre-Louis Moreau from Scaramouche, Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo or Francis Crawford from the Lymond Chronicles, Blood is one of those characters who can sometimes seem to be almost superhuman. He has an intelligence and wit superior to everyone else’s, he’s charismatic and quick thinking, multilingual, as talented a swordsman as he is a surgeon, and when it comes to buccaneering, he’s a brilliant leader and tactician. However difficult the situation he and his men might find themselves in, he never fails to come up with an imaginative and ingenious way to get out of it. But despite his perfection or perhaps because of it, things don’t always go smoothly for Captain Blood and like the other characters I’ve mentioned, he experiences a series of injustices and misfortunes that makes him a character we can sympathise with and believe in.

Captain Blood was published in 1922 and is available online as a free ebook, though the edition I read was the Vintage Classics paperback pictured here. I recommend giving it a try even if pirate stories don’t sound appealing to you, as it’s worth reading this one just to meet Peter Blood!