The Tavern Knight
Rafael Sabatini was a great writer in his time. His mother was British, and he eventually took British citizenship and settled in Wales. It’s very sad that he’s not better known now. Swansea Public Library system had only a handful of his books among the dozens he published, and shockingly, his two biggest hits, Scaramouche and Captain Blood were not among them. What was among them, surprisingly, was The Tavern Knight, written in 1904. It is therefore one of his earliest works, and I believe I just finished reading a first edition.
Sabatini wrote historical adventures with a dash of romance. Looking at them as a whole I suppose you could call them formulaic novels, but at his best—the two titles mentioned above, set during the French Revolution and in Jamaica during the English Civil War, respectively—they transcend that genre. He’s usually a very funny writer and a keen observer of human behavior. His novels are great swashbucklers and usually nail-biters. The Tavern Knight shares many themes with his later works, though painted in broader strokes—illegitimacy, a brave and courageous man victimized by foul relatives or corrupt government officials, an ideal of a woman who must give up all to be with her hero, a rather contemptuous view of religion, no trust in nationalism as such, with the backdrop of history. The Tavern Knight isn’t as carefully researched as the above books or indeed his other famous work, The Sea Hawk; it almost feels like a fan fiction of the English Civil War (though a well-constructed run-in with Cromwell saves the reader entirely from that notion).
The Tavern Knight would be well-suited to drama, as its cast of core characters is comparatively small: Sir Crispin Galliard, the royalist rakehell of the title; the “milksop” Kenneth, who is his companion on the battlefield, in prison, and in flight; Hogan, the Irish turncoat; Cynthia Ashburn, Kenneth’s betrothed; and her father and uncle, the dastardly Gregory and Joseph Ashburn. (I’m highly amused since we have some Ashburns in my family tree.) Unfortunately the circumspection makes one plot twist visible from miles away. That said, with its opening reminiscent of The Sea Hawk, I didn’t at all see where this story was going. Despite his rough exterior, Crispin first of all helps the trapped Hogan to freedom, then barters his life to save his king, helps the rather useless Kenneth escape from Parliamentarian prison, and continues to be the main thrust of the action. As a young man he was cruelly used, his wife and child murdered, and was made a galley slave (as was the Sea Hawk). Yet he has moments during his bravado for one mental breakdown where he cries like a girl.
While the heroine of The Sea Hawk was a rather courageous virginal Cornish girl and her counterpart in Scaramouche a sharp-tongued Parisian, Cynthia by comparison is a bit bland. She childishly uses and abuses Kenneth before realizing that she’s not in love with him at all. She is, of course, in love with the romantic and much older Tavern Knight. Strange how we may bear a sentiment in our hearts without so much as suspecting its existence, until suddenly a chance word shall so urge it into life that it reveals itself with unmistakable distinctness. He has feelings for her, too, and the two are good at sparring (the one quality that saves Cynthia from being an annoying cardboard cut out in lace and silk). But duty and paternal love conspire to keep them apart until the very end. Sabatini’s heroes always end their adventures with their heroines at their sides—but the narrative stops there, and we have no idea how their happy-ever-afters will play out.
Finally, can you guess from this description who Crispin made me think of?
The ruffler shook back the matted hair from his lean, harsh face, and a pair of eyes that of a sudden seemed ablaze glared at his companion; then the lids drooped until those eyes became two narrow slits—cat-like and cunning—and again he laughed.
Yep. That afforded me much pleasure in reading it.