Gerald Warner celebrates the unexpected appearance of one last ‘swashbuckling novel’, and mourns the loss of a genre that taught boys honour, courage and chivalry
‘Do you have the new novel by Alexandre Dumas?’ Who ever imagined going into the local branch of Waterstone’s and asking that question, in the 21st century? Yet the unexpected — the impossible — has happened and an authentically new historical novel by the legendary author of The Three Musketeers has recently been published for the first time in Britain. Its classically Dumas title in French, Le chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, has been changed for an Anglophone readership to The Last Cavalier.
An account of how the Master’s last novel was rediscovered by Claude Schopp, the leading Dumas scholar in France, is given by him in an appendix to The Last Cavalier which describes how the complete book was painstakingly reconstructed. It is the continuation of Dumas’s French Revolutionary novel The Companions of Jehu and completes his panoramic fictional account of French history by covering the Napoleonic period.
In the literary canon of the swashbuckling novel, nobody ever rivalled Dumas père. He brought history to life as never before or since. Behind the arras in every statesman’s cabinet lurked a listener; a party of horsemen cantering into an inn-yard at dusk betokened high adventure; no rapier rested long in its scabbard when there was a quarrel to be settled (the more trivial the better), a lady’s (frequently fragile) honour to be defended, or a service to be rendered the King of France (as distinct from his villainous ministers).
Although Dumas’s heroes took the aristocratic principle of noblesse oblige for granted, acting as unreflecting partisans of divine right kingship, the author was unfaithful to his own ethos. In 1830, when the ancient Bourbon monarchy that was the backdrop to his romances was brought down, Dumas played an unheroic role as a self-interested supporter of the usurper Duc d’Orléans, shortly transformed into the umbrella-wielding Citizen King Louis-Philippe. He later made an equally ineffective, grandstanding intervention against the Bourbons of the Two Sicilies during the Risorgimento. The musketeers would not have been impressed.
Yet such inconsistencies become inconsequential once the reader immerses himself in the world that Dumas conjured. It may be that schoolboys today negotiate adolescence unassisted by Dumas; if so, they are to be pitied. Anyone who has not galloped, heart in mouth, with the musketeers on the road to the convent of Béthune, in a desperate bid to save Constance Bonancieux from the vengeance of Milady, has omitted a crucial rite of passage. He who has never thrilled to the urgent command ‘To horse!’ is a potential health and safety officer.
Dumas owed his original inspiration to Sir Walter Scott. Even in his own lifetime he had a minor rival in Paul Féval, whose best-known novel Le Bossu (The Hunchback) has been filmed several times, most recently in 1997, with the very Dumas theme of a secret botte, or sword thrust, that is invincible. In the generation after Dumas, the sword-and-cape novel returned to the land of its birth and became primarily a British product.
Leading the charge was Stanley J. Weyman who, between 1890 and 1904, published 15 novels set in 16th- and 17th-century France, including such bestsellers as A Gentleman of France and Under the Red Robe. Other writers in this genre included A.E.W. Mason, in books such as Clementina and Königsmark, and the more Regency-based author Jeffrey Farnol.
The giant of the 1890s, however, was Anthony Hope Hawkins, although his swashbuckling output was only a small part of his oeuvre. Nonetheless, The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau became classics. The singularity of the Ruritanian romances was that the characters still rode horses and fought with swords in a world that also encompassed the railway and the telegraph. Their being rooted in modernity was part of their appeal to readers. There has been much misleading interpretation of these novels. They are not set in a ‘Balkan’ kingdom, but in a Mitteleuropean one: Dresden is the nearest real-life location to Ruritania. As for speculation about the origin of the kingdom’s name, it clearly derives from the Latin rus, ruris, meaning ‘country’.
Hope imbued his romances with excitement, humour, a fervent sense of chivalry and occasionally almost unbearable emotion. When Max Hastings, in a newspaper literary series, selected The Prisoner of Zenda as the most exciting book he had ever read (and reread), he confessed, ‘When I reach Rassendyll’s climactic line to Flavia: “God forgive me, madame! I am not the king”, I always sob a bit.’ Despite our supposedly stoic code of honour, that struck a guilty chord with many another Hope aficionado.
This masculine world was successfully invaded by Baroness Orczy who, between 1905 and 1940, published 11 novels and two books of short stories featuring Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, besides rendering a piece of doggerel (‘They seek him here...’) as immortal as the Iliad. The superficially foppish Sir Percy taunting his enemy Chauvelin (‘Sink me! Monsieur Chambertin...’) was an icon of aristocratic reaction. While most of the swashbuckling authors, despite the undemocratic instincts of their characters, were liberal in their opinions (both Mason and Hope were Liberal politicians), when Emmuska Orczy categorised the lower orders as ‘canaille’, one felt she meant it. Her parents had fled Hungary in fear of a peasants’ revolt.
After the first world war the swashbuckling novel enjoyed a renaissance due to the exceptional talent of Rafael Sabatini — his name even sounded like the clash of sword blades. His achievement was the more remarkable in that English was his sixth language, but his vehicle of choice because ‘all the best stories are written in English’. His two masterpieces were published in successive years: Scaramouche in 1921 and Captain Blood, described by George MacDonald Fraser as ‘one of the great unrecognised novels of the 20th century, and as close as any modern writer has come to a prose epic’, in 1922.
The literary distinction of Scaramouche was signalled by its arresting opening sentence: ‘He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.’ It is the epitaph on Sabatini’s gravestone. MacDonald Fraser himself made no mean contribution to the swashbuckling genre, albeit with the cynical antihero Harry Flashman. Perhaps that was the only guise in which sabre-rattling antics could find acceptance in the post-1960s world.
Today the sword-and-cape novel has again gone offshore: its leading exponent is the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, creator of the Captain Alatriste series. Though well researched and atmospheric, the novels are disfigured by a self-conscious disowning of the attitudes of the 17th century in which they are set. Dumas would never have made such a mistake: he lived fully in whatever period he was chronicling.
Novels of the swashbuckling school provided an effortless education in manners and morals, ornamented with plumed hats, cup-hilted rapiers and heaving bosoms. Boys who had, in spirit, scaled ivy-clad walls with a sword clenched between their teeth, swum the moat of the castle of Zenda, stormed aboard a pirate galleon, or galloped to safety with a rescued heroine perched precariously on their saddle needed no further schooling in honour, courage and respect for women. These are not values inculcated by modern computer games. It may not make much difference, but the return of Alexandre Dumas to take one last bow is as welcome as it is unexpected.