Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley. the Last of the Swashbucklers: A Bio-Bibliography of Rafael Sabatini

By Donnelly, Judy | Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley. the Last of the Swashbucklers: A Bio-Bibliography of Rafael Sabatini


Donnelly, Judy, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada


Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley. The Last of the Swashbucklers: A Bio-Bibliography of Rafael Sabatini. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2010. 150 pp.; US $65.00 ISBN 9781584562795

   At Riverside [Press], eleven of his books, old and new, were on
   the press at the same time ... there was a rush for movie rights.
   The bidding for 'Scaramouche' became furious ... Nor did
   'Scaramouche' stop with the movies. It has been ably produced
   on the stage ... Even the opera rights have been sold.

This quotation from Houghton Mifflin publicist Esther Forbes in 1921 attests to the immense popularity of an author who has today been largely forgotten. Yet during his lifetime, Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) wrote and published forty-seven books - mostly romantic historical adventure novels.

Sabatini's life had its own exotic chapters. His English mother and Italian father were opera singers, and he spent his youth in Italy, England, Portugal, and Switzerland, easily adopting the languages of these countries and reading voraciously along the way. At seventeen, he settled in the busy port city of Liverpool and lived primarily in England for the rest of his life. He worked in the Intelligence section of the British War Office during World War I, became an editor and translator at Martin Secker, married twice, lost both his son and stepson in tragic accidents, restored his finances after being embezzled by an American accountant, and enjoyed his two nonliterary passions, fishing in England, and skiing in Switzerland, until the final weeks of his life.

While in his twenties, Sabatini began to write stories. Without much effort it seems, he had them published in leading magazines of the day, which led to a contract from C. Arthur Pearson Ltd. to write a novel. The Lovers of Yvonne was published in 1902, and its positive reception paved the way for Sabatini to become one of the most successful novelists of the 1920s and 1930s, penning, "in florid style and with an enormous vocabulary" as Knight puts it, such classics as the aforementioned Scaramouche: A Romance of the French Revolution (1921), which launched his international career, Captain Blood: His Odyssey (1922), and Venetian Masque (1934), along with biographical works: The Life of Cesare Borgia (1911) and Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition (1913) as well as plays, articles, and translations. His primary publishers were Hutchinson in the UK, and Houghton Mifflin in the United States.

His considerable life's work is ably chronicled in The Last of the Great Swashbucklers: A Bio-Bibliography of Rafael Sabatini. This book does not claim to be a scholarly endeavour. It was compiled by two Sabatini enthusiasts with great respect for his achievements and a desire to assist collectors of the novelist's works. Biographer Jesse F. Knight was a freelance writer described as "the foremost expert on the life and works" of Sabatini, and co-founder of the Rafael Sabatini Society. Sadly he died in 2008 prior to the the book's publication. Bibliographer Stephen Darley is a retired businessman with a law degree and obvious passion and skill for tracking down Sabatini's many publications. Bibliographical entries compose the majority of the book, with Knight's biography of Sabatini appearing on the first thirty pages.

The biography is well-researched and makes for fascinating reading. It would have benefited from light editing to smooth awkward sentences and eliminate repetition. (The word "fanaticism" appears five times in five sequential sentences on p. 4, and, on p. 18, after three paragraphs describing in detail Sabatini's skills as a fisherman and skier, we are told: "He was an expert at both fishing and skiing.") But there is no denying the care that was taken to record important chapters in the author's life and it is obvious that Knight found great delight in researching and writing this biography.

This biography was prepared "to provide Sabatini collectors with a one volume listing of his US and UK first editions. …

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