I have a small handful of Sabatini's books re-printed by House of Stratus and bought about 20 years ago. I remember enjoying them in all their old glory back then, and have wondered since how I'd feel about them now. By chance I had 'The Fortunes of Captain Blood' published in 1936 on my shelf, I'm fairly sure unread until now. It's not very long and it seemed like a great book to compare to Georgette Heyer's The Talisman Ring.
I'd read somewhere that Heyer was a Sabatini fan - which I can well believe, and curiously despite being a good generation older, and writing for several years beforehand, his breakthrough success 'Scaramouche' was published in 1921, the same year as Heyer's 'The Black Moth'. Both writers were prolific throughout their lives, both are writing historical adventures with an element of romance - although the emphasis is different.
'The Fortunes of Captain Blood' is the last of a trio of books featuring Peter Blood, Irish surgeon accidentally caught up in the Monmouth rebellion - which places the action sometime right at the end of the 17th century, sent to the Caribbean as a slave, and now exceptionally successful buccaneer/pirate. Sworn enemy of the Spanish, snappy dresser (trade mark outfit - black satin, silver lace, periwig, hat with a scarlet plume - which I can only imagine would have been very sweaty in the Caribbean heat), chivalrous in the face of feminine distress, and endlessly inventive. There are six episodes in this book which are loosely linked but more or less stand alone.
The first four stories were reasonably fun. There are loving descriptions of various outfits - a lot of men swaggering around in purple taffeta or satin - or half naked, even more loving descriptions of gunnery strategy and boat maneuvers, plenty of adventure and a little bit of humour. The descriptions of slavery felt odd to read now, especially as they came without much commentary but as observations of a system there was nothing more offensive than you might reasonably expect to come across if you read books of this vintage.
That changed in chapter five in which Blood encounters an angry Yorkshire man. He's a slaver who has been cheated out of his cargo of people by the Spanish in Havana. Captain Blood vows to avenge him by getting both the value of the slaves back for him, and then something extra in the way of compensation. There's a hefty chunk of anti Semitism thrown into the mix as well. I feel it would have been a questionable line to take in 1836, for 1936 it's more than shocking. Why a reader should be expected to feel sympathy for a slaver is absolutely beyond me, why he ought to be avenged even further beyond me. There's nothing casual about the prejudice here and to be honest I see no reason why the chapter couldn't have been cut from the collection by 2001.
It's certainly changed my view of Sabatini who I had been mostly enjoying up to this point but now feel more than disappointed in. I'm glad to have read the book, it was genuinely interesting to compare to Heyer, but I won't be keeping it and I'm not recommending it.