Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rafael Sabatini and the House of Stratus

I discovered House of Stratus publishers about seven years ago, attracted by the really poor cover design I picked up a Dornford Yates, found the back blurb intriguing and became hooked. After that I kept an eye out for House of Stratus who kindly pointed me in the direction of Edger Wallace, and from there to a whole host of other classic crime writers.

When I’m browsing in larger bookshops it’s my habit to look for publishers rather than authors, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a slightly lazy approach, but it seems to work in terms of turning up interesting bits and bobs and so it was with Sabatini. The covers were as unappealing as anything else from Stratus, but apparently that’s no way to judge a book. I have a soft spot for swash buckling adventures and for a long time was reliant on Georgette Heyer to provide them in easily digestible form for me. For some reason I find it hard to turn up books from this particular genre (any suggestions will be gratefully received) so the how could I resist this introduction:

“Italian-born Rafael Sabatini ranks among the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Alexandre Dumas for his tales of high adventure, swashbuckling antics and valiant heroes. He is perhaps best loved for his books, ‘Scaramouche’, ’Captain Blood’ and ‘The Sea Hawk’...”

Could it be possible to imagine better Sunday afternoon reading? Well I thought not anyway and can promise I wasn’t disappointed. House of Stratus is an odd concern, I’m never quite sure if they’re still in business or not, (although it looks like they are at the moment). I notice that a lot of their list seems to have been appropriated by other publishers; lush facsimile copies of Edger Wallace now abound, and Vintage seems to have taken over Sabatini. If Stratus has gone I’m sorry for it, they had a delightful quirky list equal parts nostalgia, classic and pulp which provided me with many hours reading pleasure.

Sabatini was writing from the 1890’s to the 1940’s and his attitudes reflect his times. I find it hard to read modern historical fiction after contemporary classics, current re-creations generally feel a little off to me, because of this I tend to avoid them, but old historic fiction is another matter altogether – Heyer, Orczy, Sabatini – all delight me. I think it has to be because their books are old enough now to bridge the gap between the present and the past they attempt to conjure.

I read Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ once, it’s a terrific story but I found it very heavy going and so I find it with a lot of 18th century fiction, however hard I try with it. 19th century writing on the other hand is far more accessible to me, 20 pages or so seems to be all it takes to get in the right frame of mind and find an ear for the dialogue. The details of Sabatini’s 17th century may not bear close scrutiny but the combination of pace, old fashioned manners and even old fashioned prejudice make it easy enough to suspend disbelief and enjoy a cracking good yarn.

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