29 April 2019

Rafael Sabatini – writer

Rafael Sabatini had been writing for 25 years before enjoying real success
Rafael Sabatini had been writing for 25
years before enjoying real success

Author of swashbucklers had the ‘gift of laughter’


Rafael Sabatini, who wrote successful adventure novels that were later made into plays and films, was born on this day in 1875 in Iesi, a small town in the province of Ancona in Le Marche.

Sabatini was the author of the international best sellers, Scaramouche and Captain Blood, and afterwards became respected as a great writer of swashbucklers with a prolific output.

He was the son of an English mother, Anna Trafford, and an Italian father, Vincenzo Sabatini, who were both opera singers.

At a young age he was exposed to different languages because he spent time with his grandfather in England and also attended school in both Portugal and Switzerland, while his parents were on tour.

By the time Sabatini went to live in England permanently, at the age of 17, he was already proficient in several languages. Although his first attempts at writing were in French when he was at school in Switzerland, he is said to have consciously chosen to write in English, saying at the time that all the best stories had been written in English.

A 1923 poster for a a silent movie version of Sabatini's  breakthrough novel Scaramouche
A 1923 poster for a a silent movie version of Sabatini's
breakthrough novel Scaramouche
Sabatini wrote short stories in the 1890s, some of which were published in English magazines. His first novel was published in 1902, after he began writing romances, saying it was more fun to write them than to read them.

During the First World War he worked for British Intelligence as a translator, while continuing to write.

It took him about 25 years of hard work before his novel, Scaramouche, became a big success in 1921.

The novel was an historical romance set during the French Revolution, featuring a young lawyer who becomes a revolutionary politician and hides out in a commedia dell’arte troupe, where he plays the character of Scaramouche, a roguish buffoon.

Scaramouche became an international best seller and was immediately followed by Captain Blood, which did even better.

The cover of a 1922 edition of another Sabatini bestseller, Captain Blood
The cover of a 1922 edition of another
Sabatini bestseller, Captain Blood
Sabatini’s earlier books were all rushed into reprints, including The Sea Hawk, which was originally written in 1915, but became a success much later. Sabatini continued to maintain a prolific output, producing a novel a year as well as his other writing.

In total, Sabatini produced 34 novels, eight volumes of short stories, six non-fiction books, several plays and numerous, individual short stories.

His books were made into plays and films during the silent era and some were remade in the sound era, although only some of the reels have survived intact.

Sabatini married Ruth Goad Dixon, the daughter of a Liverpool merchant, in 1905. Their only child, Rafael-Angelo, nicknamed Binkie, was killed in a car crash in 1927. In 1931, Sabatini and his wife divorced.

In 1935 he married the sculptor, Christine Wood. They suffered further tragedy when Christine’s son, Lancelot Dixon, was killed in a flying accident on the day he got his wings in the RAF. He flew over Sabatini’s house at Hay-on-Wye to celebrate and, watched by his proud mother and Sabatini, lost control of the plane, crashing it in flames in a nearby field.

Sabatini died in Switzerland in 1950 and was buried in Adelboden, a place where he had loved to go skiing. His wife had the first line of Scaramouche inscribed on his headstone: ‘He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.’

Iesi has massive 14th century walls that reflect its history as a former stronghold of the Sforza family
Iesi has massive 14th century walls that reflect its history
as a former stronghold of the Sforza family
Travel tip:

Rafael Sabatini was born in Iesi, also sometimes spelt Jesi, in the province of Ancona in Le Marche. Iesi was the main stronghold of the Sforza family in Le Marche until it was bought from them in 1447 by the Papal States. It was also part of the territory Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, carved out of central Italy for himself during his brief career. Sabatini wrote several books about Cesare Borgia and his exploits when he was ruling that part of Italy. Iesi still has the massive 14th century walls that were built following the line of the Roman walls and six of the original towers are still standing today.

Hotels in Iesi by Hotels.com

The port city of Ancona is the capoluogo of the  Marche region on the Adriatic coast
The port city of Ancona is the capoluogo of the
Marche region on the Adriatic coast
Travel tip:

Le Marche, known in English as the Marches, is a region of central Italy that forms a narrow strip along the Adriatic coast. It is bordered by Emilia-Romagna and the republic of San Marino to the north, Tuscany to the west, Umbria to the southwest and Abruzzo and Lazio to the south. A railway from Bologna to Brindisi runs through the region along the coast. Ancona is the capoluogo, or main city, of the region.

More reading:

How Emilio Salgari's characters became part of Italian culture

A writer whose stories inspired classic Italian films

Why Alessandro Manzoni is Italy's most famous novelist

Also on this day:

1675: The birth of painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini

1945: The liberation of Fornovo di Taro by Brazilian soldiers

1987: The birth of tennis champion Sara Errani


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