He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad – Rafael Sabatini
Scaramouche: a stock character in the Italian commedia dell’arte that burlesques the Spanish don and is characterized by boastfulness and cowardliness… from the Italian scaramuccia, skirmish – Meriam-Webster Dictionary
The character Scaramouche is a little skirmisher, not a hero. He starts things, but he does not necessarily stick around to finish them; he lets other people do that. Scaramouche is also wearing a mask; he is an actor playing a part that has been outlined for him. The actor must ad-lib his lines in commedia dell’arte, but the role is established and he cannot deviate from it.
Scaramouche was published in 1921 and was so successful they made a movie two years later with Ramon Novarro in the title role. It was Rafael Sabatini’s first successful novel, though he had written others before. He would go on to write many more, including Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. He has always been, for me, the quintessential writer of swashbucklers. But Scaramouche is considered his finest book and has always been my own favorite.
The story occurs just before and during the French Revolution and follows the adventures of André-Louis Moreau. He was born illegitimately and does not know his parents. His godfather, M. de Kercadiou, has raised him to be a lawyer. But when his friend is murdered in a duel by the Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr (who knew his friend could not fence) because his friend was proclaiming the rights of man and the injustice of the aristocracy, André-Louis is determined to avenge himself on the Marquis. He does not believe in his friend’s rhetoric – he is too cynical about the nature of man – but he can still give voice to his friends ideals and stir up the people against men like the Marquis.
Another reason for his hatred of him is that the Marquis is also seeking to wed André-Louis’s childhood friend, Aline, the niece of M. de Kercadiou.
But André-Louis’ political agitation gets him in political hot water and he has to flee, falling in with an acting troupe, where he finds what he believes is his most natural role, playing Scaramouche. But although temporarily distracted with acting and falling in love, he is soon reminded of his promise to speak for his dead friend and causes a small riot at the theater and must flee. This time he finds work at a fencing academy and becomes friends with the fencing master, learning to fence and eventually succeeding him to the business.
By this time the Revolution has begun in earnest and he no longer has to hide. In fact, he is now sought so that he can participate in the assembly in forming a constitution. But the aristocrats who form the First Estate on the assembly are challenging important assembly men from the Third Estate to duels, who accept out of a sense of honor. Inevitably, they are killed, until André-Louis begins to provoke the aristocrats into fighting him, instead. As a fencing master, he naturally wins and soon manages to achieve his dearest wish of provoking the Marquis into challenging him. At the end of the book, there are also several surprise revelations (almost like a mystery novel, important revelations and explanations all come in the last two chapters).
André-Louis is Sabatini’s most intriguing character from any of his novels. He is at turns a lawyer, revolutionary agitator, orator, friend, avenger, actor, fencing master, lover, politician, and evil genius (the words of the Marquis). And he does well in each role. But he also points out several times that his most natural role is that of Scaramouche; he always seems to be having to leave behind every role that he plays after he has started some form of trouble.
And like Scaramouche, he is always figuratively wearing a mask. He is very conscious of the affect he has on people and will deliberately say, do or behave a certain way to disguise his emotions or to achieve a certain goal. The result is that, through his sarcastic humor and flippant manner, he is always being asked by those who love him (and those who don’t) if he has no heart.
One of the most supreme ironies is that despite all his wit, his understanding of human nature and his abilities, he does not understand himself and is mistaken in his own motivations. He does not fully realize that he loves Aline, and that ends up clouding his understanding of her motivations. And he is even curiously blind about who his mother really is, though it seemed fairly obvious to me. It is as though his reason and pride in his sardonic detachment from an unreasonably emotional world blinds him and on several occasions he makes serious errors in attributing the wrong motivations to people.
He is almost like a male, swashbuckling version of Jane Austen’s Emma (and Austen and André-Louis do both appreciate irony); how Emma believes she understands everyone’s feelings, but does not know her own in regard to Mr. Knightley…though André-Louis does not try to arrange other people’s lives. He is much too busy throwing himself headlong into whatever pursuit he is currently pursuing.
It is a very engaging, exciting read. I’ve never gotten tired of it.