The Sea Hawk (1915): Rafael Sabatini


First things first: I hope you all had a marvellous Christmas and a very happy New Year. I’ve spent a thoroughly self-indulgent few weeks with my family and am now looking forward to getting my teeth into 2014. End of year review posts and New Year’s resolutions are popping up all over the place and it’s been great to see which books captured everyone’s imagination (or failed to), and the various challenges people have in store for the coming months. Here at The Idle Woman there aren’t any planned challenges, which is to say that life will tick along much as usual: a mixture of the characteristic and the utterly random. And so: to the books!

Let’s kick off the year as we mean to go on: with a rousing piratical adventure full of nobility, thwarted romance, plots, kidnapping and derring-do. The Sea Hawk is the second book I’ve read by Sabatini and it certainly lived up to all the expectations engendered by the dashing Scaramouche. Opening in 16th-century Cornwall, The Sea Hawk introduces us to Sir Oliver Tressilian, a gentleman and sometime sailor who has done his best to restore the dignity of a family name muddied by the poor reputation of his father. He dreams of marrying his beautiful neighbour Rosamund Godolphin (Sabatini has chosen some wonderful character names), who returns his interest despite the loathing felt for Oliver by her brother Peter and her guardian Sir John Killigrew. When Peter publicly insults Oliver, only to be murdered later that same evening, and when a trail of blood leads directly to Oliver’s door, the whole fragile construct of his life falls apart. Rosamund refuses to see him; his neighbours mutter darkly behind his back; and, even though Oliver knows only too well who the guilty party is – his feckless younger brother Lionel – he is too honourable to salvage his own reputation at the expense of his brother’s.

It’s a decision that will come back to haunt Oliver. As time passes, Lionel’s growing guilt and paranoia leads him to make a terrible decision. He is only safe because public opinion holds that Oliver is guilty of the murder. Oliver is the only one who can denounce Lionel by making public the truth; and so Oliver has to go. Money changes hands in dark Cornish inns; kidnappings are arranged; and before you can say ‘Pirates of Penzance’, Oliver is being carried off towards the Mediterranean in chains.

However, Sir Oliver Tressilian is a resourceful sort of fellow and within five years he has faced and survived the Spanish Inquisition, the galleys of the Most Christian King, and capture by a band of Barbary corsairs. Impressing them with his skill and strength, he coverts to Islam and joins their ranks as a seaman of wit and cunning, who earns the nickname Sakr-el-Bahr, ‘the hawk of the sea’. Loved as a son by the Basha of Algiers, feted and admired by his men and blessed with a gift for victory that can only come from Allah, Sakr-el-Bahr has made a new life for himself. But it is not without its dangers, or its memories. As the Basha’s chief wife schemes to bring down Sakr-el-Bahr and restore her son to his rightful place in his father’s affections, news reaches the corsair captain from Cornwall. Hearing that his brother Lionel now enjoys the incomes of his estates and is shortly to marry the fair Rosamund, Sakr-el-Bahr decides that the time has come to take his revenge and settle his debt once and for all.

If you had any doubts about this story’s swashbuckling pedigree, I hope it’ll suffice to say that it was adapted by Hollywood in 1940 with none other than Errol Flynn in the lead role. Enough said. (Needs to be seen, obviously.) In a way the book feels much more old-fashioned than it actually is: it was first published in 1915, but Sabatini writes in a consciously archaic style to suit his Elizabethan period and there is much use of ‘thee’, ‘thou’, ‘dost’ and so forth. It doesn’t always make for an easy read, but fortunately the panache of the action always shines through. To modern eyes it is slightly quaint and melodramatic and very much a Boys’ Own kind of thing. Women are either conniving Sicilian schemers or flawlessly virtuous English beauties, but never mind. Sabatini can tell a rollicking good tale; and the setting of the souks, palaces and harems of Algiers is full of exotic glamour. If you’ve read any of his other novels, you’ll surely have a good idea of what to expect; and indeed it has very much the same feel of The Prisoner of Zenda and all those other classic adventures. If you like those, you’ll certainly like this.

I think my next Sabatini, when I get round to it, will be Captain Blood. Helen spoke very warmly of it some months ago, and it’s since been recommended to me by someone else, so I might as well stick with the pirate theme. In the meantime, welcome back for the New Year and let’s see where 2014 takes us next…

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3 thoughts on “The Sea Hawk (1915): Rafael Sabatini

  1. Helen says:

    Happy New Year, Leander! I hope you discover lots of wonderful books in 2014. I can't wait to read this one – I thought it might be very similar to Captain Blood as they both have a pirate theme, but the plot actually sounds quite different. I'm looking forward to it!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you so much Helen! I've discovered many wonderful books thanks to you, of course (or at least had a little extra nudge to read them), so I'll be keeping a close eye on your blog and hope to find many more treats therein. Maybe we should get together and do a Sabatini challenge at some point – he seems to have written masses of novels about all sorts of different periods. I'm not sure how many have been published by Vintage, but it might be quite fun to tackle a few of the less familiar ones. Have a very happy New Year!

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