One doesn’t have to love a novel’s protagonists in order to find the book interesting, informative and in other ways, worthwhile.
But if those protagonists are as vain, self-centered and undisciplined as Sieur Marcel de Saint-Pol, the Marquis of Bardelys, and his would-be love, Roxalanne de Lavedan, are in Rafael Sabatini’s Bardelys The Magnificent, the reading for most will be as tense and frustrating as it may be enjoyable.
The novel is set at the "height" of the French aristocracy under Louis XIII. In fact, the King himself is a key character in the action. The stimulus to the plot (one not nearly so adventurous as most created by Sabatini) is a wager between drunken, headstrong rivals. Chatellerault, recently rebuffed by the lovely Roxalanne, goads Marcel Bardelys into risking his entire fortune on the chance of winning Roxalanne as his bride. The dare is taken with confidence. After all, Marcel is hailed by all of France (including himself) as the absolute master of seduction. He is a handsome, accomplished and charming rogue with a somewhat scandalous reputation that only serves to increase his winsome powers.
But Marcel soon finds that he’s met his match in Roxalanne. Through a coincidence every bit as audacious as one that might have thought out by Dickens, Bardelys is taken into the Lavedan estate. But he is embraced for someone he is not. And there the problems begin to multiply.
Marcel's wooing of the maid under false pretenses turns tragic when he realizes he has finally fallen into the snares of love himself. Honor and duty require one course of him but his smitten heart argues for another. At this point the reader is still willing to suspend his disfavor of the aristocracy enough to be attracted to the two protagonists. But events alter (or, perhaps better to say, reveal) their characters. And before the novel closes, there will be a dramatic unveiling, an astoundingly mean act of jealousy, an unjust trial presided over by Marcel's cunning and vindictive enemy (a really nicely-painted bad guy), and more. But don't fret; these all lead to a relatively happy ending.
But again, the difficulty in evaluating the novel is those petty personalities who star as its heroes. I mean, mistakes and character flaws can be overlooked -- but being so disappointed in romance that you turn your would-be husband over to the executioner? Yipes! Or savagely beating a loyal servant nearly to death because he unwittingly got in the way of your plans? Yipes again! No, the protagonists never redeemed themselves in my eyes and, to tell the truth, by the end of the story I was rather pleased to have done with them.
Howver...a couple of hours after I had put the book down, I found my mind wandering back over several scenes and characters, haunted by a new question that I’ll admit I hadn’t entertained at all during the reading. It was this: Had Rafael Sabatini wanted this reaction from me all along? Had he created a suspenseful page-turner, one that showed the same creative genius of his many other works, but one carefully designed to elicit the reader’s disgust with the egotism, the hedonistic excesses and the moral shallowness of the aristocrats who lorded over France in the 17th Century?
If so, Sabatini certainly delineated them much more cleverly, more subtly than the stock characterizations used by most authors whose sympathies lay with the Revolution. It was a fascinating possibility. Was Sabatini trying to give his readers a more realistic appraisal of the nobility of that time – descriptions which did not at all hide their sins but which neither put on them devil’s horns?
Was even the title a clue; namely, that we were not to take at face value that Bardelys was in any way Magnificent, save in his own purse and his own estimations?
On pondering the novel these last couple of weeks, I rather think that’s exactly what Sabatini was suggesting. And that, as you might guess, has made a world of difference in my estimation of it. Instead of my dismissing Bardelys The Magnificent as one of Sabatini’s lesser works, I'm now more likely to regard it as one of his most inventive and profound.
To check myself, I'm planning on reading it a second time fairly soon, perhaps this winter. I'll see how it resonates then.
Now, I should emphasize that believing this particular theory will still not make Bardelys The Magnificent an entertaining read, I don’t think. Not like Dumas or Scott or even most other Sabatini. The enjoyment of this Sabatini, I think, will be more like to what you get when you read Shakespeare, Dostoevsky (no, not that dark) or Waugh.
But whatever else, Bardelys The Magnificent is a novel which, in addition to an eventful story, will give keen insights into culture, the human soul and an intriguing era in European history.
By the way, if you're the kind of person who likes cinematic versions of great novels, you might be interested in the silent film version directed by the esteemed King Vidor back in 1926. It starred John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman.
And the guard that shows up there in the background as a bit player? You're right. That's John Wayne.