I’ve spent the early part of the summer re-reading the old adventure novels I loved as a boy. I began with Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini–a novel set during the French Revolution, with one of the best opening lines ever written: He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. Sabatini loved that line so much he used it as his epitaph. He wrote a sequel, Scaramouche the Kingmaker, a decade later–though whether he wrote it because he liked the character or because he needed the cash, I’ve no idea. In any event, it’s a novel that probably should have remained unwritten.
I also read The Prisoner of Zenda, written by Anthony Hope in 1894. It’s an impossibly romantic story, and I mean ‘romantic’ in the old sense of the term. The novel has the most wonderful sociopathic villain, with a perfectly villainous name: Rupert of Hentzau. It also inspired an entire (and, sadly, cheesy) sub-genre of adventure novels in which dissolute or unfortunate members of royalty are temporarily replaced by doppelgangers who manage to save the kingdom. As with Sabatini, Hope wrote a sequel–this one entitled Rupert of Hentzau, featuring that same charming sociopath. The sequel was less successful, though not as painfully bad as Sabatini’s.
Now I’m reading The Four Feathers, the 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason about a young man raised in a British military family who is labeled a coward (the accusation of cowardice is accompanied by a white feather). It takes place in the Sudan during the early 1880s, when the forces of the Mahdi took on the British Empire–one of the first modern clashes between imperialism and religious fanaticism. The protagonist proves his courage by secretly traveling to the Sudan (in disguise, of course–romantic fictional heroes always travel in disguise) and over the course of six years, rescuing his accusers and returning to each of them the white feather. Happily, Mason didn’t write a sequel.