It feels like I’m on a run now of fun, well written, enjoyable reads. I kind of want to disregard my reading list for the rest of the year and just pick pleasure reads off my shelf, but then I’ll never get anything read that I need to get read and besides, it’s non-fiction again next so I’ll have to wait for my next fun novel anyway.
spoilers (and I do mean spoilers this time) below
Originally published in 1921, Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini is a historical fiction set in the early years of the French Revolution about a young lawyer, Andre-Louis Moreau who, after witnessing his best friend unjustly killed in a duel, goes on a roundabout, almost coincidental revenge trip to see to it that the words for which his friend was killed are never silenced. Cynical and pragmatic, Andre-Louis wears the guise of political radical, fugitive, rogue and sword master before finally facing the ultimate crisis of identity, which reaffirms the famous opening lines of the book:
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
From the very first page I was in love with Scaramouche and Andre-Louis who is the wonderful anti-hero I love in fiction. He is not a man with grand ideas about humanity. When speaking with his friend Philippe de Vilmorin over the injustices of the ruling class, and the necessity of a transfer of power, Andre-Louis argues that it is not enough to change who it is who rules, that one must change the heart and nature of mankind to bring about true equality and justice. Neither is this view changed after Philippe is killed by the Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr in an unfair duel the marquis goaded Philippe into accepting.
Unable to find justice for his friend in either his godfather, Quintin de Kercadiou, Lord of Gavrillac or with the King’s Lieutenant, Andre-Louis takes it upon himself to instead pick up his fallen friend’s ideals and stir the people into rebellion, to see that de la Tour d’Azyr is brought to ruin, one way or another. To complicate matters, de Kercadiou’s niece Aline –one whom Andre-Louis regards as a sister– at this same time toys with the idea of marrying de la Tour d’Azyr, which only infuriates Andre-Louis further.
Taking on the mantle of the radical idealist, Andre-Louis stirs the people in both Rennes and Nantes until the nobility calls his blood with such fervor that he is forced to flee to save his own neck. Without funds or allies, he takes shelter in a barn where he by chance meets with a group of traveling improvisers led by one M. Binet who is convinced to let Andre-Louis travel with them as a laborer. Fate, however, thrusts him into the role of a player when the troupe’s scaramouche (the roguish clown character of the Italian commedia dell’arte that the troupe bases itself on) makes off with the sales of a night’s performance, prompting M. Binet to blackmail Andre-Louis into assuming the vacant position.
It isn’t long before Andre-Louis discovers he has a great talent for acting, and that the role of scaramouche suits his personality quite well. He grows to love his new position, and despite the protests of M. Binet, begins writing scenes for the players and making management decisions that propel the troupe to wild success. M. Binet, however, does not take the usurping of his position well, regardless of the fame and fortune he is accruing. When Andre-Louis pushes to instate himself as a full partner in the company, M. Binet’s once affection for Andre-Louis slides quickly, with the final nail in the coffin being when his daughter Climene agrees to marry Andre-Louis against her father’s wishes.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending one whose viewpoint you look from) this does not come to pass. In a great misunderstanding between Andre-Louis and Climene over his great or humble beginnings, she begins to snub him at any chance she can get, and when de la Tour d’Azyr shows a passing interest in her, she flings herself at him in a way that incites Andre-Louis’ anger and loathing against both of them.
Once again he uses his skill as an orator to throw the people into a rage, this time directed at de la Tour d’Azyr who nightly watches their performances. In the ensuing riot, Andre-Louis shoots M. Binet and makes his escape once more into penniless uncertainty.
Book three takes up the story again with Andre-Louis desperately in search of employment. He comes upon an advertisement for a fencing instructor at a school in the country. While not a fencing instructor, he knows enough to make due, and with his natural, likeable personality, he is quickly hired on by M. des Amis, the master of the school. There, Andre-Louis spends every day training under the sword, both with the master and with the students. By studying the books in des Amis’ library, he is able to create his own techniques with great success and is even able to out match des Amis.
Life, however, is not out of radical turns for Andre-Louis, and as the fires of the revolution burn ever higher, des Amis is killed by the same nobility that he sought to protect, leaving the school in Andre-Louis’ care. Upset by the death of his friend and master, he dutifully continues with the school, making his fortune this way until he is approached by Le Chapelier to bring an end to the nobility assassinating members of the assembly in the petty duels that they instigate. Despite being stirred by the similarity of the situation to the way Philippe died, Andre-Louis at first refuses – until he learns that the chief instigator is none other than de la Tour d’Azyr.
Agreeing at once to be provoked into a duel by these ‘bully swordsmen’ Andre-Louis assumes a position in the assembly, and uses the same tactics on the nobility that they have been using on the assembly. The first to issue his challenge is M. de Chabrillane, d’Azyr’s cousin and the man who first insulted Philippe to the point of accepting that fateful duel. While not the man Andre-Louis specifically desires to kill, he does so nonetheless with satisfaction. Throughout the rest of the week Andre-Louis is challenged by, and disposes of, noble duelists, much to the delight of his political allies, until finally de la Tour d’Azyr issues a challenge himself.
Though by now estranged from his godson as a result of Andre-Louis’ radical political activity, de Kercadiou and Aline are both distraught with worry over his fate as d’Azyr is purported to be the deadliest sword in all of Brittany. Aline enlists the help of Madame de Plougastel, cousin of de Kercadiou and one who has always had an interest in Andre-Louis. They arrive too late to prevent the duel, however Andre-Louis was victorious in so much as he defeated d’Azyr, but missed the killing stroke, allowing the nobleman to escape.
Events of the revolution now speed up and we are taken to Paris where Aline and Madame de Plougastel are advised to flee if they value their safety. Unfortunately, de Plougastel, whose husband is a known spy for the king is denied exit and the two are forced to return to de Plougastel’s home. Andre-Louis, coming to hear of this through his own political connections, offers his aid to de Kercadiou who, while still being none too pleased too see him, accepts Andre-Louis’ contrition over the failing of their relationship and agrees to Andre-Louis’ help in securing Aline’s safety. However, he also begs that Madame de Plaugastel be included in the escape plan. This, at first Andre-Louis will not do, saying it would put his political career in jeopardy to free a near stranger in light of her husband’s connections. De Kercadiou continues to plead until at last he lets it be known that de Plaugastel is in fact Andre-Louis’ mother and that it is his duty as a son to see to her safety. This puts him in an uncomfortable position, but he at last sees the justice in his godfather’s argument and agrees to secure safe passage for both Aline and his mother.
Going himself with three passports (one for de Plougastel’s footman) he arrives with both the good news of their safe passage and the shocking news that he now knows half his parentage. After a great, tearful scene of reunion and absolution Andre-Louis suggests that they ready themselves to leave. Unbeknownst to him, however, d’Azyr has also arrived at the Hotel Plougastel earlier that day, begging for sanctuary against the mob that has been clawing through the streets of Paris. At once Aline and de Plougastel contrive to disguise d’Azyr in plain clothes to pass him off as the footman and secure his passage as well. However, d’Azyr –gentleman asshole that he is—at the last minute removes his disguise, with the proclamation that it goes against his honor to deceive Andre-Louis, knowing of the bad blood between them.
Angered, Andre-Louis draws a pistol on d’Azyr for their final showdown. However, de Plougastel, hysterical by this point begs Andre-Louis not to shoot, and in a reveal too hot for Maury, cries out that d’Azyr is his father.
This of course puts everyone in the room who isn’t an adulteress in a state of paralyzed shock. Andre-Louis and d’Azyr have a brief moment of conversation in which d’Azyr defends himself and his actions in such a way that Andre-Louis is once again put at odds with his ideals. In the end, he agrees not to shoot d’Azyr dead, but refuses to aid him. D’Azyr tacitly says that he is proud of Andre-Louis and disappears into the night.
The book more or less ends here with another chapter of epilogue between Andre-Louis and Aline. It is beautifully written, witty and cynical and while the ending denies me again the satisfaction of seeing revenge successfully acted out (I’m looking at you, Count of Monte Cristo) it nonetheless concludes neatly and completely. The female characters are strong and act in their own, independent capacity, and while their decisions aren’t always the wisest, they are always their own. The book pops back and forth between the story of Andre-Louis and the history of the French Revolution which at times left me wanting for one or the other. I was a little disappointed also that, after the final fallout with M. Binet and Climene, neither are heard from again in the story.
Scaramouche along with The Scarlet Pimpernel has left me with a deep desire to read more historical fiction set within the French Revolution. If I haven’t completely ruined Scaramouche for you with this lengthy summary, I fully recommend giving it a read. In fact, go read it anyway. You won’t regret it.