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I chose to read this novel because it settled into the same timeframe of my last literary adventure, Lorna Doone: the rebel uprising of Duke Monmouth that was defeated at Sedgemoor in 1685. This is the selfsame playing field where Peter Blood, a non-participant and physician, is sentenced to ten years of indentured slavehood in the New World sugar cane sweatshops for some EMT work on a defeated rebel blueblood. I was also decidedly set not to romp into another 19th Century romance—1922 was close enough to that quest—and was looking to read an “actioneer” for contrast.
It seemed like kismet. Here was Captain Blood, Sabatini's follow-up after his career-maker, Scaramouch, of 1921. And, as Hollywood is never far behind a good read, its homage was directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, King Creole, etc.) in 1935 with a Flynn-de Havillend-Rathbone acting team for “the most magnificent & thrilling sea adventure ever filmed” (original print ad).
Imagine my bewilderment when I discovered I was reading another Romance.
Normally, I'd fire the bilge pump on something like this, but Sabatini's prose was serviceable enough “to drive the iron of impotent rage deeper into [my] soul”(P.F. Collier, 1924 edition, p.109). Besides, Peter Blood was rapidly becoming an un-characteristic protagonist for this genre's era. He was arrogant, impudent, brutally sarcastic, and cynical to the point of nihilism. True, Blood held his code of conduct to the highest standards, which, of course, put him in conflict with his buccaneer buddies. It was to Sabatini's credit to make a pirate into a swashbuckler. More importantly, it reversed the wagging finger of blame and supported the notion of governance as villainy. But as the novel wore on, his over-performed gentleman etiquette—whether it be table manners or giving quarter to his enemies—seemed more a ruse to parade his common-man superiority and overall distain for noble blood. Although certainly competent in the manly art of killing, his foppish yet stylish clothing indicated his sharpest weapon was really that brilliant and strategic intelligence.
Now when Blood comes under the tyranny of Col. Bishop in Barbados—“a tall, corpulent man . . . with malevolence plainly written on his enormous yellowish countenance”(p.40)—he also comes under the petticoat spell of the Colonel's niece, Arabella. In many ways, she is Blood in a dress. Haughty, feisty, and quick to temper, the best swordfights in this novel are the verbal ones between them. Then, due to "a timely interruption"(p.90), Blood escapes the slave plantation, renames the boat he's seized the Arabella, and becomes Captain Blood the Honorable Pirate for the duration.
Hardly any page time is devoted to the mechanics of sailing these three-masted behemoths. After all, this is not Hornblower or Master and Commander. A cursory run at the politics of the times is necessary for the antagonisms of English, French, and Spanish ambitions.
But what puts this work into Davey's Locker is Peter Blood's complete obsession with Arabella. Considering their relationship progresses mainly in Peter's mind with very little face time, there are trappings of Courtly Love here, but, hey, that's medieval, and shouldn't crowd the Victorian-esque pedestal she's already posing on, with all the stuffy social decorum in their brief meetings, the inequalities of their societal positions, the ensuing brain fog of jealousy and pride, plus the scheming machinations of others to keep them distant. The ruination, however, is that every single decision Captain Blood makes is in some way based on how he thinks Arabella will feel about his actions. Petulant, he fusses over her “thief and pirate”(p.229) labeling of him. He goes out and sinks some Spanish ships, he raids and pillages Maracaibo, he joins the French team to sack Cartagena—hell, he even accepts an English commission to go straight and respectable—all with thoughts of Arabella's possible assessment. Now, it's not all pining because she also represents as a lighthouse of virtue and serves as his moral paragon, but jeopardizing his men, or trading away shares of the pirate's booty for a woman he's never had an agreeable conversation with is just downright whipped, considering the timing and circumstances. Natch, it all works out in the last pages—even the obligatory duel with his nemesis Col. Bishop is dismissed with a cavalier wave for Arabella's sake. In the end, everything is in anticipation of Love—mainly the brooding of it—while consummation is not about its' savoring, but merely a way to end the novel.
Quite dated, Captain Blood is long on colloquy and short on action. The plot's romantic mainspring is both its commemorated uniqueness and its floundering. Past that, there is no primeval ground for pirate stories here, just the usual clichés established by better authors like R.L. Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, and even Sir Walter Scott and J.F. Cooper. Unfortunately, Peter Blood would have been responsible for a more interesting story if Arabella had just been absent.
But while postulating—as a sidebar—that privateer fiction has abandoned ship for its cinematic sister, the themes of justice, honor, and independence from tyranny have certainly adapted to a current, more world-weary audience. This flamboyant sub-genre has lost the straightforward vitality and narrative punch of the older films like Treasure Island (1934) and The Sea Hawk (1940). The modern portrait of a 17th Century filibuster seems more swishy than swashbuckling in the keelings of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise of 2003-11, or just plain upfront about wearing skirts as in 1995's Cutthroat Island.
However, heroes are never out of style, as evidenced by Harry Potter, or such diverse properties as Braveheart and the Toy Story series. And, with all things considered, love-themed tales may be similarly seen in abeyance, yet the largest box-office receipts lie in 1997s Titantic's steerage, until recently usurped by Avatar of 2009.
It just appears mismatched under Peter Blood's command, that's all.