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Fortune’s Fool: Swordplay in the Time of Pestilence

Dust jacket from the first American edition. I much prefer the swordplay illustration below.

Set amidst the 1665 London plague, Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini spins the tale of an English officer, Colonel Randal Holles, too often abandoned by the goddess Fortune.

It’s not Sabatini’s best work, but it’s an enjoyable read and, in particular, it clearly show’s his worldview: one romantically cynical, in that he understood well the foolishness and fecklessness, even the depravity and cowardice, of much of humankind, while simultaneously asserting that good can, and often does, triumph in the end.

Sabatini understood that to succeed honorably, even nobly in such a world, one needed not only courage, but wit as well. And it never hurt to have a sharp sword too.

Early 17th century image of the plague in London.

In particular, the novel, whose details are almost certainly drawn from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and the Diary of Samuel Pepys, shows numerous parallels with today’s Covid-19 pestilence. After all, people don’t change. They lie, they deny, they seek supernatural counsel, they indulge in quackery, they hoard, they exploit, they scapegoat, they profit from the death of the members of some groups over others.

And yet, many rise above the baser nature of humanity, and behave nobly, with great courage and sacrifice.

From the Riverside Press leather-bound edition.

And, romance though it is, Fortune’s Favorite shows this hopeful, uplifting side of humanity amidst death and the panicked fear of it. Even so, and sadly, our modern experience with the Covid-19 pandemic has proved Sabatini, not to mention historical chroniclers, too accurate in their descriptions of humanity in time of a deadly pandemic.

Sir Frescheville Holles on the left holding what may be a Dutch hanger. Sir Robert Holmes (1622-1692) is on the right. Painting by Sir Peter Lely. Date unknown according to the Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich where it is on display. It may have been painted posthumously.

The protagonist is based on Gervase Holles (1605 – 1675) and his family. Plot details concerning widows and profane exchanges appear to be based on those of his father, Frescheville Holles (1575- 1630), but Randal himself is likely based on Gervase’s son, Sir Frescheville Holles (1642 – 1672). Sir Frescheville, originally an officer of militia and afterward a privateer captain, was, similarly to the narrative in the book, appointed to the navy thanks to the patronage of George Monck, Duke of Albemarle. Sir Frescheville, commanding the HMS Antelope, lost an arm at the Four Days Battle, was knighted afterward, became Member of Parliament for Grimsby, later mayor of Grimsby, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was killed in action in 1672 while commanding the HMS Cambridge at the Battle of Solebay. There was no real Randal Holles by name. Futher, no Holles appears on the death warrant of King Charles I, unlike in the book, given that the real Holles family were supporters of the royal prerogative, not Parliamentary rebels against the king.

Finally, and notably, the novel has an excellent description of swordplay in action too!

From the Riverside Press leather-bound edition.

Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published March 30, 2020. Last updated February 18, 2021.