Any fan of the golden days of Hollywood will likely have thrilled to the swashbuckling appearances on the silver screen of Errol Flynn in the classic films Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. The inspiration for both of these films came from the pen of an Italian born writer, son of a mother born in Bootle, who lived in Liverpool at the beginning of the twentieth century – Rafael Sabatini.
Sabatini was born in Jesi, Italy on 29 April 1875, to an Italian father, Vincenzo, and an English mother Anna Trafford. Both of his parents were opera singers who took up teaching. The young Rafael led a peripatetic life across Europe and by his teenage years he could speak no less than five languages. However, it was not until he was 17 that he moved on a permanent basis to England and adopted the language which would become his medium in a long and productive vocation as an author.
He came to Liverpool in 1892 and the census of 1901 found him living with his mother at 47 Catharine Street, a substantial house near the city centre. Anna was listed as a ‘teacher of singing’ and Rafael as a correspondence clerk. The 1901 Gore’s Directory of Liverpool lists his mother somewhat more grandly as ‘Madame Sabatini, Professor of Singing’. In 1905 Sabatini married Ruth Goad Dixon, the daughter of a wealthy Liverpool paper merchant Lancelot Steele Dixon. The couple has one son, Rafael-Angelo, whom they always called Binkie.
Sabatini had been writing short stories since arriving in Liverpool and alongside his day job translating commercial correspondence for the Brazil trade, he had been successful in having them accepted by notable national magazines. He published his first novel in 1901 and when commissioned to write a second in 1905 he took the plunge into writing as a full-time occupation. Wanting to be nearer the hub of the publishing world he and his new wife decided to move to London.
Writing prolifically, by the start of the 1920’s he could consider himself modestly successful, but it was the two works produced in the early years of that decade that were to dramatically change his fortunes. Scaramouche (1921) and Captain Blood (1922) were hugely successful and as his works were turned into plays and films he became a man of significant wealth.
Sadly, Sabatini’s life was to be scarred by two appalling tragedies. On 1 April 1927, driving back to their rented house in near Gloucester, Sabatini came across a car wreck to find his son Binkie dying at the side of the road and his wife unconscious. Whilst Ruth recovered, their marriage did not and they were divorced in 1931. Sabatini subsequently married Christine Dixon, who had been married to Ruth’s brother and the two made an excellent match. She had a son by her former marriage, named after Ruth’s father Lancelot Steele Dixon, known to all as Lanty. He joined the RAF at the outbreak of the war and on the day he gained his wings, 9th April 1940, flew his plane over the Sabatini’s home at Hay-on-Wye. Dipping his wings in a salute, his parents waved in response only to see the plane go out of control and crash in flames in a field across the Wye.
The commercial success of such films as Captain Blood, whilst good for his bank account probably did not enhance his literary reputation. On balance, however, critiques of his work acknowledge a direct style of writing, assiduously researched and a rare talent to bring to life the eras and locations upon which his novels were based.
An avid skier, Sabatini died in Switzerland in 1950 following a skiing accident aged 74. His wife chose as the epitaph for his headstone the first lines of his novel Scaramouche: "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad"
The Sabatini's substantial home in the Liverpool 'Georgian' district.
The entry for Sabatini in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, written by the novelist George MacDonald Fraser, is an excellent, perceptive account of his life.
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