SINCE the time of Walter Scott, the historical novel has been advanced by two great discoveries: first, that events can be more various if the hero (or heroine) is a bit of a scoundrel; and second, that an attempted assassination on every fifth page is twice as exciting as one on every tenth page. Mr. Shellabarger has taken both these discoveries to heart. The background of his new novel, Italy in the year 1500, gives him plenty of scope to exercise these principles.
The prince of Mr. Shellabarger’s title is one Andrea Zoppo, a multitudinously talented young man who sees in the confusion of the times the chance to become a nobleman instead of remaining a mere painter. He becomes an Orsini, of the supposedly defunct Neapolitan branch of that house. Exactly how Andrea establishes himself as an aristocrat, Mr. Shellabarger never troubles to explain. When the reader meets him, Orsini is a trusted agent of Cesare Borgia, stopping in Venice on his way to Ferrara, where he is to serve the old Duke D’Este us captain of crossbowmen and promote a marriage between young D’Este and Borgia’s much-maligned sister Lucrezia. In return, he is to receive the small state of Città del Monte and the young widow of its lord, as soon as that gentleman shall have been liquidated. There is even hope that old Varano may die a natural death. Orsini, in short, is well on the road to that fortune to which his wits, his guile, his courage, and his lack of scruple entitle him.
In addition to spinning a lively tale of love and intrigue, Mr. Shellabarger has a fine touch with historical background, It is there, it is vivid, it is accurate, but it is never permitted to interfere with the story. The author displays a blessed willingness to leave unnecessary information in his files.
It must be admitted that the people are never quite so entertaining as the story. Andrea outwits so many adversaries, and with such ease, that one cannot seriously worry about him even when the future looks coal-black. Too many of these same adversaries are straw men. Camilla, the lady so airily promised Orsini by Cesare Borgia, is too consistently virtuous, high-spirited, and reasonable in the face of difficulties calculated to sour any lady’s disposition.
The minor people, however, are often very good. Camilla’s husband, the old lord Varano, is a delightful survivor from a simpler age. The Frenchman, Bayard, honest, intelligent, faintly comical in his earnest pursuit of honor, is a pleasure whenever he turns up. And Mario Belli, Andrea’s inevitable henchman, is an interesting sketch of villainy through exasperation.
The great disappointment in this otherwise entertaining novel is Cesare Borgia. Mr. Shellabarger has probably done him strict historical justice, but it is disillusioning. I had thought worse of Borgia than this.
PHOEBE LOU ADAMS