These last few months I’ve been doing some reading up on classic robber novels as a background for my spoof Historical Romance (why do I always type ‘Hysterical Romance’? Is it Freudian?) on the tired theme of Disgraced Earl Wrongly Accused of Murder Longs to Clear His Name but Meanwhile Turns Brigand.
Of course, the oldest story of an (unfairly) disgraced Earl turning brigand is Robin Hood, and that probably dates back to the thirteenth century, possibly before. However, the stories of Robin Hood were folk tales and oral poems long before they were written down, let alone put in the form of a novel.
I’d say ‘The History of Rinaldo Rinaldini’ is the oldest of the ones I’ve read so far – it dates back to 1798.
Frederich Schilller’s play ‘Die Raüber’ was, I think even earlier, written in the 1780’s though not performed until later if I remember correctly. It sets a lot of the classic themes – a Conniving Relative taking advantage of the Wild Young Aristocrat’s Bad Reputation to frame him for something he didn’t do, the surrounding of a robber band by government troops, the innocent girl who loves and is loved by the brigand, etc.
There’s a wonderful melodramatic scene in it which I’ve borrowed for my spoof ‘Ravensdale’ where the Conniving Relative paces, tormented by bad conscience, in a gallery hung with family portraits.
The History of Rinaldo Rinaldini then is probably the oldest robber novel. It is written in the Gothic tradition, and is melodramatic and to spare.
There is a hero Byronic before the term was invented, dashing, handsome, and brave, but tormented by guilt and his inability to escape his destiny as Chief of Bandits; there are ruined castles, a strange atmosphere of magic surrounding one of the characters, a guru known as The Old Man of Fronteja’, fixed battles between government troops or between rival brigands, a woman is kept captive in a dungeon accessible by a secret passage – it’s never explained why her wicked husband goes to such lengths rather than just caddishly deserting her – but anyway, she’s rescued by Rinaldo and his fellow brigand Ludovico (there’s some wonderful names in this!).
I was pleased to come across two stock characters I used myself in my Gothic ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ too, in the Ruffianly Devoted Follower (Ludovico in this, Georges in mine) and the Sinister Siren (Olympia in this, Ceridwen in mine). I didn’t have a secret passage leading to a dungeon in that – curses – nor does one feature in ‘Ravensdale’, but I’ll have to remember it as a Gothic cliché for future use.
Rinaldo is meant to be very intelligent, and for sure he does read sometimes, unusually in a robber chief. He can debate philosophical issues with a vengeance, and in fact, when we first meet him he is suffering from one of his periodic fits of conscience. I was struck by how excellent the writing is in this opening sentence, but unfortunately, here, as so often, the writing and action deteriorates into melodrama bordering on farce:
‘The boisterous winds rolled over the Appenines like the mountain waves of the ocean; and the lofty oaks bowed their lofty heads to the storm. Rinaldo and Altarverde had kindled a fire beneath a rock, and sat sheltered in a narrow dell….
Rinaldo: Once I was an innocent boy; but now –
Altarverde: You are in love.
Rindaldo: I am a Captain of Banditti…
Alterverde: Since you have been in love, one can hardly say a word to you…Have you not often been a more powerful protector of right and justice than the magistrates?…
Rinaldo: I tell you I can neither approve nor boast of my actions; and even should some of them be thought to deserve applause, yet the bad ones are far more numerous, and will doubtless some day bring me to the scaffold…’
I would say of many parts of this novel that it’s so bad, it’s good. For instance, the meeting in a ruined castle between Rinaldo and a leader of a rival group of banditti, Baptistello (another wonderful name) who has no problem in admitting to his feelings of inferiority:
Baptistello: I am Baptistello, captain of a formidable band of men who are the terror of the whole country…I am jealous of your fame; and this encounter can only end in the destruction of one of us.
After a hard fight, the cad tries to cheat by drawing a pistol, but it misfires, and Rinaldo shoots him through the head and goes back to the arms of Rosalia, a gypsy girl whom he has bought as a slave but to whom he gallantly offers her freedom. She, needless to say, is already too much in love with him to be anything but a slave in fact if not in deed.
Rinaldo isn’t always so chivalrous; his treatment of a countess who, along with her party, mocks his reputation (he is in one of his infallible disguises) is a rather shabby:
Rinaldo: You wished to see something of Rinaldini; you see him now…I have complied with your wish, and you must comply with mine, that of possessing your watches, your rings, and the trifling sum of one hundred sequins…’
I thought that was very ungallant of him, and one assumes she has hurt his pride. It is perhaps significant that he usually passes himself off as a baron or count, though he describes his origins as that of a ‘herder of goats’.
At other times as he can be very tender in his relations with women (even if he does somehow manage to be in love with three – possibly four, at once), as in his seeing a picture of (one of) his true loves, another countess, Dianora, who, like Aurelia before her, has screamed and fainted on learning that he is a bandit, and afterwards left him in horror and repentance: ‘He hurried to the picture (of the countess), took it from the wall, and kissed it with ardour…’
When he finds out that Dianora has fled from him again, poor Rinaldo decides to kill himself, but his arm refuses to work and he sees a sinister black figure who has started to give him moral sermons regarding him sternly.
As these black robed figures, who cart about an assortment of joined skeletons by way of props, are subsequently revealed to be another crew of robbers, it is far from clear how their leader managed to effect this magic.
I wish I was an expert enough at IT to copy over the two illustrations which accompany this splendidly lurid classic which I could only obtain by buying on Amazon (the British library’s copy is reference only). It depicts a man with the most over developed thighs supporting a fainting woman with an astoundingly developed bosom, looking at her face with tender concern and showing a noble Grecian profile (it is interesting that this is in fact how Rinaldo is described in the book).
Meanwhile, the Old Man closes in inexorably, and now it is revealed that he has even recruited Rinaldo’s devoted follower Ludovico into his group dedicated to the overthrow of French rule in Corsica. I have to say, I had doubts about this. Ludovico strikes me as being the sort of villain who is devoted to individuals, not to abstract notions.
Anyway, poor Rinaldo hears that Rosalia is dead,and becomes even more despondent. He has no wish to find everlasting fame as a military leader, but wants either to live in seclusion or die.
Rinaldo Rinaldino and Classic Robber Novels Part Two.