The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Mysterious Mr. Sabin (1898)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Mysterious Mr. Sabin and its sequel, The Yellow Ribbon (1903), were written by E. Phillips Oppenheim. Oppenheim (1866-1946) was an English author who wrote 116 novels and 39 short story collections, most about mystery, crime, and international intrigue. Oppenheim was extremely popular during his lifetime and was called “the Prince of Storytellers,”1 but his output was mediocre and he is little-read today.
Mysterious Mr. Sabin is a mundane novel of intrigue and love redeemed only by the presence of the titular character. “Mr. Sabin” is only the pseudonym under which he works while in England. His real name is Herbert de la Meux, Victor Duc de Souspennier, and he is a wealthy French aristocrat with a great love for French royalty and a greater hatred for the English. Sabin’s life’s project has been the restoration of the French monarchy, and he has worked toward that goal without ceasing, intriguing across Europe and Aisa, since the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871. For the past seven years he has been particularly active. He has been researching the status of the British Home Islands’ defenses and has gathered most of the information he needs. The remainder, which he needs to finish his researches, is in the hands of Lord Deringham. Lord Deringham is a former Admiral who is preparing a definitively thorough study of Britain’s naval preparedness and defenses for the Admiralty. Lord Deringham is half-mad with paranoia about the worth of his work. But he does not tell the rest of his family what he is doing, and they think he is not merely half-mad but completely so, and they dismiss his worries about attempts to get his research.
Lord Deringham is not paranoid, however, for Mr. Sabin is trying to get the information. Sabin’s plan is to take Deringham’s work, combine it with his own, and then sell the finished product to the highest bidder. He is in active negotiations with both the Russians and the Germans. His ultimate goal is to marry Princess Helene of Bourbon to Prince Henri of Ortens and place both on the French throne as the king and queen of France. To do this he needs a revolution in France, which he is sure will succeed, as the royalists have been gaining power and sympathy for decades. For that to take place, he needs a foreign power to destabilize the French government by invading France. This would allow the royalists to make their move, which is why Sabin is negotiating with the Russians and Germans. He reaches an agreement with the German ambassador, Baron von Knigenstein: Sabin’s papers in exchange for an invasion of France. France is not Knigenstein’s true goal, however. England is: “There is no room for a growing England and a growing Germany! So! one must give way, and Germany is beginning to mutter that it shall not always be her sons who go to the wall.”2 With Sabin’s papers, Germany can achieve the defeat of the English navy and coastal defenses.
So Sabin tries to get the information from Lord Deringham. He places one of his agents, an adventuress, in Lord Deringham’s service as a secretary, but Lord Deringham comes to suspect her and has her fired. Mr. Sabin then travels to England and begins trying to find another way to get at Deringham’s work. Sabin takes with him Princess Helene, who poses as his niece and who accompanies him not through any great affection for him but because, as a French patriot, she agrees with his aims. This brings Sabin and Helene into contact with Wolfenden, Deringham’s son and the putative hero of Mysterious Mr. Sabin. Wolfenden falls in love with Helene, and she with him, and the part of the novel that is not concerned with Sabin’s pursuit of his dream of a Royalist France describes Wolfenden’s pursuit of Helene.
Sabin eventually blackmails Lady Deringham into allowing Sabin into Lord Deringham’s study. (Years ago, before she married Lord Deringham, Lady Deringham and Sabin had a love affair, and she wrote Sabin several indiscrete love letters, which he kept). Sabin gets the information and is set to deliver the plans to von Knigenstein when a representative of the French “High Council,” the organization of French Royalists, appears and informs Sabin that he must destroy his papers, as the balance of power in the world must be maintained–and besides, England has been tolerant of the French Royalists: “she has sheltered us.”3 Because Sabin is loyal to the Royalists, he regretfully obeys their orders. No longer welcome in England or Europe, Sabin takes a ship to America. Helene and Wolfenden marry, and Sabin, after outwitting some German assassins, ends the novel in Lenox, Massachusetts, living with the one woman he ever regretted misusing. (She forgives him, so there is a happy ending of sorts). The Yellow Ribbon brings Mr. Sabin out of retirement to solve the disappearance of his wife and defeat the machinations of a European conspiracy.
The plot of Mysterious Mr. Sabin was based on the 1888-1889 efforts of General Georges Boulanger (1837-1891) to become dictator of France. Boulanger, a popular anti-German general and War Minister, received 100,000 votes in the 1887 election and used his popularity to establish the political movement of Boulangisme, ultimately running for deputy of Paris, taking the seat, and being poised to stage a coup d’état, but he procrastinated too long and was arrested for and convicted of conspiracy, ending his chances to rule France.
The Mysterious Mr. Sabin is readable, at least, and entertaining in a minor key. It is the type of novel found on the bookshelves of cabins or vacation houses when it is a raining and dreary Sunday afternoon, and there is nothing on television and no movie theaters in the area, and most of what is to be found on the bookshelves are Sidney Sheldon and Leon Uris novels. Mysterious Mr. Sabin passes the time agreeably enough. The reader won’t regret having read it, exactly, though if given the choice there are hundreds and even thousands of authors they might prefer to try first. Oppenheim does manage to make Mr. Sabin interesting to the reader, but most of the rest of the novel is humdrum and hokum. Oppenheim takes a 250-page plot and expands it to 400 pages, so that there are scenes of endless talking without much else happening. Oppenheim was undoubtedly trying to preserve the mystery of Mr. Sabin’s plans, but he succeeded only in draining the excitement, such as it is, from the novel.
Some of the novel’s dialogue is explanatory, and other exchanges are infodumps that require one character, usually Wolfenden, to be such an idiot that he tells an obviously untrustworthy man (Sabin) all about Lord Deringham’s work, regardless of the security risk. Wolfenden is written as an idiot, which explains this, but it does not make him enjoyable as the novel’s hero. The love story between Wolfenden and Helene is strictly paint-by-numbers, Oppenheim’s attempts at epigrams usually fall flat, and he carries the anti-German premise of the novel to extremes as a way to indulge the prejudices of his audience. Most of the cast of Mysterious Mr. Sabin are swells and the idle rich, and a certain tolerance for stories of people who have no worldly concerns is necessary to gain any enjoyment from the novel.
Oppenheim’s social snobbery extends to his treatment of espionage and Monsieur Sabin. Oppenheim is clearly in love with his characters, especially Sabin. Oppenheim’s view of spying is colored by this. Espionage was not held in high regard by the upper classes of the time (see: “The Romance of the Secret Service Fund”), and so Oppenheim, ever one to agree with and encourage his audience’s biases, portrays spying as something tawdry, something which is done for money and not for higher goals such as patriotism. But because Sabin is a member of the upper classes, his actions are not spying but rather high-stakes diplomacy. Sabin himself sneers at those who spy for money: “So you are a lacquey after all, then?¼a common spy!”4 Sabin is willing to commit blackmail and assault, but spying, for him and for the readers of the novel, is simply Not Done.
However, the most critical of the novel’s flaws is its simplistic version of espionage. Modern readers admittedly have the advantage of over a century’s worth of fiction and non-fiction on the subject of espionage and will be more aware of the realities of espionage than Oppenheim was. But Oppenheim’s ideas of how espionage, or “intrigue,” is carried out are childish. In Oppenheim’s world secrets are blabbed without any consideration for the listener’s identity. In Oppenheim’s world, when someone the level of quality and reputation of Mr. Sabin needs to be followed, no one less than an Ambassador will do the job. In Oppenheim’s world a former Admiral who is assembling information vital to the defense of the Home Islands, who is paranoid about that information, and who has already suffered through several attempts to steal that information, simply hands over the information to a man claiming to be a friend. (Sabin’s acquisition of Lord Deringham’s research really is that simple, and that stupid). In Oppenheim’s world spy masters are happy to explain what they do and why. Oppenheim’s version of how espionage is conducted is laughable. Much more realistic versions of how espionage would have been carried out during the nineteenth century appear in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Douglas Blackburn’s Kruger’s Secret Service.
Despite all this, The Mysterious Mr. Sabin was popular with readers (as was nearly all of Oppenheim’s work) and helped launch the spy novel genre. The first spy novel was William Le Queux’s England’s Peril: The Story of the Secret Service (1896), which was popular (though wretchedly-written), but it was Oppenheim and The Mysterious Mr. Sabin which made Oppenheim’s name, “established his supremely successful formula of intrigue in high and luxurious places,”5 and spread the concepts of espionage as something in which the English should be interested.
The novel is not without its interesting moments. Oppenheim slyly alludes to sex on a few occasions, and the adventuress who Sabin employs is as open as Oppenheim could get about being willing to trade sex for information. The attitudes of Wolfenden and his friends nicely anticipate Edwardian optimism. The novel’s constant refrain of Germany’s long loathing for and envy of England, with its subtext that England must be wary of Germany, looks almost prescient in light of World War One. (Though anticipating a clash between England and Germany was common enough in the 1880s and 1890s—see Future War—so it was not so remarkable a feat on Oppenheim’s part). There is even a hint of science fiction in the novel; Sabin is said to have invented “electrical contrivances unknown to the general world”6 which are capable of destroying Britain’s coastal defenses.
LeRoy Panek said it best about Mysterious Mr. Sabin and Oppenheim’s ouevre as a whole: “Oppy's spy novels present numerous problems to anyone attempting to survey the history of the form. The primary problem is that they are bad novels, bad technically, stylistically, and bad morally.”7
Print: E. Phillips Oppenheim, The Mysterious Mr. Sabin. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2010.
1 LeRoy Panek, The Special Branch: The British Spy Novel, 1890-1980 (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981), 17.
2 E. Phillips Oppenheim, The Mysterious Mr. Sabin (New York: Review of Reviews, 1917), 134.
3 Oppenheim, Mysterious Mr. Sabin, 308.
4 Oppenheim, Mysterious Mr. Sabin, 283.
5 David Trotter, “The Politics of Adventure in the Early British Spy Novel,” in Wesley K. Wark, ed., Spy Fiction, Spy Films, and Real Intelligence (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), 43.
6 Oppenheim, Mysterious Mr. Sabin, 302.
7 Panek, The Special Branch, 18.