Friday, August 1, 2014

The Privateersman by Frederick Marryat

I'd often heard of Captain Marryat's seagoing yarns, novels of shipboard life with incidents taken from the author's own experience, which have gone on to inspire more recent authors like CS Forester and Patrick O'Brien. Years ago I read Marryat's novel of the English Civil War, The Children of the New Forest, which is a good adventure yarn (although it takes the wrong side, if you ask me!) but never had the inclination to try his novels for adults until more recently. The Privateersman I picked simply because it seemed more interesting than a couple of the others.

The Privateersman, Or, One Hundred Years Ago, published in 1846, follows the adventures of a young man named Elrington who we meet aboard a privateer making war on French and Spanish ships. Elrington is young, hot-headed, and impressionable; but over the next five years as he adventures to France, Africa, Brazil, and Virginia, gets clapped into the Tower of London for helping Jacobites, and pressed into labour in the diamond mines of South America, he matures into a man of character and integrity.

I wasn't sure exactly what to think of this novel. In some ways, I was very impressed with it. In other ways, I found it pretty tedious. The plot, for instance, is almost nonexistent. Oh, it isn't that the book is dull: it's one of those episodic narratives, with the main character bouncing in and out of one deadly peril into another, but you just wish the poor fellow could make it home to his girl already because there seems no reason to keep throwing him into a new peril. And how credible is it that the same person should be taken captive in the pathless interiors of not one, but three different continents within so short a time?

All the same, there was a lot to like about Marryat's writing. One was his characterisation of Elrington, the narrator-hero. Any author can write a protagonist who's always right and good and heroic, and any reader can understand such a protagonist. It gets trickier when an author wants to depict a protagonist who is foolish, unsaved, and bad at heart. Now the readers have to try to figure out whether the author approves of the protagonist's behaviour, and must keep reading until the protagonist becomes more sympathetic, gains some integrity, and repents of his sins. Unlike many Victorian writers of perfect ("aspirational") heroes (and there's nothing wrong with that), Marryat takes the more mature approach of following Elrington from foolish youth to wise maturity.

Another thing I liked about the book was the way in which the author drew on his own life experiences on the high seas in war and peace. The opening chapter, about a brutal attack by a privateer's ship on a French vessel, is no romaticised account of swashbuckling adventure. It bears all the weight of conscience and experience of a man who has seen shipboard combat himself, and often. There is a grittiness and realism to the whole story that I appreciated. Marryat often doesn't shy away from facing his characters with very tough decisions. This book is full of fascinating ethical scenarios, and I wonder what the Victorians thought of the cavalier manner in which so many of them are solved...

To sum up, this was an interesting book, if chaotic and disorganised. The plot does not rise to any great heights of artistry, but the characterisation and themes are worth the effort. I would recommend it as a family read-aloud--I can see all sorts of opportunities for talking through issues like slavery, chivalry, and the conduct of war.

Find The Privateersman on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

1 comment:

hopeinbrazil said...

What an intriguing review! I read Children of the New Forest last year, and didn't think to look for any other novels by this author.

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