Sunday, December 23, 2007

Going down to the sea in ships

For nearly two and a half years I have lived in the company of several remarkable men. I met the first of them in a chance encounter with an audio book which I listened to on a long car ride, and this set me off on an odyssey that almost three dozen novels later is nearly over. The men I am talking about are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the product of Patrick O'Brian's productive mind, then more recently I've come back into contact with C. S. Forester's hero, Horatio Hornblower.

It was Patrick O'Brian who launched me on this journey that has given me such delight while feeding my own imagination -- something that I have always believed especially important for a preacher to do. I am not a nautical person. My father-in-law was a civil servant with the Royal Navy so my wife has always had this yearning for the sea, but I am a landsman who will get a touch of seasickness on the shortest ferry journey. Yet I have found myself deeply stimulated by my immersion in the period of the long drawn out conflict that was the Napoleonic Wars.

Because we had read O'Brian's Master and Commander series Rosemary and I went on to read the whole Horatio Hornblower saga. The Hornblower stories were written by C. S. Forester during the years that straddled World War Two. I had tried them when I was a kid and had not acquired the taste, but fifty years later I came back to them with gusto, and reveled as much in the glorious tapestry of adventure and interrelationship as I did in the Aubrey-Maturin tales.

Now, as this epic spasm of novel reading draws to a close I find myself determined to learn a great deal more about the Napoleonic conflicts against whose backdrop our fictional heroes lived out their lives, fighting, prevailing, and often grieving deep wounds and loses. I had never actually been able to place the Napoleonic Wars when it came to their importance in world or British history, but now I realize them to have been a major turning point. They enthrall me -- as have the fictional characters on whose lives I have eavesdropped.

Jack Aubrey, Patrick O'Brian's creation, is a complex personality, a gentlemanly mixture of swagger and kindness. He is an extrovert, a man's man, someone who grabs life with both hands, and seemingly loves nothing better than a good fight -- especially if it helps him acquire prizes by capturing other vessels and their cargoes with the result that he and his crew get a percentage of their value. His foil is Stephen Maturin, the ship's doctor, who is an even more complex individual, an Irishman with a Catalan father who aligns with Britain because of his loathing for Napoleon and the evil that he wreaked in the Iberian peninsula.

Jack Aubrey is shrewd and cunning at sea, but he is also a lamb for the slaughter when on land -- a fool who is easily parted from his money by those who promise to make him richer quicker. He knows how to fight and inspire men, but you always sense that he is a little at a loss when he is in the company of his wife, family, and polite society. I suspect that his shortcomings on land was fairly typical of sailors of that age used to tours of duty that would be months or even years in length.

But there's another side to Jack Aubrey, for he is the man of war who loves music. In this he is a complete contrast to Horatio Hornblower for whose wooden ear turns music into a raucous din to be endured rather than enjoyed. Aubrey is a halfway decent violinist, and it is music that cements his deep, brotherly friendship with Stephen Maturin. There's many an evening when they have sat in the captain's cabin playing string duets, for Maturin was a pretty good cellist. If other musicians happen along, then they are dragged into this business of music-making, even music writing.

While Jack Aubrey is bluff and hearty, Horatio Hornblower continually fights internal battles with himself. Like his hero and namesake, Horatio Nelson, a little while on land and he has lost his sea legs, so seasickness is his unwanted companion whenever he gets back on board a ship after time a-land. Then there are these inner uncertainties that dog him even as he rapidly ascends the ladder of naval promotions, proving himself a strong and courageous leader. It is as if Hornblower never really grows out of being the uncertain boy who was rowed across Portsmouth Harbour to the HMS Indefatigable, where he became a midshipman.

He creates a kind of shell around himself to protect his seemingly fragile psyche, with the result that he barks at subordinates unnecessarily and cannot even tell his best friends his appreciation of them. He makes decisions well, but then in the quiet of his cabin second guesses himself, scared that if the action goes wrong or if the unexpected happens his career will be at an end and the respect that people have for him will evaporate. What thoughtful leader, if honest, has not had such fears and anxieties in the dark of the night after hard decisions have been made?

While Jack Aubrey has a lusty appetite when it comes to the opposite sex, Hornblower doesn't have much of a clue about women. He stumbles backwards into his first marriage to Maria, seemingly unable to walk away from a kind young lady who is the first to show him feminine affection. It is an inappropriate marriage, and throughout he wrestles to hide his pitying true feelings from this poor creature who is his adoring wife. Maria has a sad life, losing two children to smallpox, then dying in the process of giving her husband his son, Richard (what an excellent choice of name!).

Hornblower is off fighting Bonaparte when this tragedy takes place, but it sets him up to marry a woman who he believes is so far above him both socially and in every other way that she is beyond reach. He has the good fortune to become the husband of Lady Barbara Wellesley, the younger sister of the soon-to-be Duke of Wellington, England's greatest general. With such a match to a woman he adores, his continued rise is almost guaranteed.

I have loved the interplay of warfare, the hard life of sailors in those days, the relationships with wives, sweethearts, naval bigwigs, politicians, and the enemy, to name but a few of the factors that are so artfully woven together. Hornblower emerged from the leftovers of a film script that C. S. Forester, an English resident in California for much of his life, was writing. The Master and Commander sequel was imagined into existence by Patrick O'Brian, an Englishman who wished he were Irish and lived much of his adult life in Southern France with his wife. How is it that two determined exiles should write such glorious books about this England about which they had such mixed feelings?

The naval escapades of the Napoleonic Wars were in many ways the climax of the age of wooden ships. For millennia when men went down to the sea in ships and carried out their business in the great waters they had done so in small and by our standards flimsy vessels. The ships that fought in the early Nineteenth Century might have been the climax of wooden ship technology, but although their sailors did not know it within a generation or two they would be replaced by metal creatures driven by steam engines and requiring coaling stations all over the world.

O'Brian and Forster capture the squalor of those old boats: the close quarters in which men lived, the stench between decks, the ghastly food, the damp cold of wintery oceans, the terror of storms tossing them all over the place, the hard work and the countless hardships endured by officers and men alike. The authors have great respect for these tars, for they were a tough race, beyond anything most of us are likely to experience today, and the discipline with which they lived could be cruel and harsh.

But it was upon their backs that the British Empire blossomed. By prevailing at sea against Napoleon's navy, the Britain that emerged from those years of endless warfare was poised to become the preeminent global power. The British developed a supreme confidence, gathered colonies so that the sun never set on the Union Jack, and they were both the dominant trading nation and manufacturing power. The British were to be feared and envied after Napoleon had been finally defeated in 1815, and although not without challenges, they remained the world's top dog for a full century. That dominance slipping from their hands first in the trenches of Flanders and later in the battle to the death against Hitler and his Nazis. In those conflicts British and French were not enemies but fought side-by-side.

The Royal Navy remained the premier sea force for nearly 150 years, finally surrendering this privilege to the Americans during World War Two. Alas, it has continued to shrink and atrophy, and today is a mere shadow of its former self. I don't think the Royal Navy is worried about playing a supporting role to the Americans, but perhaps the tragedy today is that it continues to be pruned and reduced as once Great Britain adjusts to being Little England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

I have enjoyed my thirty months spent with fictional characters who represent beings who laid the foundations of something proud and significant. While these individuals have warts and shortcomings they also reflect an ideal -- men of honor prepared to die for the cause for which they were fighting if that is required of them. We live in an age that glorifies self-interest, and old-fashioned notions like this are either unknown, unrecognized, or unappreciated. I have no desire to romanticize war, and in one of the Hornblower books Forester launches into a tirade against it, but the real battles of life are ultimately only won by men and women of enduring honor and integrity. Furthermore, honor and integrity add touches of civility to a society that has become a dog-eat-dog affair.

Good fiction should stimulate rumination over these and larger concerns. I think that these naval sagas are good fiction and do just that. Characters are given time in book after book to develop, much as personalities grow and mature in real life. I suspect that some of the facets of these players that I have met in my reading have influenced me, and will continue to shape my thinking for a long time to come.


The young fogey said...

I never was a real sailor either but enjoy lake sailing and was keen on building models of ships as a kid.

I read Two Years Before the Mast at that age but mostly got my romantic sea stories in the form of C.S. Forester at one remove: the original 'Star Trek'! Gene Roddenberry wrote that he based it on the Hornblower books and films; even the incidental music when the (star)ship appears is the same.

The problems with 'Star Trek' (besides the illogic of nearly the whole universe looking suspiciously human and speaking English!) were unlike Hornblower and the real Nelson defending Burke's England of rule of law and custom against Napoleon's thoroughly modern totalitarianism you had an idealisation of... the US in the 1960s, the country that in real life went crusading in Vietnam. Captain Kirk didn't defend the Anglo-American way; he was on the offensive, interfering in the cultures of the peoples he found and essentially threatening them at (ray-)gunpoint to come around to doing things his government's way. 'Exporting democracy'.

I think I grew up a lot when I read and understood that Captain Kirk and his government, the good guys, were... totalitarians.

Hooray for Hornblower and Aubrey.

I did see Russell Crowe in the film of Master and Commander and liked it very much. It felt very much like what it was, a film of a book that's part of a series; it left me waiting for more.

Anonymous said...

I read the Hornblower series in Junior High -- heavy stuff for a guy in his early teens, but I loved it and read the books voraciously. I am sure that a lot went over my head, and I keep thinking of reading them again -- but if I do, I hope that they do not captivate me as thoroughly as they did the first time, because all I did then was read, sleep, attend school, and do homework as rapidly as possible so as to get lost at sea as much as I could.

Charlie Sutton