A Brief History of Naval Fiction set in the Age of Sail
- By David Hayes
There must be something in our psyche that draws us to the sea and ships with clouds of canvas in far off oceans. Even though you may be brought up in a city or on the land at some time in your youth someone may have bought you a book about the navies of the Napoleonic era and from that point on you are hooked and eagerly scan the shelves for more. But what are the origins and history of naval fiction.
Today the earliest well known author is C. S. Forester and his Hornblower series, the first book of which, The Happy Return (also known as Beat to Quarters) was published in 1937. This and it's two sequels formed the basis of the 1951 film, starring Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo, Captain Horatio Hornblower R. N.. During the 20th century there were a handful of well known authors in the genre, including Patrick O'Brian, with Forester generally regarded as the 'founder'. However we can count over a hundred other writers, and must go much further back to the true origins.
Probably the earliest was Tobias George Smollett (1721-1771), who was born at Dalquhurn, Dunbartonshire, Scotland. The son of a judge and land-owner, he was educated at the University of Glasgow, qualifying as a surgeon. His career in medicine came second to his literary ambitions however, and in 1739 he went to London to seek his fortune as a dramatist. Unsuccessful, he obtained a commission as a naval surgeon on HMS Chichester and travelled to Jamaica, where he settled down for several years. In 1742 he served as a surgeon's mate during the disastrous campaign to capture Cartagena. The Adventures of Roderick Random, the novel about life in privateers which made his name, was published in 1748.
Next an American author then entered the field. James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) is probably better known for his frontiersmen novels such as The Last of the Mohicans but he also wrote factual books and novels about the age of sail including The Pilot (1823) which followed the life of a naval pilot during the Revolution of 1775-1783. This is thought to be based on John Paul Jones.
By now England's 'wooden walls' had defended them against Napoleon and the people's hero, Nelson, was dead. This of course influenced the literature of the period as those who had experienced this epic struggle at sea put pen to paper. Captain Frederick Marryat (1792- 1848) is probably one of the most important authors to write historical naval fiction. He was one of the first authors to write such books having served with some of the most outstanding officers. He was aboard Lord Cochrane's HMS Imperieuse when she attacked French and Spanish interests in the Western Mediterranean. His novels include Frank Mildmay (1829), the storyline of which closely follows Marryat's career, and Mr Midshipman Easy (1836).
Michael Scott (1789-1835) was a British author, born at Cowlairs near Glasgow, the son of a Glasgow merchant. His work was originally serialised in Blackwood's Magazine in 1829 to 1833 and subsequently published as Tom Cringle's Log, the adventures of a Royal Navy midshipman.
Captain Edward Howard (1793-1841) is almost unknown to modern audiences, however, his writing has been favourably compared to that of Tobias Smollett and Herman Melville. One of his works, Rattlin, the Reefer (1836) was edited by Marryat and for several generations people thought it was actually written by him because it was that good. His other novels tended not to have an authors name but be described as 'By the Author of Rattlin, the Reefer'. Accordingly these are also often wrongly attributed to Marryat.
Captain Frederick Chamier R.N. (1796-1870) entered the navy in 1809 aboard the Salsette, which took part in the Walcheren expedition, and he also served in Fame, Arethusa, Menelaus and Britomart. Between 1810 and 1827 he was employed chiefly in the Mediterranean but left the Navy as a commander in 1833. He then edited an important continuation of James' Naval History and wrote several sea novels including Ben Brace, The Last of Nelson's Agamemnons (1840), a biography of Nelson, written from a sailors point of view.
Admiral Sir Edward Belcher (1799-1877) is probably best known for his expedition to find Sir John Franklin, lost in the ice whilst searching for the North West Passage. As a surveyor he published factual works about his many voyages. He was a cousin of Frederick Marryat and C.S.Forester's first wife was also related. Many believe that Belcher's one and only novel Horatio Howard Brenton (1856), which has a similar storyline and a hero called Horatio, was an inspiration for the Hornblower series.
The next generation included Charles Nordhoff (1830-1901) who was an American journalist and author, born in Westphalia. After emigrating with his family to Cincinnati in 1835 he served in the US Navy (1844-47) and later in whaling and fishing ships. He was a leading political commentator of his day and his novel Man-of-war Life about a boy's experience in the United States Navy aboard a ship of the line was published in 1855.
William Henry Giles Kingston (1814-1880) was the son of a merchant in Oporto, where he spent much of his youth. His books are mainly written for young boys and have simple plots, full of adventures and escapes. His work includes a series of four books (possibly the first series in the genre) following three young boys through their careers. The Three Midshipmen (1862), The Three Lieutenants (1874), The Three Commanders (1875) and The Three Admirals (1878).
Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825-1894) was principally a writer of fiction for young adults. Among his many novels can be found The Battle and the Breeze (1869) set around Nelson's Mediterranean chase culminating in the Battle of the Nile.
Charles Rathbone Low FRGS (1837-1918) served as a Lieutenant in the Indian Navy. He published respected factual works, particularly his History of the Indian Navy (1613-1863). His novel The Autobiography of a Man-o'-War's Bell (1875) tells the story of the Ville de Paris, flagship of the Comte de Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes.
William Joseph Cosens Lancaster (1851-1922) was the son of a Royal Navy captain and educated at the Naval College, Greenwich. He was at sea from the age of 15 but had to abandon his Royal Navy career because of severe myopia. Between 1886 and 1913, whilst working as a marine engineer specializing in harbor design, he wrote 23 nautically based novels as "Harry Collingwood" which honoured his hero Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson's second in command at Trafalgar. His works include Under the Meteor Flag (1884) about a young midshipman trying to make his way in the 18th Century Royal Navy.
George Alfred Henty (1832-1902) was, amongst other things, a correspondent during the Crimean war. He was a prolific writer with over 100 novels to his name covering major events in history. They include With Cochrane the Dauntless (1896), a tale of the exploits of Lord Cochrane in South American waters
The turn of the century brought us Cyrus Townsend Brady (1861-1920), a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, journalist, historian and adventure writer. Ordained by the Protestant Episcopal Church he was chaplain of the First Pennsylvania Volunteers at the time of the Spanish-American War. Best known by his historical novels, many of which are not nautically based, his works include The Quiberon Touch (1901) a romance of the days when "The Great Lord Hawke" was king of the sea and Woven With the Ship (1902) which features the USS Constitution.
We then have an author with quite a controversial personal history. Roland Burnham Molineux (1866–1917) was a paint-factory chemist and social climber from Brooklyn. He was arrested for having sent a bottle of poisoned Bromo-Seltzer to the manager of the Knickerbocker Athletic Club after an argument. The manager's cousin, Katherine J. Adams, took some and died. He was charged with murder in the first degree for having caused her death by poisoning. The proceedings lasted from November 1899 to February 1900, making the People v. Molineux the longest and one of the most expensive trials in New York history to that date. After two mistrials Molineux was found guilty, but the verdict was appealed, and he was acquitted in a retrial after three years in prison. In 1903 he wrote The Vice Admiral of the Blue, supposedly the chronicle left by Lord Nelson's friend, Thomas Masterman Hardy.
After Forester most authors seemed to concentrate on series. They included Alexander Kent who with 29 Bolitho novels so far is still writing them, C. Northcote Parkinson, Dudley Pope, Richard Woodman, and of course Patrick O'Brian with 20 Aubrey/Maturin books.
Today fans of the genre are well served. With the advent of digital media the earlier books are being republished and there are many authors actively writing series. These include Alaric Bond, David Donachie, Dewey Lambdin, Julian Stockwin, Michael Aye, Peter Smalley, Sean Thomas Russell, Seth Hunter and Tom Grundner. Authors also seek to bring in a new audience with books such as Linda Collison's Star-Crossed, written specifically for a target audience of young girls, John Stack who has set his series set in the time of Rome and Naomi Novik's Temeraire series which combines naval fiction with a fantasy about dragons.
© David Hayes 2010