Peter Simple is an early novel by Captain Frederick Marryat, he who actually served during the Napoleonic Wars and under the redoubtable Lord Cochrane to boot. As such, Marryat's sea novels are replete with details of life as actually experienced by the men and officers of the time. However, Marryat's a humorist, and his goal is to tell an entertaining tale, and with Peter Simple he succeeds admirably. Fans of Patrick O'Brian will discover source material in Marryat later adapted by POB in his Aubrey/Maturin novels.
The plot of Peter Simple is rather thin; it concerns the training of a young midshipman, Peter Simple, 'the greatest fool in his family,' and how he is cheated out of his inheritance, only to eventually regain it. Along the way he meets a cast of engaging characters who tell their own stories. The result is highly discursive, but the characters are so sympathetic and their tales are so amusing that you don't mind that these digressions are not actually forwarding the plot. Chief amongst them is master's mate O'Brien who befriends the foolish young midshipman and they become bosom friends who share many adventures. Case in point, they are captured by the French, escape from a French prison, then disguised as a pair of stilt-walkers, stilt-walk across France to gain their freedom. Peter, being the younger and prettier of the two, is obliged to wear the female costume. In this guise he comes face to face with the French girl he adores much to his chagrin. Readers of Aubrey/Maturin will recollect their escape across France with Jack disguised as a dancing bear. Marryat is funnier.
The adventures in Peter Simple are not impossible, merely improbable, and that's all part of the fun. Marryat has a fertile imagination that can wed a nautical adventure tale with all sorts of comic and sentimental happenings -- and I mean 'sentimental' in a good way. Marryat believes in true love and honor and happily ever after; Peter Simple is a sort of nautical fairy tale. It was my good fortune to read it immediately after Voltaire's Candide, and there is much in common between the two. Both Candide and Peter Simple are fools: naive, kind, good, generous, and woefully taken advantage of by the unscrupulous people around them, but helped by various colorful friends who undergo adventures of their own. Candide's Dr. Pangloss was hanged by the Spanish Inquisition; Peter's friend O'Brien was murdered by brigands and buried in the sand. Pangloss owes his survival to the assistance of the doctor that intended to perform an autopsy on him; O'Brien survives thanks to having his nose trod on by a pretty girl who then digs him out.
Although there is a great deal of improbability in Peter Simple, it all derives from elements that are entirely believable in themselves. For example, when the brand new Mr Midshipman Simple reports on board, the other middies take advantage of him by charging tarts to his account. When he discovers the bill, he pays it because he's such an honorable young man that he refuses to deprive the bumboat woman of her money. He never manages to collect from the other middies, but he learns a hard lesson -- never run into debt and don't buy on credit. This tale of the tarts actually has more chapters to it, with a detour through a pastry shop and cheating at church, resulting in the wayward middies wearing tarts on their heads while on the quarterdeck. You may wonder how it is even possible to cheat while attending worship, but let me assure you, our middies are clever enough to figure it out.
A rambling tale, it is not the well-organized bit of literature we dignify with the name of 'novel,' which is why I give it only four stars (out of five), but it's well worth a few hours of your time. Reading Peter Simple is like drinking in a tavern with old salts who never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
M. Kei, is author of The Sallee Rovers (Pirates of the Narrow Seas)
Description of: Peter Simple
Author: Frederick Marryat