Edward Pamprill is a younger son of one of the richest lords in England. By his twenty-first birthday in 1805, the year of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, he is a wastrel, given up to a life of drink, gambling and debauchery. When his father realizes that they are competing for the affections of the same housemaid, he arranges for Edward to be taken up as a deserter by a Royal Navy press gang. He is stripped of his finery and dragged aboard the HMS Atlantis, frigate, which sails immediately.
What might have been a story of degradation and despair becomes considerably less fraught, thanks to Edward's optimism, resilience and good luck. It is clear to all aboard Atlantis that Pamprill is a gentleman who has never served in the navy and that the charge of desertion is absurd. With the exception of one inimical lieutenant, everyone aboard thinks that Pamprill was unfairly impressed and awaits official word that he can be released. Unfortunately, an active frigate can stay ahead of the mail for some time, and it will be many months before Edward's situation is resolved. In the meantime, several of Edward's gentlemanly attributes are very useful aboard the Atlantis. His penmanship is excellent, and lands him an appointment as the captain's clerk and a berth in the warrant officer's mess. The ship soon sees action and his thorough training with a Prussian fencing master makes Edward a hero among his shipmates. In fact, the superstitious tars decide that Edward's presence is auspicious; he is their "lucky penny" and the Atlantis will be successful as long as he is aboard. As Edward gains confidence and competence, he grows into increasingly responsible leadership roles, including two extended adventures ashore (one in Naples and one in the United States) whose success depends on his unique combination of lordly upbringing and navy affiliation.
The narrative lens for This Wonderful Year is Edward's Candide-like innocence and optimism, and this is the the source of much of this novel's considerable charm. Seeing a frigate of the Napoleonic era through naive, but intelligent, eyes provides a good deal of pleasure to the reader. We enjoy following Edward's transition from a fop to a broad-shouldered, serious-minded young man. The novel is well-constructed. Tight pacing keeps us turning the pages and the straightforward chronology of a coming-of-age novel is chunked into engaging episodes.
While there are enough contretemps to provide narrative tension, this is a novel of unrelenting optimism. Pamprill sees only the good in everyone and, despite some initial disappointments, people rise to his expectations. Not only is he a lucky penny, but he brings out the best in everyone he meets. Brutish scoundrels see the error of their ways, whores have hearts of gold and even his father's nasty scheme to get Edward out of the way is recast as a kind of tough love. The book, however, is not a cloying pilgrim's progress thanks to the author's deft irony. Benno is, in fact, a marvelous wordsmith, and his prose -- writerly but not bombastic, allusive but not obscure, ironic but not mean -- is one of the great pleasures of this novel. There is no hint, alas, of a sequel -- This Wonderful Year wraps up like a stand-alone novel. If Mark E. Benno has more books on the way (and I trust he does) I hope he continues in the world of historic naval fiction.
Description of: This Wonderful Year
Author: Mark E. Benno