Truth in Fiction: Novelized Autobiography


I wonder why I did not commence authorship before! How true it is that a man never knows what he can do until he tries. The fact is, I never thought that I could make a novel, and I was thirty years old before I stumbled on the fact. What a pity!

Back in the late nineties, I discovered Patrick O’Brian’s tall-ship adventure stories. I’d always liked shipboard adventures, ever since I first read C.S. Forester as a kid. I was so taken by O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (which I think far superior to Hornblower) that I read it straight through twice, and then began hunting for his sources.

The most obvious seemed to be Admiral Cochrane, whose Autobiography of a Seaman certainly makes interesting reading. And indeed, there are a couple of incidents in Cochrane’s colorful career that clearly shaped Jack Aubrey’s experiences.

But it wasn’t until I stumbled on the work of Frederick Marryat that I found the real Jack Aubrey. I don’t necessarily mean the fiction by Marryat, though I could see O’Brian’s footprints here and there, I mean the man’s life itself.

It’s all the more astonishing that it took me quite a while to find a biography of Marryat, considering how famous he was during the early Victorian period. He was at least as popular as Dickens, whom he knew socially (he knew everybody socially! They hung out at his house during the years he was burning through two inheritances) though reviewers did not take him seriously at all.

Captain Marryat’s gross trash sells immensely about Wapping and Portsmouth, and brings him five or six hundred the book—but that can scarcely be called literature, sneered one journalist, whom Marryat answered in kind, resulting in a challenge to a duel.

Before that, according to the one rather odd little biography I did locate, called Captain Marryat: A Rediscovery, by Oliver Warner, Marryat got into it with another writer he despised. They went for each other with walking sticks after exchanging insults following a chance encounter in Trafalgar Square on Guy Fawkes Day, 1834.

During those days, the novel was still being invented. Editors were merely facilitators for serialization, or for printing up the requisite three volumes. Maritime tales were relatively rare, and tended toward caricature, as exemplified by Smollett.

lee lurch

The quote at the top of the page is the author talking directly to the reader in the middle of Chapter 40 of Newton Forster.  It goes on . . .

Writing a book reminds me very much of making a passage across the Atlantic . . . Whenever the wind is foul, which it now most certainly is, for I am writing anything but “Newton Forster,” and which will account for this rambling, stupid chapter, made up of odds and ends, strung together like what we call “skewer pieces” on board a man-of-war; when the wind is foul, as I said before, I have, however, a way of going a-head by getting up steam, which I am now about to resort to—and the fuel is brandy.

sailors belowdecks

Marryat began writing his sea tales while he was still commanding ships as a captain, occasionally breaking into his own story to comment upon sitting in the captain’s cabin trying to ignore the sounds of the ship around him while he attempts to figure out what’s going to happen next.

According to Warner, Marryat went to school with Charles Babbage, who used to get up hours before dawn in order to cram in extra study time. Marryat wanted to be wakened, too, not to study, but to get in more time for larks. He put Babbage through a whole series of pranks until he gave in and woke him, made him promise not to tell, but one by one all Marryat’s friends were let into the special group until of course the scheme fell apart.

Different as they were, the two remained friends for life, and Marryat carried away a deep appreciation for mathematics, which he put to use not only in navigation, but it was he who invented a flag system for merchant ships so they could talk to one another the world over, and warn of dangers, etc. This system was used through the nineteenth century.

The midshipman gets ready to see the world

The midshipman gets ready to see the world

Marryat went to sea as a young teen. He got the shock of his life, discovering that he would be on deck during artillery fire, and in fact was in charge of cannon crews, and sent to invade coastlines for raiding or scouting parties.

He was apprenticed to Cochrane, so he was there for most of Cochrane’s most famous exploits. That sense of go-at-‘em remained with Marryat, who in succeeding years managed to see more action than most mariners ever saw. He had good captains and terrible ones, eventually becoming a captain himself, where he continued to distinguish himself.

During all these years, he was known for the repeated times he dived overboard to save people, the first rescue happening when he was a midshipman. He was a very handsome man, but admitted that he was fat. Sounds like Jack Aubrey, doesn’t it? Warner’s bio came out in 1953, and I wonder if O’Brian read it.

Anyway, his maritime books are filled with his own personal experiences, the most raw, perhaps, in Frank Mildmay, or The Naval Officer, and the most polished in Peter Simple, which along with Mr. Midshipman Easy  became so enormously popular, especially with boys, that they were staples of Victorian libraries pretty much up to, and through, World War I. In Peter Simple, young naval cadets used to have to memorize chapter fifteen, so vividly and technically correct was its depiction of the handling of a ship in a hurricane.

Tallships under sail 1800

Marryat’s style is easily accessible to today’s reader, most of his books distinctive for the breezy, humorous tone. The novels tend to employ standard Victorian tropes of coincidences, deathbed scenes and surprise inheritances when the characters move away from the sea, and more sensitive modern readers might wince at the casual attitude toward animal abuse and deaths, which were very much in period—inspiring Anna Sewell, for example, to write Black Beauty,  from the point of view of a horse.

In later life Marryat turned toward writing for children, and it can be said that he invented the historical novel for youngsters, so successful and long-in-print was his Children of the New Forest, a rollicking adventure set in the time of Cavaliers vs. Roundheads. He was apparently close to his kids, many of whom (mostly his daughters) turned to writing. One daughter needs a closer look, which I will probably do next time—her life being more interesting even than her novels, which were packed with Victorian melodrama.

Frederick Marryat’s maritime books convey that thrill of verisimilitude, but so do Patrick O-Brian’s, though apparently he never sailed on a tall ship. There are books written by veterans of all kinds of activities that are not convincing, and utterly realistic books written by people who live in their armchair. Marryat’s tales are so vivid that I suspect many maritime writers following him read and reread his stories so many times that they ‘lived’ the adventures along with the heroes, and it shows in their work. We writers after all are a weird combination of experiences, those we have imagined, those we have walked through, and those we have ingested through passionate reading.

Anyway, here’s a question. At some point (before, after, during) your reading of the book you learn something about the author that makes you think that they lived a lot of the book. Does this knowledge make the book seem more real in a significant way?





Truth in Fiction: Novelized Autobiography — 15 Comments

  1. Yes, knowing that the author lived through the same events makes me view descriptions of them as more accurate. It doesn’t make me respect interpretations of them any more, though.

    Thanks for the article on Marryat! My college library had his collected works and I was the only person to read them — I know, because I had to cut the pages. Ripping good stuff!

  2. Knowing the author lived through similar circumstances helps me empathize with the character.

    About the signal flags? My father ran away from a dirt farm in Alabama in 1927 to join the Navy and later the Merchant Marine and Coast Guard. He read signal flags and had to use them sometimes during World War II when they ran silent or radios went on the fritz–as they often did in those days.

  3. I’ve just been marvelling at how much *stuff* these people seemed to be able to pack into their lives: travelling the world (at a point when travel was an onerous and time-consuming activity); writing book after book after book; maintaining a lively social scene; and producing a passel of offspring to boot. And they were often done before they hit 60.

    Mind you, that’s probably because they’d worn themselves out. “Live fast, die young,” as the saying goes (though I doubt they’d have had a good-looking corpse).

  4. I had no idea that the author of Children of the New Forest (which was a book Wakanomori read to our kids, early on) had such an adventurous life! I wonder if my sea captain father-in-law would like the bio….

    Regarding your question, yes, I confess it does make a difference to me when I find out that the author’s lived life informs their fiction–it does make me believe in it more. … It doesn’t necessarily make me like the book better, and the book can still be a snore if the person isn’t a good writer (and conversely, some books are very vivid that don’t reflect the writer’s lived experience), but yeah, I do believe it more.

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