Hip new narrative strategies are . . . not so new

These days there has been a lot of talk about daring narrative voices and experimental playing with fiction and truth (as in real life experience, to skirt around the gigantic elephant of what constitutes “truth”), and it’s great that more writers are breaking the mid-twentieth-century stranglehold that third person limited held on publishing. With the exception of first person.

It’s hip, it’s cool, but it’s not new. Back in the days when the novel was still inventing itself, one can find all kinds of blends of fiction and real life experience, along with a wild assortment of experiments in reporting dialogue—in Samuel Richardson’s juggernaut Clarissa, you can find at least four different types of dialogue punctuation.

One of the most interesting writers who blended fiction and real life experience was Frederick Marryat, whose novels came out in the 1930s-40s.

 I wonder why I did not commence authorship before! (he writes in the middle of one of his novels) 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 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. During the nearly twenty years of his writing career, 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. He was lionized by readers and fellow-writers alike, 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 undergoing as rapid a transformation as the countryside as trains began running, and machines entered the factories. 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.

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.

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 to his characters.

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 and 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.

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 the famous Admiral 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, Marryat’s 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.

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 unexamined racism and especially 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—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.

Fiction after all is, among other things, a long conversation we imaginative humans have with real life experiences. Writers and readers alike are, after all, are an uncanny combination of experiences: those we have imagined, those we have walked through, and those we have ingested through passionate reading.






Hip new narrative strategies are . . . not so new — 8 Comments

  1. Oh wow–wakanomori read Children of the New Forest aloud to our kids back in the day–I remember we all really enjoyed it. I remember thinking that Marryat’s name seemed familiar/famous but I couldn’t recall any details. I should try getting one of his seagoing novels for reading aloud with wakanomori, just the two of us. Thank you for a great idea for a birthday present!

  2. Great fun! I love rollicking adventure stories, but it’s also interesting over the course of an author’s long career to see social changes reflected in the writing.

  3. I love the Aubrey-Maturin novels, too! O’Brien apparently took a lot of scenes from ship logs of battles and storms (and I stole that technique for my own ISLANDS novel, with logs I found in the Virgin Islands archives). I was introduced to the O’Brien series by the American Naval attache to Chile, who had a summer home down the dirt road from my oceanfront land in Southern Chile, and he gave me access to his library. The novels helped pass some dreary rainy evenings when I was living in a leaky boat while building a casita. I did keep the books from getting wet!