Nathaniel Drinkwater and the British Maritime Novel

Richard Woodman

The English tradition of Writers at Sea

When my first novel was reviewed in 1980, I discovered the introduction of Midshipman Nathaniel Drinkwater in the late Georgian Navy had involved me in something one reviewer was pleased to call ‘The Hornblower Stakes’. I had apparently entered into something resembling a horse race, and upon my form, much depended.

Such a labelling was, I accept, a convenience, intended to convey quickly the historical backdrop of war against the dastardly French, of floggings and broadsides, press gangs, spies, revolutionary fervour and good old British phlegm. It signalled more of the same in a well established genre.

Now I cannot in truth object that my Drinkwater stories have a similarity to C.S. Forester’s hero, but the assumption that Forester invented the British sea-hero of the Napoleonic period is incorrect. What Forester did was reinvent him and then ride the immediate post-war wave of public interest in matters maritime.

In fact, in creating Nathaniel Drinkwater, I felt I was operating on a slightly different track, and for rather different reasons. Forester produced his first Hornblower book, The Happy Return, just before the outbreak of war, intending it to be a one-off, stand-alone’ title. In the event it proved very popular and Forester had his work cut out explaining how Hornblower, a young midshipman in 1797, could be so senior a captain by 1812, that he was appointed a Commodore. The suspension of disbelief essential in this authorial legerdemain was unsuccessful. It robbed Hornblower of credibility in my youthful critical eyes.

But Forester had created a market, and others followed. It was this ready-made market which encouraged me to set Nathaniel afloat, although there had been other influences at work and it was a combination of these factors which actually prompted me to start writing.

First, I had for years nurtured an ambition to write. Since going to sea at the age of sixteen I had kept a daily journal and become a diligent correspondent. This not only provided me with an apprenticeship in technique, but prepared me for the self-imposed discipline essential to any writer. Second, a sea-going career provided one with a portion of time in which recreation is essential, and I became a voracious reader.

I usually read history or biography, but occasionally novels, most of which were historical. I became interested in the lesser known facts of history, the small, personal mysteries and the ‘what if’ syndrome, where the outcome of the battle, so to speak, might have been different if the nail had not caused the horse to lose a shoe.

The brilliant historical stories of Kenneth Roberts, now hardly ever read, dealt with aspects of the American War of Independence which fascinated me. I began a dedicated reading programme which led me to specialise to such an extent that in 1974 I started writing a history of that war, under the vague impetus of the knowledge that the bi-centenary was coming up. When I had finished this mammoth task, the Chief Engineer of the ship I was then sailing in, suggested I wrote a novel based on the research I had carried out.

This suggestion was timely. Another of my passions was the French revolution and the wars which arose from it. Yet another enthusiasm was a great interest in sailing. Simultaneously I had conceived a simmering objection to the post-Hornblower naval hero who seemed to me to have become super-human. This was a revival of the British conceit which followed victory at Trafalgar and despite receiving a blow from the Americans during the naval war of 1812-14, blighted the Victorian navy and cheated the Grand Fleet of an overwhelming victory at Jutland in 1916. The British tar had become a folk-hero, despite the fact that, irrespective of whether he served in a naval or a merchant ship, he was abominably treated. In fact the first phase of the Great War with France which broke out in 1793, was almost as good as a British defeat at sea, though not to the same extent as the total loss of sea-power which had occurred in 1781 and compelled Lord Cornwallis to surrender the American colonies at Yorktown.

My colleague’s suggestion chimed in with this view, and into the hiatus in my writing stepped Nathaniel Drinkwater.

But did we need another naval hero?

Mercifully publishers and readers seemed to think so, and while interest in the sea has dwindled in the United Kingdom, there is still a faithful band of devotees who enjoy the genre.
But why Drinkwater? Is he not like Hornblower and the rest? Well literally it might be said that some parallels might be found, but these are generalisations, much as any naval sea-officer of the period would share characteristics with any other. These are perhaps less coincidental than the curious synonymity between the surnames Forester and Woodman. There, I hope, the parallels end, for unlike Hornblower and many of his ilk, Drinkwater was born, grew up and prospered at sea where I worked for over thirty years. Intimacy with conditions at sea, the psyche of seamen, the boredom as well as the excitement, dangers and difficulties are able, I hope, to inform my writing. And while the late twentieth century may not appear to have direct comparisons with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth, there are substantial enough similarities to provide me with ideas. Combined with the wide reading of contemporary accounts, logs, memoirs and the naval fiction of the day, I trust Nathaniel mirrors his forebears with a haunting verisimilitude.

‘A rollicking story-line and the assumption that the mean-spirited French eat nothing but frogs and snails and align themselves with unclean dagoes’

For instance, I was once involved with a salvage operation which out of the blue promised to make all members of the crew involved several hundred (and in the case of the captain, several thousand) pounds better off if we succeeded in towing a disabled ship to port. The euphoria that affected all involved must have been very like the seductions of prize money to an eighteenth century frigate’s crew. This translated directly to the events aboard His Britannic Majesty’s frigate Cyclops after Rodney’s so-called Moonlight Battle, fought off Cadiz in 1780. Along with contemporary accounts, such parallel events are inspirational, but so are the fictionalisations which formed the roots of the genre which Forester reinvented in 1938.
I am not alone in being a sailor turned author. There have been several others, so the tradition is quite long and while authors like Monsarrat might be pointed out as being within this tradition, Monsarrat was first a journalist who became a sailor by force majeure, and only afterwards a novelist of great distinction.

In fact the naval historical hero is firmly rooted in the navy itself. After the Napoleonic War, several officers and a few educated seamen bowdlerized their experiences and set them down as novels. These are chiefly characterised by a rollicking story-line and the assumption that the mean-spirited French eat nothing but frogs and snails and align themselves with unclean dagoes. High moral ground is claimed for the British constitutional monarchy, the divine right of Britannia to rule the waves and the assumption that a jolly British tar, if properly led by a young gentleman, can wipe the floor with any opposition. A lingering of these nonsensical, imperial assumptions leached into the Hornblower Stakes and began to poison my enjoyment, as I mentioned earlier.

A judicious reading of these ‘jolly’ novels however, reveals some carefully concealed shadowy areas. To a sea-officer of the Trafalgar period the word ‘imperial’ had French, not British connotations. The British monarchy was a joke and an unreformed Parliament was highly corrupt. Rum, sodomy and the lash, danger, disease and desertion were the prevailing conditions under which the vast majority of officers and men lived. Sophisticated though the Georgian navy was, its sophistication was relative to the temper of the times. Faced with all these problems combined with the utter tedium of blockade, a pell-mell battle must have been a cathartic opportunity! No wonder the Royal Navy gained a fearsome reputation and a string of battle honours.

Captains Marryat and Chamier both wrote revealing books about the Georgian Navy, full of incident and characters of which the latter are particularly drawn from life. Marryat, though now best known for his juvenile novel Children of the New Forest, was a radical in his day, having served with the eccentric and controversial frigate captain Lord Cochrane. Marryat proposed the navy should be manned not by press gang, but by volunteers. The then King, William IV, a former naval officer who had been discreetly removed from command because of his severity to his men, was exceedingly angry and informed poor Marryat of his displeasure.

Other authors in this early naval genre were Michael Scott and John Davis. The former’s long stories are similar to Marryat’s, but Davis’s are a jolly romp among officers with names like Hurricane and Tempest who inevitably end up in Venus’s bower! Davis had been to sea in East Indiamen and seen action against pirates on the Indian coast before being pressed into the crack frigate Artois which was part of a flying squadron operating in the Channel. Another ship in the same squadron was HMS Indefatigable in which, had we been around at the time, we might have found a sea-sick midshipman named Hornblower. Davis’s story, The Post Captain, is littered with bad jokes and laboured naval slang much employed by Captain Tempest and Lieutenant Hurricane in their exclusive dialogue. Such an unsubtle technique is reminiscent of the writings of the much greater Tobias Smollett who, a century earlier, wrote out of his own experiences of naval life (as a surgeon) in Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle. Indeed, Smollett really founded the genre and largely for quasi-political reasons, to expose the corruption, venality and sheer bad management of the expedition to Vera Cruz in which he was caught up.

‘Smollett really founded the genre and largely for quasi-political reasons, to expose the corruption, venality and sheer bad management of the expedition to Vera Cruz in which he was caught up.’

The same motivation clearly prompted educated men from the lower deck to take up the pen. Victims of misfortune or the press, the lower deck was not devoid of education or manners. An anonymous seaman who wrote as Jack Nastyface exposed many of the ills of the unfortunate denizens of the Georgian navy’s lower deck and while a degree of exaggeration may be present, it is no worse than the condescension dogging the pages of his superior officers!

‘Attempts by his friends to reclaim him failed and he said that if his soul was placed on one table and a bottle of gin on another he would sell the former to purchase the latter.’

Another sailor, ‘Bill Truck’ (a pseudonym, for the truck is the highest point of a mast from where a splendid overview of a ship may be obtained) wrote a book in which he has an old seaman tell the tale of the naval mutiny in 1797. Clearly a device to get an account sympathetic to the mutineers into print, it records the quite remarkable organisation inherent in this mutiny, emotionally coloured as are all naval mutinies by the Hollywood interpretation of the events aboard HMS Bounty in 1789. Truck’s book, The Man O’ War’s Man also contains vignettes of life on the lower deck and details of some obscure naval actions such as attacks on the Norwegian coast which I found useful when writing Beneath the Aurora.

There are also a number of long poems which deal with naval events. William Falconer who produced a monumental dictionary of sea terms, also wrote an epic called The Shipwreck. Falconer’s yarn is peppered with technical details which alternate with the classical allusions fashionable among the so-called educated of the time and neither of these attributes recommend it very highly to modern readers, despite the footnotes, explanations and a diagram of a ship which accompany the script.

It was this knowledge of technique that Forester revived and which is considered indispensable in any modern novel, whether it be detailing the ballistic characteristics of a Mark 5 Kalashnikov AK47, or the constituent quantity of chalk added to flour in the Glasgow bakeries of the 1920s.
A similar epic poem though of lighter vein was written by an engagingly degenerate petty officer named John Mitford. Mitford served with Hood and Nelson and his work, The Adventures of Johnny Newcombe, is a frivolous yarn. Mitford was well connected, but his naval career came to little as he succumbed to drink. Once a fop, he languished in London for fourteen years without a roof over his head, living rough. During this time he managed to edit a periodical called the Quizzical Gazette. Attempts by his friends to reclaim him failed and he said that if his soul was placed on one table and a bottle of gin on another he would sell the former to purchase the latter. He once sold his boots for liquor and when the man who had bought them returned to say he had sold them on at a profit, Mitford retorted ‘ah, but to do so it was necessary to go out in the rain’!

Johnny Newcombe was written in 1819 when Mitford was living rough in Bayswater fields, making a bed at night of grass and nettles and washing his linen in a pond. Two pennyworth of bread and cheese, and an onion sustained him. his publisher paid him one shilling a day, so Mitford spent the balance on gin and it took him 43 days to write the epic. Such is the very stuff of inspiration and Mitford was as much a part of nautical literary tradition as Jack Nastyface and Captain Marryat.

In the succeeding decades, sailor-authors have been consistent, writing for all ages and in several fields. A country with a world-wide maritime empire produced authors who wrote fiction entirely preoccupied with merchant ships. Others wrote about the Royal Navy and some did both. All shared the characteristic of having seen sea-service: W Clark Russell, W.H.G. Kingston, William McFee, F.C. Hendy (who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘Shalimar’), Commander Taprell-Dorling (‘Taffrail’), Douglas V. Duff, and, of course, Joseph Conrad, spring readily to mind. A later generation, including Brian Callison, Farley Mowatt and one or two others mark the probable end of the line. The British merchant fleet has almost vanished from the seven seas and the Royal Navy is greatly contracted. Those of us who remain, tend the dying blooms of nostalgia with some care, but the death of a tradition will also reduce a loyal readership.

The literary sailor and the genre which he has created will pass into history, perhaps to be chewed over by academics, perhaps to be forgotten. The echoes of distant broadsides will finally fade away, but until then there are still some rare adventures to be enjoyed.

c Richard Woodman 1997

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 1, Spring 1997.

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