Subtitled ‘A Foundling Aboard HMS Warrior’, this is the fascinating story of a homeless London youth in the mid-Victorian period with an extraordinary gift of graphic memory.
Narrated in the present tense with moral overtones, it follows the life of Felix Wild, who appears in court aged 15 as a vagrant and is taken in by a wealthy London family. Mr Kettle is prominent in the building of Britain’s first ironclad warship, HMS Warrior, in the 1860s. Felix has the gift of visual memory. He can draw fine, detailed pictures in pencil the day after making mental notes. The story moves forward through contemporary London events, including ‘the Great Stink’, with accounts of Mrs Kettle’s slow awakening of Felix’s sexuality. Felix and the Kettle’s housemaid enjoy occasional lovemaking.
Mr Kettle takes Felix to the shipyard to see what will soon be HMS Warrior. Felix pleases the officers managing the build with his fine drawings made in a corner of the captain’s cabin. After the ship’s completion he is given a berth with two other youths and sees the conditions on the gun deck. Here brutish men, about 20 to a gun, eat sleep and fight under harsh conditions. His two colleagues dare not leave Felix there for fear of sexual attack. On board the ship Felix produces lifelike pencil drawings, and he is encouraged by the captain.
Whilst fascinating in all its detail, with an excellent feel for the time, the personalities and their social status, the book, at over 340 pages, is too long for its story. Two-thirds through, nothing important has happened until a storm in the Solent. Being the only swimmer, Felix is sent out in a group of sailors to rescue a man overboard.