John Peck, Maritime Fiction: Sailors and the Sea in British and American Novels, 1719-1917

By Morgan, Gerald | Conradiana, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

John Peck, Maritime Fiction: Sailors and the Sea in British and American Novels, 1719-1917


Morgan, Gerald, Conradiana


Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. 241 pp. with notes and index. ISBN: 0-333-79357-9.

A thing of beauty is this printing, crafted by Antony Rowe of Chippenham.

John Peck's history of the sea novel in English provides a poet's perceptions to a reader's willing suspension of disbelief. It is a thesis on the sea story as parable of Pax Britannica and U.S. growth, with a challenging thesis: the parable is to be weighed not from the sea or any "found" shore, but from the shore of the stay-at-homes. Like any history, this one has its portion of fictions (apart from subject matter). Thus the reader is offered, for instance, a Conrad dressed for a new generation in the poesis of economic theory. Sea fiction serves, the author says, to graph sociocultural changes in the land of publication.

The book moves in lively style through a pageant of the "great century" of the novel and Pax Britannica, which the sea novels are tested to impart. Preceded by an overview of sea tales from Haklyut, the survey of an age of sea power passes from Defoe as herald to Conrad as embalmer. The sailor-scribes Smollett, Marryatt, Dana, Cooper, Melville, Russell, London, and Conrad are shown in the light of the thesis which gains from the shore-scribes Defoe, Austen, Poe, Dickens, Kingsley, Gaskell, Trollope, Stevenson and Kipling.

The author is to be congratulated on his coverage of so great extent of sea fiction in his pioneer work, for a fascinating exercise in the possible. Fresh views of many authors are given by his successful bons roots. "Defoe redefined the sea story in the process of defining the form of the English novel" (17). "Mr. Midshipman Easy can look suspiciously like Frank Mildmay rewritten for Walt Disney" (61). On Treasure Island: "an exceptionally nasty book ... a method that glamorizes violence ... [by] fineness of the writing" (153-4). Conrad's appeal is "an impression that sailors are honest men in a dishonest world" (179).

Missing from the survey are the sailor-scribes Middleton, Bowen and Staples. By no means all sea novels are considered (e.g., of Russell's twenty-two, only two). Surprising is the omission of Cooper's The Crater, which, as modeled on the landsman's Robinson Crusoe, would surely have helped the thesis along. Indeed there's a Cartesian air about the thesis, proper to the era's end. When literary form is index of fiscal form, the ships and sailors indicate merely that railway novels are not in view. No great distinction is made between salty authors and shore kibitzers, between naval novels and others, in this book by the author of How to Study a Novel.

But the most abstract form responds to a check on facts. Readers are told that John Peck is senior lecturer at Cardiff University. Who better, in the port of Cardiff, than the Registrar of Shipping and Seamen for all Britain, to guide the explicator of sea novels? The thesis forgoes the Registrar's aid--perhaps till the next edition.

The argument is that the sea novel loses form as the sea itself becomes "peripheral" to shore concerns. That the sea novel underwent formal change, is amply demonstrated; but did it have to "evoke a sense of the nation"? That the sea became "peripheral" to British concerns is an unhappy premise: particularly as touching the year 1916 when Admiral Jellicoe was the "the one man who could lose the war in an afternoon." With the desperate Battle of the Atlantic fought later yet, the thesis must be rethought.

There's no hint in the book, that British "cultural life" was supplied from the sea: with, for instance, Havelock Ellis from his father's clipper; with cabin-boys, Stanley the explorer and Ullathorne the bishop; with cadets Masefield the Poet Laureate of England and Bowhill the Air Marshal of World War II. Arthur Conan Doyle came from whaling and West Africa ships, to invent "Sherlock Holmes" ashore--whose reciprocal could be a Sherlock of sociology quizzing fictions of the sea. …

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