The Dark Angel : Historical Novelist Barry Unsworth Probes the Causes and Consequences of Hero Worship

By Moseley, Merritt | The World and I, April 2000 | Go to article overview

The Dark Angel : Historical Novelist Barry Unsworth Probes the Causes and Consequences of Hero Worship


Moseley, Merritt, The World and I


Merritt Moseley teaches literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is the author of books on David Lodge, Kingsley Amis, and Julian Barnes, a frequent commentator on the Booker Prize for the Sewanee Review and other journals, and the editor of the Dictionary of Literary Biography volumes on British novelists since 1960.

Charles Cleasby is an eccentric bachelor who lives by himself in London's Belsize Park, sustained only by his obsession with Adm. Lord Horatio Nelson. He remembers to eat only irregularly; he leaves his home only on Nelson-related errands; he has no friends and never sees his few relatives. Indeed, Cleasby has no significant human interaction with anyone other than the woman who comes by to type up his frustrated biographical efforts. Somehow, though, he is as interesting as Nelson himself.

This marks the brilliance of Barry Unsworth's latest novel, Losing Nelson. Its double focus provides a complex interest: For Horatio Nelson is a fascinating figure, even if not (as Cleasby would have it) England's greatest man and a perfect hero. Reading this novel one learns a great deal about Nelson, his "bright angel." A driven celebrator of Nelson's life and a reenactor (on a special table, in a special room, with little model ships) of the admiral's famous battles, which he performs in real time on their anniversaries, Cleasby is a safe guide to what Nelson did and when, though his ideas about why are idiosyncratic and his judgments of Nelson unreliable.

Unsworth, whose best books in recent years have been historical novels, began this one after his publisher suggested he write a biography of Nelson, but he decided to change it because of the already very thorough documentation of his subject's life. It became, instead, a book about a man trying to write a book about Nelson.

Cleasby has all the facts about Nelson; he is stymied, though, by a set of odd convictions and his absolute commitment to his hero's rightness in every circumstance. He believes that Nelson is an angel--angels "can be bright or dark, but they all have the gift of spontaneity, of creating themselves anew. This is a pure form of energy"--and that bright angels require dark angels as their counterparts. He is Nelson's dark angel. The darkness may, at first, be no more than Cleasby's obscurity, though it deepens as the novel progresses. One becomes an angel by "breaking the line"--a nautical term explaining what Nelson did at the battle of Battle of Cape St. Vincent. Unsworth makes that phrase, too, take on more and more meaning.

Another way Cleasby has of explaining his relationship to the admiral is as his "land shadow." He is convinced that everything that happened to Nelson at sea was a triumph; on land, though, he faltered (receiving most of his setbacks and wounds, aside from the fatal one, on land). Whether dark angel to Nelson's bright one, or land shadow to a master of the seas, Cleasby posits a relationship with the great man that goes far beyond interest, or a hobby; at points it is outright identification, as when he describes how "we sit down to eat at an enormous refectory table covered with golden baskets of sweetmeats and flagons of spiced wine. Solemn music sounds from the gallery. But where is Emma? She is not there beside us."

The twinning of this unlikely pair, this linking of England's greatest naval hero with one of its least significant modern inhabitants as some sort of spiritual doppelgangers, is pathetic and increasingly disturbing but movingly plausible at the same time. It provides a rich study of the nature and consequences of hero worship.

'The English Hero'

For Cleasby is convinced, partly through a very traditional notion of what heroism is and what sort of giants England used to produce but doesn't any longer, and partly as a result of his theories about angels and breaking the line, that Nelson was flawless. The problem with this belief is certain events of June 1799 and Nelson's actions in Naples.

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