Magazine article The Spectator

Eager for the Fight

Magazine article The Spectator

Eager for the Fight

Article excerpt

Nelson: The Sword of Albion by John Sugden Bodley Head, £30, pp. 1020, ISBN 9780224060981 Horatio Nelson is England's most loved military hero. Marlborough is remote from our view, and the aristocratic Wellington was perhaps too stiff and unbending a Tory for popular taste. Nelson, by contrast, had an engaging personality and a colourful private life. The disabling wounds that he suffered and the affecting circumstances of his death in the midst of the country's greatest naval victory have secured him in the national memory. The navy, at any rate, has deeper roots in national sentiment than the army; it was seapower, after all, that carried Great Britain and its empire to pre-eminence in the world.

The second volume of John Sugden's biography, covering the last eight years of Nelson's life, might have been shorter. The piling on of unimportant details is at times wearying. Do we need to know that Nelson stopped for an uneventful lunch at an inn and that the inn had five floors with a store at ground level? Or that at a service of worship Emma Hamilton wore a white blouse?

Some fruits of research are best left unharvested. Even Nelson's most fervent admirers may find their stamina tested.

They will, however, be rewarded with an authoritative account of Nelson's dramatic naval and personal life. In prose of admirable clarity Sugden binds together the strategy, tactics and course of battles, with powerful evocations of their tumult and horror, into lively narrative. It is an achievement of high literary skill. He demonstrates that what marked Nelson out was the self-confidence to take risks and to engage the enemy at the heart of its strength, even when, as at Trafalgar, heavily outnumbered. He was always eager for the fight, enterprising, spirited and impatient of inaction or delay. Copenhagen, as he said, was 'warm work'; but he immediately added 'mark you, I would not be elsewhere for thousands'.

The story begins in September 1797, with Nelson, lionised as never before after the battle of St Vincent, enduring a painful recuperation at Bath from the loss of his right arm and fretting that his career might be cut short. That was fanciful. As Lord Addington said, when it came to a fight, Nelson was the man 'to strike a great blow'. But however fanciful, it was not play-acting. Throughout his last eight years, Nelson was racked by pain and illness, a gaunt figure given to brooding on the imminence of death.

He emerges from Sugden's book as a man of neurotic disposition, nursing resentments at slights, real and imagined, not doubting his own abilities, but anxious lest others should doubt them. …

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