Saturday, September 17, 2005

Lay Off the Laudanum, Old Son

Have you read anything by Captain Marryat lately? Of course you haven't. Oh, when it comes to post-enlightenment English literature, it's all "Wordsworth this" and "Dickens that", but when it comes to the REALLY important people, like Marryat or Fielding, everyone goes silent. I blame Coleridge. That laudanum swilling swine got all the publicity.

The book I'm reading at the moment is Frank Mildmay by Marryat. It was his first book, and it doesn't look too promising. Every chapter begins with a quotation from puritans like Milton (a guy who wrote essays justifying divorce in order to be able to sleep around). Normally, Marryat is excellent at introductions. Take his introduction to Mr Midshipman Easy.

"Mr Nicodemus Easy was a gentleman, and in very easy circumstances."

He carries on for a whole chapter in this way. Well, it amused me.
But Marryat can be serious as well. Later in the book, Mr Easy and a doctor contract a wet nurse for Mr Easy's son, the hero of the novel, Jack Easy. Her name is Sarah, and she has given birth to an illegitimate baby who died soon afterwards. When the doctor asks her about this, she replies,

"Yes I did, sir. But it was such a little one."

Has anything simpler or sadder ever been written?

Marryat's heroes tend to be young men born into well-off families who go to sea and learn some of the realities off life, and mix with different classes of people, before returning to the shore and reclaiming their property. The book usually ends with a gunfight or fisticuffs between the hero and some presumptuous servants. Basic slapstick humour, really.

Odd characters appear. In Peter Simple, the hero becomes friends with a cunning Irishman called Frank, and the pair have to escape from France during a time of war and return to their vessel. In Mr Midshipman Easy, Jack Easy becomes friends with an escaped slave called Mephistopheles, or Mesty, for short.

Mesty, who was once an African prince, likes Jack because he is full of the doctrine of "equality" and "rights". In the end, Mesty accepts his position as Jack's servant a little too easily. The reasons he gives are a mixture of pragmatism and standard Tory doctrine about "accepting ones place in society".
But at least Marryat was able to talk about slaves, something the romantic poets never did. James Hogg* once even wrote a few words in support of slavery.

Anyway, here's a passage from the third chapter of Frank Mildmay, where the young hero needs to get to the ship, and two women agree to take him there:

"She LAYS under the OBELISK," said the elder woman, who appeared to be about forty years of age; "and we will take your honour off for a shilling." I agreed to this, both for the novelty of the thing, as well as on account of my natural gallantry and love of female society. The elder woman was mistress of her profession, handling her scull (oar) with great dexterity; but Sally, the younger one, who was her daughter, was still in her noviciate. She was pretty, cleanly dressed, had on white stockings, and sported a neat foot and ankle.
"Take care, Sally," said her mother; "keep stroke, or you will catch a crab."
"Never fear, mother," said the confident Sally; and at the same momnt, as if the very caution against the accident was the cause of it, the blade of her scull did not dip into the water. The oar meeting no resistance, its loom, or handle, came back upon the bosom of the unfortunate Sally, tipped her backwards - up went her heels in the air, and down fell her head into the bottom of the boat.
As she was pulling the stroke oar, her feet almost came in contact with the rosette of my cocked hat. "There now, Sally," said the wary mother; "I told you how it would be - I knew you would catch a crab!"
Sally quickly recovered herself, blushed a little, and resumed her occupation.
"That's what we calls catching a crab in our country," said the woman. I replied that I thought it was a very pretty amusement; and I asked Sally to try and catch another; but she declined; and, by this time, we had reached the side of the ship. Having paid my naiads, I took hold of the man-rope, as I was instructed by them, and mounted the side.

Yes - I think I will enjoy this, after all.

*You haven't heard of James Hogg? You haven't heard of THE ETTRICK SHEPHERD? Shame on you!

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