For me, a good non-fiction book is not one that simply gets its facts right; it also has to read well, like a novel. (Showing my lack of sophistication here.) It helps of course if the author of the non-fiction book has a good subject to work with; and the Royal Navy in the time of the Napoleonic wars certainly makes for a good subject.
Such a good subject in fact that it provides ample material for several famous fictional characters and entire series of novels following their adventures: there’s Horatio Hornblower by C.S. Forester, Jack Aubrey by Patrick O’Brian, Richard Bolitho by Alexander Kent, Nicholas Ramage by Dudley Pope… Many of the exploits of these heroes were based in real-life characters and genuine episodes of naval warfare – and one of these real life characters is the subject of the non-fiction book I have in mind: Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain by Stephen Taylor.
The book, first published in 2012, is (as you can divine from the title) a biography; the biography of Sir Edward Pellew, arguably the most successful frigate captain of the Royal Navy in the time of Nelson. Yes, fellow readers of C.S. Forester, that would be Captain Pellew of the frigate Indefatigable, under whom the fictional character Hornblower learned his craft.
Now I’m not, in general, fond of biographies. I did read a few over the years – Nelson’s biography by Robert Southey being one – but the ‘from cradle to grave’ type of books do rather bore me. Well, I can’t complain of Stephen Taylor’s Commander: I was turning the pages as if it was one of Forester’s Hornblower stories.
Pellew’s life abounded in the kind of adventures – it’s always ever an adventure on the pages of a book only, in real life it’s usually more akin to hardship – with which Forester et al. entertained us for decades. Son of a packet captain who died when he was eight and abandoned by his mother at the age of ten, Pellew rose from relatively humble origins to become a highly successful frigate captain and to eventually command a fleet. And he rose through the ranks due to his ability, rather than patronage (in fact, he appears to have had quite a talent for making enemies).
Moving back and forth between Pellew’s professional and personal life, Taylor’s book tells the story of a man whose life reads like a novel. The frigate captain who had the audacity to attack a ship-of-the-line… the doting father completely blind to his children’s failings… the superb sailor who brought his ship off a lee-shore during the storm which wrecked two other ships… the gallant enemy who entertained his captured opponent in his own home… the officer who dived into the sea to pull out a drowning seaman… the self-made man who never knew when to shut up for his own good. Sounds like fiction? Well, it isn’t.
It’s kind of strange – and quite sad – that while fiction writers immortalised the Royal Navy’s exploits in the age of sail with huge success, we, the public, or at least the great majority of us, know actually very little about the real men by whose exploits those books have been inspired. Can you name me, off the top of your head, another hero of that era? (Right. Excluding Nelson.)
Maybe it’s exactly because Nelson’s fame is so great that we remember nobody else. Heroic death in battle always helps: you can go on board HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, and stand on the spot where he had fallen. (A little bronze plaque marks the spot to ensure you don’t miss it.) You can even see the uniform he wore on the day, complete with bullet hole, in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Pellew, on the other hand, had the (mis)fortune to die in bed, surrounded by his family, at the age of seventy-five. Not half as interesting, right?
An entertaining, swashbuckling adventure, filled to the brim with derring-do.”
(Keith Lowe, Daily Telegraph)
Many of us prefer reading a good novel to a biography; I’m no exception. But there were people whose life was more exciting than any novel – Edward Pellew was one of them. So if you enjoy those naval yarns of Forester et al., isn’t it time to give the real hero his dues?
Links: ⇒ Pellew wasn't the only one who deserves to be remembered. Another tale of derring-do of the kind that made the Royal Navy famous: HMS Speedy vs El Gamo ⇒ The Ballad of the Amazon Frigate - a contemporary ballad about one of Pellew's famous actions while captaining the Indefatigable: the destruction of the 74-gun French ship-of-the line, the Droits de l'Homme in 1797 (on a blog dedicated to researching the lives of the 1797 crew of HMS Indefatigable - how cool is that?). ⇒ A brief description of the seven ships that bore the name HMS Indefatigable - starting with the one Pellew commanded. Throwback Thursday: Rewritten from ideas in the post originally titled Commander: The Life & Exploits of Britain's Greatest Frigate Captain (July 2015) - the would-be review that got hijacked by Pepys.