Back in the days of Charles Dickens, there was Captain Frederick Marryat, with Mr Midshipman Easy and other stories of Nelson’s Navy. Then the 20th century kicked off with CS Forrester – whose real name was Cecil Louis Troughton Smith – and the Horatio Hornblower series, which became the benchmark for others like Dudley Pope with Ramage and Alexander Kent with Richard Bolitho.
Excellent yarns, based on sound knowledge of the campaigns of the Napoleonic wars, but trumped by the arrival of an enigmatic naval historian by the name of Richard Patrick Russ, who wrote under the name of Patrick O’Brian and avoided telling anyone about his origins and background, encouraging people to believe he was Irish. (He was actually born in Chalfont St Peter, Bucks. His father was of German origin and his mother English with Irish ancestors.) Not just simple adventure stories, his tales of the adventurous Jack Aubrey are balanced by the presence of Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon, naturalist member of the Royal Society and friend of Joseph Banks (whose biography O’Brian also wrote) – and spy.
O’Brian’s first book about life on sailing ships -The Golden Ocean – tells, with a lacing of Irish humour, the tale of young Peter Palafox, who joins Anson’s circumnavigation of the globe as a midshipman. I wish he had written more in this vein.
One thing is common to all the Nelson’s Navy books I’ve mentioned so far. The principal characters are gentlemen or, in the case of Ramage, of noble birth – and the viewpoint is that of a ship’s officer.
Now Julian Stockwin has brought the genre into the 21st century. Thomas Paine Kydd is a Guildford wigmaker who is pressed into the Navy and works his way up, first to warrant officer rank and then to the quarterdeck – which automatically projects him into the gentry ashore. With this master stroke (perhaps triggered by his own Navy service, which took him to petty officer rank before he went on to other things) Julian has provided himself and his readers with a broader canvas than that employed by other naval fiction writers.
Kydd needed a foil, to raise the narrative above his own narrow background. Julian provided this in the form of Nicholas Renzi, an heir to an earldom who has a social conscience. After his father’s use of Clearance orders causes a suicide on the estate, Nicholas takes the name of an obscure Italian philosopher and joins the Navy as a common seaman, planning a 5-year penance on behalf of the family.
I was wondering what Julian would do with Renzi after Kydd entered the officer class – and I believe Julian wasn’t really sure, either. In the event, he developed Renzi’s character and broadened the scope of the Kydd series yet again. He looks well set to write a good twice the number of books he originally planned.
Luckily for his fans, Julian is not the recluse that O’Brian was. Modest but sociable, he gives talks, writes a very informative newsletter – and runs a very active Facebook site. As I write this, he is hoping to expand his Facebook Friends list to 300+, and plans to give away a prize of some kind (he does this regularly in his newsletter) to a randomly-chosen Friend once the magic 300 is reached.
To browse and buy Kydd books, go to The Armchair Ditty Box, select the category ‘sea stories‘ and navigate to pages 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.