|HMS Themis • Corsica • Related Reading • Bio • Contact|
|1) Under Enemy Colors • 2) A Battle Won • 3) A Ship of War (UK)/Take, Burn or Destroy (US) • 4) Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead|
To set off into these same waters is to invite comparison if not accusations of imitation. It can't be helped. Reviews of the early Patrick O'Brian novels compared them to C S Forester's Hornblower books, and generally found Jack Aubrey came off second.
People always want to know, when reading a historical novel, what part is fact and what part fiction. If the novel, as has been said, is about truth rather than fact, I think the question should be asked, "what part is fact and what part truth?".
As to the facts: in writing Under Enemy Colours I made every attempt to get the history right, to be accurate regarding the details and to recreate the atmosphere to the best of my ability. In this I have been much aided by having spent most of my life by the water (I grew up in a house on a beach), and having sailed for thirty-five years. I am not, however, a trained historian. I am a novelist and I'm sure I have made some mistakes. My apologies to the experts among you.
Almost all the main characters are fictional, with the exception of the First Secretary of the Navy, Philip Stephens (later Sir Philip). Various historical personages are referred to but do not appear (Admiral Howe and Tom Paine, for instance). None of the fictional characters are based on specific historical figures, though I must say that Captain Bourne was influenced by the many great frigate captains of the era, Henry Blackwood being my personal favourite. All of the events could have happened and in some cases similar events did happen. The characters in this book were so numerous that I reduced the size of the gunroom mess to essential members, which meant as important a figure as the purser was never seen. If I have taken some liberties with historical detail it is in the court-martial where accuracy has been slightly compromised for dramatic reasons. In every other way I have tried to make the book as authentic as available resources would allow.
The Themis is a fictional ship and conforms to no class of frigate, though she would have been similar to the Pallas class. In fact, her existence in 1793 is slightly problematic as the first 18 pounder 32s (to the best of my knowledge) were not commissioned until 1794. I thought Hart would have a 32 gun frigate because he had too much influence to be sent into a 12 pounder 28, but his detractors would have prevented him from being given a larger 36 or 38 gun frigate. The 32 seemed to suit him perfectly, and I wanted a battery of 18 pound guns so that she could feasibly take on the larger French frigates. Thus the Themis was slightly ahead of her time.
One of the things that always astonishes me when watching a film that involves a sailing ship is how the captain orders a course change and the helmsman simply spins the wheel and off they go in a new direction. As anyone who sails knows, virtually every time you change course you trim your sails. Although every sailor has experienced days of constant wind, outside the trades or the westerlies winds have a frustrating habit of varying, often in both direction and strength (in truth, they can do this in belts of "constant" winds too). I remember a day when a friend and I set out to sail back to our home harbour—an easy day's sail. We began the morning wearing bathing suits and sunglasses with a lovely fair wind from the NW. Sixteen hours later, in a howling south east gale, we tied up at the dock wearing, beneath our foul weather gear, every piece of clothing we had aboard. In between we'd had wind from all points of the compass. We'd been becalmed, drenched in a deluge, and chilled to the bone. We changed our headsail so often that I lost count and reefed and shook reefs out of the main over and over. Imagine how much sail handling that would have meant aboard a square rigged ship? You might have noticed, in this book, that, unless pursuing a change of wind, every time the course was altered, sails were trimmed and yards shifted.
So much for the facts. As to the truth: well, everything that is not fact is my attempt to reach the truth.
For devotees of Laurence Sterne, yes, it's true, Griffiths' rant against the lack of originality in books is taken almost word for word from Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy but in Griffiths' defence, the brilliantly comic Sterne stole it from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Sterne's book, and his theft from Burton, would have been well known to readers of that time, though apparently none of Griffiths' supper companions caught the reference.
Anyone interested in reading more about the British Navy in this era is in luck as a little industry has sprung up publishing books to fill that need. I highly recommend Brian Lavery's Nelson's Navy, John Harland's Seamanship in the Age of Sail, and the nautical dictionary entitled The Sailor's Word Book for starters. If these three books do not satisfy your hunger, not to worry, there is a veritable feast of titles out there waiting for you.
Will there be another novel following the career of Charles Saunders Hayden? One is in the works. And yes, Mr Barthe should reappear as well as Wickham, Griffiths, Hawthorne and various others from the cruise of the Themis. Look for Mr Hayden's new vessel to heave into view sometime in the year 2009.
Oh, and by the way, the scientific name for the Sardinian Warbler is Sylvia melanocephala. Scorbutus cani, the name given by Hayden in the novel, translates roughly as "scurvy dog". Hayden, apparently, thought himself a wit.
S. Thomas Russell
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