Easy as she goes

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is included. This week Midshipman Easy, written by Captain Frederick Marryat and first published in 1833. 

In her biography of her father, The Life and Letters of Captain Frederick Marryat, Dorothy Marryat recounts an incident that occurred during his campaign to become an MP for Tower Hamlets in 1833. Asked by a voter if he was opposed to flogging in the navy he gave a long and indirect answer. Asked again if he would flog either himself or one of his sons should they ever come under his command, Marryat replied:

“Sir, you say the answer I gave you is not direct; I will answer you again. If ever you, or one of your sons, should come under my command and deserve punishment, if there be no other effectual mode of conferring it I shall flog you.”

We can congratulate ourselves on living in more civilized times yet still indulge our sense of regret that there is not a best-selling author alive today who could give such an answer.

This was the same year that saw the publication of his best selling novel  Midshipman Easy, recommended, of course, by Arnold Bennett. Dorothy writes that the publishers, Messrs. Saunders and Otley, paid him £1200 for the book (worth £88,800 in 2011 according to the MeasuringWorth website in case you were wondering). Jack Easy is rich too at the end of the novel, from prize money won in combat with Spanish and French ships and from the inheritance he receives after the death of his father. Marryat makes sure that life at sea has matured the hotheaded youth and his naive belief in the equality of all men. The drive of the novel, in which mutinies, attacks by evil Italian half-brothers and the years spent at sea are telescoped into a few pages, takes him from his indulged childhood to wealth, marriage and a house in the country. Like Captain Marryat he can now live the life of a gentleman and, like his creator, write long letters to the newspapers in which, complaining of the effects of cheap and sensationalist literature, he could claim “…it would be better at once to stop all national education, for every child that is taught to read is but prepared to receive the poison which is now so rapidly circulating.”

Once more, it is easy to mock (although gently, I hope). Marryat described himself as devoted to the  Liberal cause, denouncing the use of child labour in factories and describing the destitute artisans he saw in Spitalfields as victims of a new slavery. Jack Easy is a precursor of the modern hero in fiction, a man of action whose interior life, nonetheless, clashes with the exterior world, leading to new perspectives, growth and thoughtful reflection. For all these reasons, it is a welcome coordinate of (6,3) that is plotted on the chart.

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