This month I thought we might impart a nautical flavour to our reading recommendations. What small boy (and girl) has not dreamed of life on the ocean waves?
Many do follow that dream. Indeed in earlier times many did not even wait to grow up first. Horatio Nelson began his naval career at 13, serving as Ordinary Seaman on the HMS Raisonnable; Jane Austen’s brother enrolled in the Royal Naval Academy aged 11. Once at sea the reality sometimes did not live up to expectation and their letters home can betray disappointment as well as discovery.
I have said before how reading letters is a portal to another time (a Tardis in calligraphy perhaps). A particularly interesting collection of nautical letters is brought together in Helen Watt’s and Anne Hawkins’ Letters of Seamen in the Wars with France 1793-1815.
This collection is unusual in that it focuses on the lower ranks, the life below decks. When I was a child and used to tell my grandmother how wonderful it would have been to live 100 years ago in a big house and wear beautiful dresses; she always tartly responded (a great woman, my grandmother, but not one to suffer we fools gladly) that I would not have got to wear the pretty dress but would have been up at 06:00 black-leading the grate. This is the case for so many and insights into the lives of the less exalted are far more valuable for the majority of us in understanding how our ancestors may have lived than stories of the aristocracy. Continue reading »