A Week In Books: Satisfying a loyal audience of sea-loving readers

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This autumn, many people will have looked forward eagerly to Joe Wright's film of Pride and Prejudice. Today, on the exact anniversary, many others will begin to enjoy a Trafalgar Weekend of patriotic - and liquid - celebration of the ultimate naval victory in 1805. It would be a fair bet that the two constituencies will not massively overlap. We live, more than ever, in little boxes of taste, choice and lifestyle. Jane herself, immersed in the doings of naval relatives, would have been baffled by the bulkheads that divide modern life.

Publishers have satisfied a loyal audience of sea-loving readers in the run-up to the Trafalgar bicentenary. Big guns have hit their targets with overwhelming force, from NAM Rodger's epic history of the Royal Navy between Pepys and Nelson, The Command of the Ocean, to flagship biographies of the admiral from John Sugden, Andrew Lambert and Roger Knight. Armchair-bound seadogs have had their day. Yet little in this bookish broadside has appealed beyond the core crew; to readers, for instance, of Susan Sontag's exuberant novel The Volcano Lover, in which the erotic triangle of warrior (Nelson), scholar (William Hamilton) and courtesan (Emma) inspired the strongest imaginative work in the career of a great avant-garde intellectual.

There have been a few, rare exceptions. Best of all by a mizzen mast's length, Adam Nicolson connects gunnery and poetry, hard battles and soft hearts, in Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the making of the English hero (HarperCollins, £16.99). This is a fast-moving sloop of a book, lightly built but powerfully armed, and truly Nelsonian in its passion and audacity. I'm sure I deserve some gruesome quarterdeck punishment after overlooking it for too long. In supercharged prose that recalls Schama, Ackroyd or even Iain Sinclair, Nicolson blends a thrilling, shocking hour-by-hour account of the battle with sweeping reflections on the great European movements of ideas and emotions that underpinned the combat.

As naval narrative goes, this is far more Hegel than Hornblower. At one point comparing the savage yet sentimental Nelson with Mr Darcy as models of a new "manliness", Nicolson ties the ferocious "zeal" of the British to the Romantic mindset as much as to the entrepreneurial frenzy of a fluid society. Nelson and Blake, who detested the victor of Trafalgar as a counter-revolutionary war criminal, emerge as twinned spontaneous extremists, both in their way believing that "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom".

The "uncompromising violence" of the British appalled their enemies - at Trafalgar, they killed and wounded ten for every casualty they took. Yet it coexisted with deep reserves of tenderness, affection and (Nelson's buzz-word) "humanity". Nicolson writes about this ambivalence so well because he feels it, swaying between revulsion at the "butcher's shambles" of blood-washed ships and delight at the dash and daring of the sailors.

Reading Nicolson will help you to reconcile the outlooks of Jane and Frank Austen, who lived in separate spheres but not in different worlds. This weekend's Trafalgar jamboree may confirm that British culture still prefers to inhabit its separate spheres. If so, scoffers might want to remember another of Blake's hyper-Romantic proverbs: "Without contraries is no progression."