Invisible Ink: No 205 - Nicholas Monsarrat


Certain authors became known for working in specialised areas of fiction. Some still do this, but now they use recurring characters in a series designed to build reader loyalty. Lt-Cmdr Nicholas Monsarrat was best known for his sea stories. Born in one of Liverpool’s smartest areas, Rodney Street, in 1910, he graduated from Cambridge with the intention of practising law, but instead became a freelance writer. In the 1930s, he wrote a play and four novels but these are pretty much forgotten except the last, This is the Schoolroom, a semi-autobiographical story about an idealistic leftist writer facing up to reality.

As with so many authors, the Second World War tempered his steel and made real his passion. In Monsarrat’s case, this was for the sea and the wartime vessels that traversed it. His trilogy, later published together as Three Corvettes, depicted real-life stories of three small ships, although he was required to work within the restrictions of the war censor. Monsarrat was fundamentally a pacifist, and his sea novels, dealing with the dual problems of facing both a human enemy and a natural one, have aged well. His short story “The Ship That Died Of Shame” was filmed, and tells of a former naval vessel bought by its old skipper for a bit of light smuggling which gradually turns to the transportation of deadly materials.

Monsarrat’s finest hour came with The Cruel Sea, a novel that crystallised his themes, as men fought the Battle of the Atlantic, carrying out a duty that was both monotonous and highly dangerous. The bad weather and the ocean are almost characters beside the ship’s company that’s gradually moulded into a hard fighting unit. This, too, was filmed and became the most successful film of 1953. Two novels, concerning the diplomatic service and colonial experience in Africa, followed. By now Monsarrat was both popular with the post-war reading public and highly prolific, but controversy followed with The Story Of Esther Costello. He had always been fascinated with confidence tricksters and card sharps, and this tale of television evangelism and heart-on-sleeve fundraising upset the teaching staff surrounding the blind Helen Keller, who felt that its criticisms were levelled at them.

His final two-volume historical novel lay unfinished at the time of his death and was published incomplete. As befits the chronicler of a seafaring nation, Monsarrat was buried at sea. It seems surprising that his books have been allowed to drift out of print.