Singular life and times of 'Children of the New Forest' writer

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The Independent Culture

Captain Marryat, the author of the classic adventure story Children of the New Forest, had a hot, violent temper and was impetuous and extravagant.

Captain Marryat, the author of the classic adventure story Children of the New Forest, had a hot, violent temper and was impetuous and extravagant.

He was fined for brawling in Trafalgar Square, challenged a clergyman to a duel, spent his way through two inherited fortunes and gambled away his London home, a new biography discloses.

Marryat, Britain's most popular author in the years between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, was also a naval hero who fought in the Napoleonic wars and campaigned against press ganging. Between 1830 and his death in 1848, aged 56, he wrote almost 30 books, including Mr Midshipman Easy, Peter Simple, Poor Jack and The Little Savage, and was once more popular than Dickens, his friend and literary rival.

The extraordinary life of Captain Marryat, now mainly remembered for the television production of Children of the New Forest, has been chronicled in detail for the first time.

The new biography by Tom Pocock, Captain Marryat, (Chatham £19.95) shows there was far more to the man than writing books and being a naval hero. According to Pocock he spent his way through his share of fortunes left by his father and uncle that were worth in total about £24m at today's rates.

He also had a fight with another author in Trafalgar Square, hanging his coat on the railings of the National Gallery. At one point during the brawl Marryat was thwarted with an uprooted paving slab by the other man. Both later appeared in court charged with affray.

Like Dickens he had a social conscience. In 1822 he wrote a pamphlet urging an end to press ganging, and when he retired to Norfolk he built model cottages for his farm workers and pressed for a better deal for them.

But above all he was a storyteller, and, as his fellow seafarer Joseph Conrad wrote, a good one. "His novels live on the sea and frequent the shore. There is a truth in them, the truth of their time. His adventures are enthralling, the rapidity of his action fascinates. His greatness is undeniable.''

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