Reviews: Fiction

Losing Nelson

By Barry Unsworth

Unsworth, Barry. Losing Nelson. (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1999) ISBN# 0-385-48652-9. $23.95. Hardcover.

Losing Nelson cover

Heroes. I suspect we all have them, whether we admit it or not. They are an indispensable part of personal, communal, and national mythologies. And like almost anything else, they can be role models for good or ill. Admiral Lord Nelson was (and for many, remains) Britain's great hero of the dawn of the nineteenth century. His glorious triumph in command of a British fleet at Trafalgar in 1805 assured his country against invasion by Napoleonic France and happened to launch a century of nearly uncontestable British dominance of the waves. When the hero fell mortally wounded upon his quarterdeck, fittingly at the moment of this glorious triumph, his remarkable accomplishments had already taken him well down the path to immortality in the hearts of his countrymen.

In the subsequent two centuries, surely as many forests have been felled to provide for the almost numberless books published about him and his navy as there were cut down to build the great warships he commanded. However, while I can claim no more historical breadth of knowledge of the age of the fighting sail than that bestowed upon an avid reader by the works of C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian, I suspect that this journey into Nelsonian mythology is rather unlike any other examination of the great man.

The protagonist, Charles Cleasby, is a reclusive Nelson scholar. His life has become dedicated to -- no, guided by -- his interest in Nelson, and we meet him deeply engaged in drafting the definitive work on the Admiral's life. Well, to say he has an "interest" in Lord Nelson puts it too mildly. Charles Cleasby has found himself spiritually bound to Nelson, he has realized that the tides of time and circumstance tie them together in a peculiarly precarious balance maintained by careful adherence to ritual and quest. The beacons of his calendar are the annual and meticulous re-enactments of Nelson's naval encounters: timed to honor the minute of each significant moment and mirrored with painstakingly researched and painted warships majestically maneuvering across oceans and time limited only by imagination and faith.

The reader first encounters Cleasby, rattled by having nearly missing a ritual rendezvous with the Battle of Cape St. Vincent as a result of the weather and the over-crowded London Underground. It is the first engagement in which Nelson's unorthodox naval genius was able to shine. Yet, "with twelve minutes to spare," he arrives in time for an appointment "we never miss," because "year after year we broke the line at ten minutes to one."

"The sight of them now, disposed for battle, gunports open and cannon run out, quite restored my calm. In full press of sail, with their flags and pennants and painted hulls, their figureheads picked out in gold and vermilion, they made a fine show. How much care and devotion I had lavished on those models, those sloops and frigates and ships of the line, what pride I took in them. Before my father died I had to keep them in cardboard boxes in my bedroom, together with all the other Nelson memorabilia I had collected over the years. My room was full of boxes, you couldn't get the door more than half open, you had to edge your way in. Now my ships had for their manoeuvres the whole surface of the billiard table that had always been a feature of the basement. My brother Monty and I used to play on it sometimes, before he left. I had covered it with dark blue baize and had a sheet of glass fitted exactly over it. In the light of the lamp overhead -- no daylight ever entered that room -- the surface glinted like dark water and reflected the colours of the ships."

And so the reader's voyage is launched. But already there are tell-tales that this is no ordinary expedition in hero-worship. There is a darkness at the edges of the "bright angel" of Horatio Nelson, and it haunts the entire story. It seems to emanate from a brief episode in Nelson's shining career: his involvement in the 1799 suppression of the revolutionary rising in Naples against its Bourbon monarch, the King of the Two Sicilies. Nelson's actions there appear disjointed from the grand sweep of his life story and almost seem a kind of inadmissible pimple on the otherwise shining visage of the hero. And, gradually, one pimple's existence seems to beget others. Nelson's notorious love affair with Emma Hamilton, too, which began in Naples, has another aspect. Unwittingly, Cleasby's quest to resolve and synthesize apparent contradictions in Nelson's character and actions in Naples opens the crack between immortal hero and mortal man.

This novel is much more than an excursion into Nelsonian history -- although it is that, with delicious treatment of his battles, sensitive probing of his love affair, thoughtful consideration of much of the historiography -- it is also an analysis of the darker side of hero-worship. It is a reminder that all real-life heroes are human, with human foibles and failings that are often obscured by the radiance of the hero's transcendent accomplishments. Nelson IS a hero. Having sacrificed an eye and an arm to the service of his country, his famous call to duty still echoes down the ages. His willingness to embrace considered unorthodoxy in his tactics outshone his contemporaries and brought devastating victories; his commitment to his country's defense in the great struggle against revolutionary and Napoleonic France was total; his romance with Emma Hamilton was almost legendary in his own time. That is not to say he was a bloody, reactionary, adulterer... but can it be denied that such elements of human weaknesses lie inextricably mixed in this "hero"? How should one weigh and assess them? Is a hero any less so for his or her humanity... or, for that matter, inhumanity? What are the lessons that the rest of us should take from the hero, and do they at times blind us to the hero's failings? "Truth" and mythology are often facets of the other, and both can be dangerously warped: how should truth and myth be balanced?

And so, Losing Nelson also becomes a disturbing study in hero-worship and, more broadly, a troubling reminder that all heroes might merit a second or third look behind the aura in order to distill the true lessons to be absorbed. Not least, one lesson might be to keep an eye peeled for the human inside the legend. Barry Unsworth has authored a creative historical rumination and a haunting portrait of the obsessed. Among other things, it left me wondering about some of my heroes...

Reviewed by Howie Muir


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