Before the Mast: Historical Sailing Fiction

From the time of Homer, writers have set stories against the backdrop of the sea.  The struggle against the sea and the challenges of exploring uncharted waters have ignited the imagination of both novelists and writers of nonfiction. Now that most of the seas have been conquered, many of the most popular works of sailing fiction are set in the days of sail, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when England, France, Spain, the United States and other countries vied for control of the sea.  The books listed below are all sailing fiction set in the 18th and 19th centuries, and many of them are the first work in a series that follows a particular character through years of service.

Cooper, James Fenimore The Wing-and-Wing — James Fenimore Cooper is now thought of as a writer of frontier adventure stories such as The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer. During his lifetime, however, Cooper was equally known for his sea novels.  In his introduction to The Wing-and Wing, Thomas Philbrick credits Cooper with "invent[ing] the sea-novel."  The Wing-and-Wing is filled with nautical detail as a French privateer is pitted against the British fleet in the Mediterranean.  In addition, though, there is a well-told love story and delightful portraits of various characters, Italian, British, and French. Lovers of sailing fiction and those who enjoy Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales will both enjoy The Wing-and-Wing.

Forester, C.S. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (Hornblower series) — Mr. Midshipman Hornblower introduced a character whose name would become synonymous with the sea — Horatio Hornblower. Here, as a 17-year-old midshipman, Hornblower begins the career that would be detailed by Forester in ten additional volumes.  Despite setbacks such as the loss of his first prize-ship, and being captured by the Spanish, Hornblower perseveres, and by the end of the novel has achieved the rank of lieutenant.  Daniel Burt describes Mr. Midshipman Hornblower as "a marvel of historical nautical re-creation."

Hall, James Norman Dr. Dogbody's Leg — Doctor F. Dogbody, surgeon of the Royal Navy, is the center of each of the ten tales in this collection.  Each story revolves around the loss of Dr. Dogbody's "larboard" leg, and each story is increasingly improbable and more humorous than the last.  The humor notwithstanding, each of these stories is filled with naval detail from the Napoleonic period, as Dr. Dogbody's adventures take him from sea to sea and into encounters with Admiral Nelson, Catherine the Great, and Benjamin Franklin, among others.  James Norman Hall is also coauthor of the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy with Charles Nordhoff

Kent, Alexander Richard Bolitho: Midshipman (Richard Bolitho series) — Alexander Kent has rivaled Patrick O'Brian in producing an exciting series of highly detailed and historically accurate sailing novels.  This series follows the rise of Richard Bolitho from midshipman to admiral in the Royal Navy.  The books begin in the eighteenth century, just prior to the Revolution, and continue on into the nineteenth century.  Although all of Kent's works are filled with naval action, the later books deal equally with Bolitho's personal life and relationships. One of the pleasures of these books is the skill with which Kent explains naval tactics, particularly in the battle scenes.

Lambdin, Dewey The King's Coat (Alan Lewrie series) — As in many of these series, the books follow the career of a young man through the ranks of the Royal Navy.  Alan Lewrie enters the navy under somewhat inauspicious circumstances, having been shipped off after being found in a compromising situation with his half-sister.  Lewrie finds the life of a midshipman far less amenable than that which he left behind in the gaming halls and brothels of London, but he perseveres, and his struggles are rewarded with promotions.  Lewrie continues his rakish ways whenever ashore, and the stories are full of his various love affairs.  Dewey Lambdin writes convincingly of naval life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Marryat, Frederick Mr. Midshipman Easy — Author Frederick Marryat, born in 1792, served in the Royal Navy from 1806 to 1830. Marryat's experiences as a naval officer provided the framework for Mr. Midshipman Easy.  The story follows Jack Easy, who enters the Navy espousing his father's doctrines of equality of men. As a midshipman, Jack's belief in equality is tested, but he does not completely abandon his philosophy. He passes through a series of adventures on the high seas, finds comradeship, defeats his rivals, and discovers true love. Marryat's book is full of detail about sailing life in the early 19th century, and Jack's adventures are often quite comical.

Maynard, Kenneth Lieutenant Lamb — Lieutenant Lamb is the first in a trilogy that traces the career of Matthew Lamb from lieutenant in the Royal Navy to captain of his own vessel.  Set in the late 1790s and early 1800s, Maynard's novel takes Lamb and his shipmates through attacks on privateers, naval battles with the French, and raids ashore.  The period detail is convincing, and there is a great deal of action, but the characters are rather two-dimensional.

Monsarrat, Nicholas The Master Mariner: Running Proud; The Master Mariner: Darker Ship — These two books take a different approach to the sailing novel.  These works follow the career of Matthew Lawe over a period of nearly 400 years.  An act of cowardice during battle with the Spanish Armada earns Lawe a witch's curse —  he must live until he can purge his guilt. Lawe sails with Hudson, fights as a privateer with Henry Morgan, enters the British Admiralty to work with Samuel Pepys, sails with Captain Cook on his ill-fated voyage to the Sandwich Islands, and ends up serving with Nelson in the Napoleonic Wars.

Nelson, James By Force of Arms (Revolution at Sea saga) — The Revolution at Sea books follow the fortunes of Isaac Biddlecomb, a sea captain from Rhode Island.  The first book in the series introduces Biddlecomb as a smuggler whose ship, returning from the West Indies, is nearly captured by the Royal Navy in Narragansett Bay. Biddlecomb must flee the area or be captured by British forces, so he signs aboard a Yankee merchantman bound for Barbados. Captured by English marines, pressed aboard a ship of the Royal Navy, and tormented by a sadistic captain and bosun, Biddlecomb finally leads a mutiny.  These events lead him to reevaluate his position on American independence and throw his lot in with the Americans. The remainder of the series follows Biddlecomb through his service as a privateer during the revolution.

Nordhoff, Charles and James Norman Hall Mutiny on the Bounty (Bounty trilogy) — Hall and Nordhoff based their trilogy on contemporary accounts of the mutiny on the H.M.S Bounty, including Admiralty records, confessions of the mutineers, and Captain Bligh's journals and log of his voyage.  The first book details the events leading up to and including the mutiny.  Men Against the Sea describes the 3600-mile voyage made by Bligh and 18 loyal seamen after they are set adrift by the mutineers.  Pitcairn's Island depicts the violent life of the mutineers after they reach Pitcairn and destroy the Bounty.

O'Brian, Patrick Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin series) — The first in O'Brian's celebrated Aubrey/Maturin series, Master and Commander introduces Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and Stephen Maturin, physician and spy for the English crown. The series traces the ups and downs of Aubrey's naval career, which are often intertwined with the plots that Maturin is caught up in.  Filled with detail about life aboard ship in the Royal Navy during the early nineteenth century, this series will also appeal to those who enjoy novels of espionage.  The characters are well-drawn, and the settings, which range from England to the far East to the West Indies, are historically accurate.

Woodman, Richard The Bomb Vessel (Nathaniel Drinkwater series) — Woodman's Nathaniel Drinkwater series begins with Drinkwater desperately seeking command of a vessel so that he can escape the fate of being an eternal lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Through connections in the Admiralty, Drinkwater is given command of a bomb ship and sent to the Baltic. A subplot involves Drinkwater's attempts to keep his brother from being hanged for murder.  Drinkwater proves his ability at the battle of Copenhagen, and the stage is set for further adventures. Woodman has also written a nonfiction title on sailing, The History of the Ship: The Comprehensive Story of Seafaring from the Earliest Times to the Present Day.