Frederick Marryat,
Mr. Midshipman Easy
(1836; McBooks, 1998)

In the field of nautical fiction, Mr. Midshipman Easy is an unusual specimen.

Written by Captain Frederick Marryat, himself a British naval officer of some renown and who served under the celebrated British sea captain Lord Cochrane, Easy was first published in 1836. Touted as being among the first of its genre, Easy and other novels by Marryat were a source of inspiration for the likes of C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian, whose fictional naval heroes are now legendary.

Even so, Easy does not entirely stand the test of time. Nearly two centuries since its first printing, this adventure novel is in many ways a difficult slog for the modern reader.

Marryat spends a great deal of time on Easy's early life, focusing on his doting mother and eccentric father, his schooling and various travails suffered while trying to adhere to his father's "equality to all" philosophy. The story drags until Easy finally goes to sea -- but, because of his station in life, his wealth and certain favors owed his father, Easy is rarely subjected to the true nature of life on a British warship. His duties are few, his discipline is loose and forgiving, and he wanders almost aimlessly into success after success with very little consequence for his actions. Invariably, his problems are resolved quickly and with a great deal of luck, and he always comes out of things on top.

As Easy's Captain Wilson says at one point, "He has nothing but adventures, and they all end too favourably."

Easy's unnatural good fortune means there is very little tension or suspense; the reader knows all too well that Easy will get out of every scrape without disgrace or injury. And, despite Marryat's own experience at sea, he spares very little ink of the details of ship's life and sea battles.

Also annoying is Marryat's out-moded style of writing directly to his audience; he rarely allows readers to lose themselves in the story as he keeps inserting friendly commentary on events as they progress and referring to Easy on almost every occasion as "our hero." The style might have been fashionable in the early 19th century, but it is tiresome now.

Still, the story is not without charm and I never felt inclined to sit it aside. For all his faults, Easy is a likable character and, while his adventures never feel very realistic or perilous, one cannot help rooting for him to win.

review by
Tom Knapp

19 December 2009

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