Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

8. Tales Of The Sea—1898
It is by his irresistible power to reach the adventurous side in the character, not
only of his own, but of all nations, that Marryat is largely human. He is the
enslaver of youth, not by the literary artifices of presentation, but by the natural
glamour of his own temperament. To his young heroes the beginning of life is a
splendid and warlike lark, ending at last in inheritance and marriage. His novels
are not the outcome of his art, but of his character, like the deeds that make up
his record of naval service. To the artist his work is interesting as a completely
successful expression of an unartistic nature. It is absolutely amazing to us, as
the disclosure of the spirit animating the stirring time when the nineteenth century
was young. There is an air of fable about it. Its loss would be irreparable, like the
curtailment of national story or the loss of an historical document. It is the
beginning and the embodiment of an inspiring tradition.
To this writer of the sea the sea was not an element. It was a stage, where was
displayed an exhibition of valour, and of such achievement as the world had
never seen before. The greatness of that achievement cannot be pronounced
imaginary, since its reality has affected the destinies of nations; nevertheless, in
its grandeur it has all the remoteness of an ideal. History preserves the skeleton
of facts and, here and there, a figure or a name; but it is in Marryat's novels that
we find the mass of the nameless, that we see them in the flesh, that we obtain a
glimpse of the everyday life and an insight into the spirit animating the crowd of
obscure men who knew how to build for their country such a shining monument
of memories.
Marryat is really a writer of the Service. What sets him apart is his fidelity. His
pen serves his country as well as did his professional skill and his renowned
courage. His figures move about between water and sky, and the water and the
sky are there only to frame the deeds of the Service. His novels, like amphibious
creatures, live on the sea and frequent the shore, where they flounder
deplorably. The loves and the hates of his boys are as primitive as their virtues
and their vices. His women, from the beautiful Agnes to the witch-like mother of
Lieutenant Vanslyperken, are, with the exception of the sailors' wives, like the
shadows of what has never been. His Silvas, his Ribieras, his Shriftens, his
Delmars remind us of people we have heard of somewhere, many times, without
ever believing in their existence. His morality is honourable and conventional.
There is cruelty in his fun and he can invent puns in the midst of carnage. His
naiveties are perpetrated in a lurid light. There is an endless variety of types, all
surface, with hard edges, with memorable eccentricities of outline, with a childish
and heroic effect in the drawing. They do not belong to life; they belong
exclusively to the Service. And yet they live; there is a truth in them, the truth of
their time; a headlong, reckless audacity, an intimacy with violence, an unthinking
fearlessness, and an exuberance of vitality which only years of war and victories
can give. His adventures are enthralling; the rapidity of his action fascinates; his
method is crude, his sentimentality, obviously incidental, is often factitious. His
greatness is undeniable.