You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school…
I’ve been in a typhoon in the South China Sea when returning to Hong Kong in a China Navigation vessel in the 1950s; and crossed the Bay of Biscay in a vomit-inducing gale on a so-called mini-cruise in October — to be sure, a notorious time of year for storms.
Contrast these violent passages with more forgettable ‘calm sea and prosperous’ voyages to Japan, the Philippines and Thailand in my pre-teens, or numerous uneventful cross-channel ferry journeys to France as an adult.
Sailings have featured in recent reads, and though I’ve disembarked from them I’m still aboard another; I’m hoping maybe you’ll be interested in hearing what was jotted down in the captain’s logs for these several sea passages.
In Jane Eyre (I/11) young Adèle Varens prattles to Jane in French about her journey on a packet boat across the English Channel:
Sophie is my nurse; she came with me over the sea in a great ship with a chimney that smoked — how it did smoke! — and I was sick, and so was Sophie, and so was Mr Rochester. Mr Rochester lay down on a sofa in a pretty room called the salon, and Sophie and I had little beds in another place. I nearly fell out of mine; it was like a shelf.
Steam packet boats had been around since at least the 1820s but Charlotte Brontë was no doubt using her experiences when crossing to and from Belgium in the early 1840s to colour her 1847 narrative at this point, when Jane first comes to Thornfield.
More recently there were the various sea voyages mentioned in John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk (1927), based on the author’s own disastrous trip via Cape Horn en route to Chile as a teenage seaman, when he was very ill, suffered from sunstroke, and had to be invalided home via the Panama Canal.
His South American experience nevertheless formed the basis of several adult novels as well as this children’s fiction, when the villainous Abner Brown, Sir Piney Trigger and Kay Harker’s own great-grandfather are involved in the safeguarding or stealing of ecclesiastical treasures taken from the fictional cathedral of Santa Barbara. Kay’s ancestor’s sailing ship, the Plunderer — a model of which resides in Kay’s bedroom — plays a significant part in the tale:
“It was in the year 1811,” Captain Harker began. “I was then in the Plunderer, West Indiaman, which I commanded and partly owned, in the port of Santa Barbara, loading sugar. War was raging all over the world. […] Nearly all the South American States were then breaking loose from Spain. A revolution broke out in Santa Barbara. The people expected the city to be sacked.”
Which leads to the Archbishop entrusting the church treasures to Captain Harker for safekeeping. Will Kay, several decades later, be able to fulfill the Captain’s plea to him to act, “for until it is restored or traced, no man of our name ought to rest”?
As a quick and fun read I’ve just whizzed through Martha Wells’s 2013 steampunk novel Emilie & the Hollow World. The eponymous heroine, hoping to escape from a cloying life with strait-laced relatives, attempts to stow away on some steamship or other in her pseudo-Victorian or -Edwardian world. However, after stealing aboard the Sovereign she finds herself in the middle of a dangerous expedition to rescue a scientific explorer; so far, so realistic.
But this steampunk fantasy with sailless boats and air ballons involves magic (through a phlogiston-like essence called Aether) and travel to another world contained within the Earth. This mix of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H Rider Haggard, penny dreadfuls and other genres will be reviewed in due course, but I mention it here because of that maritime element: the Sovereign, of course, is conveyed to that inner world of seas, islands, drowned cities and dastardly villains.
I opened this post with a quote of the particularly quaint craft, the Pequod. I have now not only embarked on the whaleship of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (which I actually began, as the novel does, on “a damp, drizzly November” day) but have set sail: it has been a slow start but I’m thoroughly savouring the discursive nature of Melville’s writing.
I have written a few notes and the odd quote but, frankly, every page brings new delights: if I were to quote chunks of passages from Moby-Dick I’d be like the subject of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, who rewrites Cervantes’ novel in the Spaniard’s self-same words but which conversely brings a different nuance to the original — supposedly. Still, I’m preparing a post to give my impressions so far of this, the latest of my recent reads with a nautical flavour.
Back on land, I now conclude with a final mention of John Masefield. There will be a Twitter readalong, a chapter a day, of Masefield’s The Box of Delights, from 21st December to 3rd January 2020, using the hashtag #DelightfulXmas. This will follow the pattern established by #WilloughbyReads (which featured Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) and will include points for discussion and suggestions for activities, should you wish to join in.
As the poster indicates, the sequel to The Midnight Folk also features wolves but with the addition of a Punch & Judy showman, villainous clergymen (hints of the Magisterium here!), a flying machine and a magical box, all with the expected seasonal trappings. If you’re on Twitter you might be tempted to join in: I tweet as — what else? — @ calmgrove.