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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Frederick Marryat (1792–1848)

THOUGH it is nearly half a century since Captain Frederick Marryat passed away, he still lives in his sea stories. The circulating-library copies are dog’s-eared with constant use, and an occasional new edition testifies to the favor of a younger generation. His most ardent admirers, however, do not rank him among the great novelists. He had no theories of fiction; he had little culture, and of philosophy or psychology he did not dream. But there is life, energy, directness in his tales, coupled with lively narrative and spontaneous humor which keep them fresh and interesting. He is a born story-teller; and the talent of the story-teller commands attention and enchains an audience, whatever the defects of manner.

Marryat was descended from a Huguenot family that fled from France at the end of the sixteenth century and settled in England. On his mother’s side he was of a German stock, transplanted to Boston, and there etherealized, perhaps, by east winds and Yankee cultivation. He boasted indeed of the blood of four different peoples. He was the second son of Joseph Marryat of Wimbledon, Member of Parliament for Sandwich, and was born in London. Educated at private schools, he was noted from his early boyhood for his boisterous and refractory though not unamiable temper, which often involved him in passionate quarrels with his teachers, and resulted in his running away. After he had run away repeatedly, and always with the intention of going to sea, his father, yielding to his determined bent, got him at the age of fourteen on board the frigate Impérieuse as midshipman. His ship was engaged as part of the squadron which supported the Catalonians against the French. His service there was active and brilliant: he took part in some fifty engagements, in one of which he was severely wounded and left for dead. His pugnacity saved him; for the contemptuous kick of a fellow midshipman, whom he hated, roused a fury in him that overcame his speechless and apparently lifeless condition. The work of his division was cutting out privateers, storming batteries, and destroying marine signal telegraph stations. Long afterwards he portrayed the daring and judgment of his commander, Lord Cochrane, in the characters of Captain Savage in ‘Peter Simple,’ and Captain M—— in ‘The King’s Own.’

Marryat was a man of a personal daring as reckless as that of his favorite heroes. Again and again he risked his life to save drowning men or to protect his superiors. More than once he received the medal of the Humane Society, and King Louis Philippe decorated him with the cross of the Legion of Honor. A life of great exposure, constant danger, and severe exertion ruined his health; and before he was forty he resolved to leave the sea and devote himself to story-writing. He took many of his characters and incidents from real life, copying them closely in the main, but exaggerating and coloring them to meet the purposes of fiction. While not without imagination, he depended so greatly on his observation and experience that many of his novels may be said to be almost autobiographic. To this fact they owe much of their naturalness, vividness, and verisimilitude. His ample fund of rough humor and his extraordinary fondness for spinning yarns—a characteristic which belongs to the nautical temperament—contributed their best qualities to his books; giving them not only the hue and quality, but the very sound and odor of the sea. One of his old shipmates, who lived hale and hearty to be an octogenarian, used to say that to read ‘Midshipman Easy’ or ‘Jacob Faithful’ was exactly like spending half a day in the Captain’s company in his best mood. There is very little art in his thirty-five or forty volumes. They are the narratives of a bluff, bold, thorough-going, somewhat coarse sailor, who has a strong dramatic sense and an intense relish for fun. Hardly any of his novels have what deserves to be called a plot,—the ‘King’s Own’ and one or two others, perhaps, being exceptions,—nor are they generally finished, or even carefully studied. Frequently they read like half-considered, uncorrected manuscripts that have been dictated. The principal events are graphically recorded, the minor circumstances and their connections loosely woven. But with all their defects, the stories seem to the ordinary reader more as if they had actually happened than as if they had been invented. They are entirely realistic,—the characters being perfectly vitalized, acting, breathing human beings.

Among Marryat’s best-known novels, besides those already mentioned, are ‘Adventures of a Naval Officer; or, Frank Mildmay,’ his first work, published at twenty-eight; ‘Newton Forster,’ ‘The Pacha of Many Tales,’ ‘The Pirate and the Three Cutters,’ ‘Japhet in Search of a Father,’ ‘Peter Simple,’ ‘Percival Keene,’ ‘Snarley-Yow,’ ‘The Phantom Ship,’ ‘Poor Jack,’ and ‘The Privateersman One Hundred Years Ago,’ all of which had a large sale. He served in the Mediterranean, in the East and West Indies, and off the coast of North America; participating during the war of 1812 in a gunboat fight on Lake Pontchartrain, just before the battle of New Orleans. In the same year he was made lieutenant, and after a few months commander. At twenty-seven he married a daughter of Sir Stephen Shairp, and became the father of eleven children. In 1837 he visited this country; and two years later published ‘A Diary in America,’ in which he ridiculed the republic,—as Mrs. Trollope had done in her ‘Domestic Manners,’ as Dickens is still believed (by those who have not read the book) to have done not long after in his ‘American Notes,’ and as he did most viciously in ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ to revenge himself for the uproar over the ‘American Notes.’ Americans of the present generation are so much less sensitive than their predecessors, however, that they are perhaps more inclined to ask whether these adverse criticisms were not well founded than to resent their severity.

After this journey he produced divers miscellaneous books; among which ‘Masterman Ready’ and ‘The Settlers in Canada’ delighted the boys of two generations, and are still popular. ‘Masterman Ready’ was primarily written because his children wished him to write a sequel to the ‘Swiss Family Robinson,’ which was structurally not feasible; but was also designed to ridicule that priggish story, and was meant as a protest of naturalness against artificiality. Fortunate indeed is the owner of an early illustrated edition of ‘Masterman,’ portraying that excellent father of a family, Mr. Seagrave, walking about his fortuitous island, turning over turtles, building stockades, or gathering cocoanuts, attired in a swallow-tailed coat, voluminous cravat, trousers severely strapped down under high-heeled boots, and a tall silk hat which he seemed never to remove.

In his later life Marryat retired to Norfolk, and undertook amateur farming, with the usual result of heavy losses. He died in 1848 at Langham; comparatively poor, through carelessness, mismanagement, and extravagance, although for many years he had earned a large income. In England ‘Peter Simple’ and ‘Mr. Midshipman Easy’ take rank with Smollett’s ‘Peregrine Pickle’ and ‘Roderick Random.’ Not a few of his characters are as individual and as often cited as ‘Tom Bowling’ and ‘Jack Hatchway.’ And if he is somewhat out of fashion in manner, it is still probable that his naturalness, his racy dialogue, and his comical incidents, will make him a welcome companion for years to come.