May 31, 2010

Frederick Marryat ... His Own Muse

Frederick Marryat, son of “merchant prince” Joseph Marryat and Charlotte VonGeyer, was born 10 Jul 1792 and was something of a handful for much of his childhood. He disliked his schooling, even though it was largely private, and found the indoor life of discipline very uncomfortable.

After trying to run away to sea several times, Frederick was permitted to enter the Royal Navy in 1806 as a midshipman aboard the frigate HMS Imperieuse. If he disliked the discipline required of a scholar, he found Navy life much more to his liking, in part because of the physical rigor of outdoor life, the relative freedom, the thrill of danger and the opportunities for advancement through licensed brigandage.

For 24 years, he served in the seas around France, in the Mediterranean, the West Indies, Burma, America, the English Channel and India. He was regularly cited for his bravery and the effectiveness of his actions, not the least of which was saving others; on at least five occasions he risked his own life to rescue fellow crewmen and was eventually given the nickname ‘Lifeboat’. His life at sea had surely matched his hope for a thrilling existence, but his promising career was affected by ill-health as he had suffered from malaria and the disastrous Walcheren fever – thought to be a mixture of malaria, typhus, typhoid and dysentery that wiped out thousands of British soldiers in 1809.

After his promotion to commander in Jun 1815, he went on to pursue scientific studies; he designed a lifeboat (for which he was awarded a medal by the Royal Humane Society), refined a flag signaling system and produced a code book. He also wrote a treatise against the system of press-ganging people into the Navy that upset his King some years later.

In Jan 1819, he married Catherine Shairp, daughter of Sir Stephen Shairp, who for many years was Consul-General in Russia. The following year, Frederick commanded the sloop Beaver and temporarily commanded the Rosario for the purpose of bringing back to England the dispatches announcing the death of Napoleon on St. Helena. He took the opportunity to make a sketch of Napoleon’s body on his deathbed, which was later published as this lithograph. While Marryat’s artistic skills were modest, his sketches of shipboard life above and below deck have considerable charm that overcomes their crudeness. (See the end of this post.)

In 1829 he was commanding the frigate HMS Ariadne on an uninspiring mission to search for shoals around the Madiera and Canary Islands. It was also the year his first book, The Naval Officer, was published. The following year, he resigned his commission to take up the life of a literary gentleman. His first works were essentially autobiographical, but given the life he had had, this was not a bad thing. To a country that was thrilled by the recent naval success of heroes like Admiral Nelson, they proved extremely popular. The King’s Own, Peter Simple and Mr. Midshipman Easy quickly established him in the public’s affection. For three years he edited The Metropolitan Magazine; then spent over a year in Brussels, and was as popular there as he had been in England. For two years he travelled in America – with whose institutions and dental hygiene he was not impressed – and Canada, where he served the British forces in quelling a revolution. He returned to London in 1839 and became a friend of many of the literary figures of the time, including Charles Dickens.

Although he had settled down on a farm in Norfolk, his had been one of extravagance and he was not comfortable in repose. The bursting of blood vessels in his lungs, caused by his concern at the Admiralty’s unsurprising decision not to allow him to return to the Navy, seriously affected his health. But the final flow was the death of one of his sons while on board a naval steamship. He never recovered from the shock; perhaps especially because his son had, like his father, distinguished himself by jumping from a ship to save the life of a crewmate.

Frederick Marryat died in 1848. His books cannot help but be of their time, with concerns about property and social standing being significant aspects of the plot. He created stories where people achieve what he saw as their rights through their own exertions, their courage and their determination to do what seems right – even, as he amply demonstrated, at the risk of one’s own life. His later novels were generally for the children’s market, including his most famous novel for contemporary readers, the Children of the New Forest (1847). It was written by a man who had a fair understanding of adventures and adventuring (although most of them had been at sea); a man who had fought the nation’s enemies all over the world; saved his ship by cutting away a sail during a storm; and who risked his own life to rescue others.

Frederick and Catherine Marryat had 11 children, 7 of whom survived infancy:

Blanche Marryat was born WHEN. She married Lynel Thomas.

Frederick Marryat was born WHEN and died at sea 20 Dec 1847.

William Marryat was born WHEN.

Francis “Frank” Marryat was born abt. 1820 and died 1855 in San Francisco, CA. A chip off the old block, young Frank had written a book of traveler's tales from Borneo and the Indian archipelago. Looking for a new writing subject, he set his sights on Gold Rush California.

In 1850, with his manservant and three hunting dogs in tow, Frank left England behind, crossed the Atlantic and the Isthmus of Panama, and made his way towards the Golden Gate. The book that resulted, California Mountains and Molehills, was published in 1855 ... ironically the year of his own demise from yellow fever. His book covered a phenomenal amount of early California history, all neatly collected to satisfy the curiosity of his English reading public ... the Chinese question, the Committee of Vigilance, squatter wars, bears, rats, oysters, gold, even the pickled head of Joaquin Murieta. He then sailed into the Bay just as San Francisco was being destroyed by the Great June Fire of 1850.

Catherine Marryat was born abt. 1826.

Petra Marryat was born WHEN.

Norman Marryat was born 8 Jul 1822.

Augusta Marryat was born abt. 1828 in Fulham, England. She was a writer and illustrator who wrote children's books, including Left to Themselves: A Boys Adventure in Australia (1878). It is not known whether she actually visited Australia.

Emilia M. Marryat was born abt. 1830 in Sussex, England. She married Henry Edmonds Norris in Jun 1862. Like her sisters Augusta and Florence, Emilia was a writer. Her books included Temper: A Tale (1854), Henry Lyle: Or Life and Existence (1856), The Early Start in Life (1867), and Amongst the Maoris: A Book of Adventure (1874). It has not been established that she ever visited Australia.

Florence Marryat was born 9 Jul 1833 in Brighton, England and died 1899 in WHERE. On 13 Jun 1854, she married Thomas Ross Church in Penange, Malaya. Thomas was an officer of the British army in India, so they spent their married life traveling that country. She suffered a breakdown in 1860 and, pregnant, returned to Brighton with their three children.

In Brighton, Florence wrote her first novel, Love’s Conflict (1865). Many reviewers of her work were alarmed by such themes as adultery, alcoholism and marital cruelty. She rejected the accusations of sensationalism, saying she wrote from her own experience. Not surprisingly, she and Thomas divorced in 1879! Later that year, she remarried to Colonel Francis Lean.

Throughout her life, Florence was a British novelist, a playwright, a revue singer and actress in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. She wrote about 90 novels, adapting some of them for the stage, and even took a role in a drama she had written. But she is probably best known for her involvement with the spiritual movement of the late 19th century, when she participated in countless séances and claimed to have communicated with her two dead daughters and a brother who died in a shipwreck. She wrote of her experiences in a highly successful non-fiction book, There Is No Death (which is being published on the web site GhostWritings) and its sequel, The Spirit World. Spiritualism also influenced her works of fiction in her novels The Clairvoyance of Bessie Williams and The Strange Transfiguration of Hannah Stubbs.

Cecilia “Caroline” Marryat was born 1835 in Belgium.


A“self portrait”, showing his mother is weeping because his departure is near. He’s poking his sister in the backside and the sea chest is being packed with all the things a young gentleman might need at sea (“powdre, green tea, portable soup, holy bible, cherry brandy, meat”.) He’s marked the sea chest with “Mast. Will. C….. – H.M. Ship Hellfire, West India Station”. Note the painting of Nelson over the mantle.

Young Frederick drops his hat in shock as he sees where he'll spend the next six years of his life. The older midshipmen are smoking, drinking rum or playing the flute, while a young middie is cleaning his boots. Another is napping and one of his "brother officers" obviously plays a prank on him.

Here you can see a midshipman who’s been “masted”. That’s a light punishment which means he has to spend a couple of hours in the masthead. The young gentleman is napping (he has tied himself to the cross tree so not to fall down). Usually this was meant to miss a meal ... unpleasant, but not harmful. However, when the weather was rough, it was not really fun to be up there. But no captain would have risked a midshipman to fall to death in a storm, so it’s not like one of the lads would have been sent up if one was on the way.

Badly secured cannon balls are rolling dangerously across the deck during rough seas, and the midshipmen try to get a hold wherever possible. It was not easy to keep balance under such circumstances, as you can see on the picture.

Notice this poor, dripping wet and freezing middie in the front of the picture. The other men either had more common sense or the means to wrap themselves up in thick cloaks and coats. A ship’s boy is bringing some rum for the officers on watch to warm up.

A midshipman is serving his lieutenant a cup of tea. The lieutenant, spy glass under his arm, supervises the daily holystoning of the deck.

Once a midshipman passed his lieutenant’s exam, he was allowed to partake in “festivities” in the officer’s mess. Obviously, some of the officers in this sketch are already completely drunk.