Gentleman in the First Person
A few weeks ago, Susan Keogh, author of the Jack Mallory chronicles, posted a pretty positive and particularly thoughtful review of Gentleman Captain, in which she raised a couple of interesting and important critical points. I’ve been meaning to post about these for some time, but a combination of holidays and the completion of the revised draft of the third Quinton novel, The Blast That Tears The Skies, means that I’ve not had a chance to do so until now.
First of all, Susan clearly doesn’t like first person narration, finding it too limiting. In terms of my own reading, I’d largely agree with her – and the use of the first person has caused me a few interesting plot construction issues in Blast, where it’s been essential for me to have more than one viewpoint character. (Having said that, I think the device I’ve adopted to get round the problem works very well, and fortunately, so far and touching a lot of wood, my critical readers agree!) But the reason why I adopted a first person narrative goes back to the very origins of the ‘Journals of Matthew Quinton’. In the early days of writing Gentleman Captain, I experimented with an alternative version of the first few chapters which used third person narration. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel quite as immediate or dramatic, particularly during the shipwreck scene at the very start of the book; and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this experiment confirmed my original instinct. One of my key objectives with the series is to tell the whole story of the Royal Navy from the 1580s, the era of the Spanish Armada, to the 1720s, when something that was much more recognisably the navy of Horatio Nelson was taking shape. Telling the story through the eyes of ‘old Matthew’, and giving him a grandfather who had been one of Drake’s contemporaries and rivals, achieved this purpose admirably as far as I was concerned, and would have been much harder to do from third person viewpoints; moreover, it presented plenty of opportunities for humour, with an archetypal ‘grumpy old man’ comparing the dog days of his youth with the supposedly ‘improved’ world around him.
Susan’s other point is that surely Matthew wouldn’t have been as ignorant of the sea as I’ve made him. Well, the short answer to this is – yes, he would. This was one of the key points about the commissioning of young aristocrats and gentlemen by King Charles II and his brother James; many of them literally were entirely ignorant of the sea, particularly in the early years after the Restoration (the setting of Gentleman Captain). Moreover, many of them actually believed that it was important to remain ‘ignorant’ – seamanship being regarded as a ‘rude, mechanical’ art, and thus beneath the honour and dignity of men of their social status. It’s true that some went against this belief, and I’ve based Matthew on the likes of Captain Francis Digby, a real historical figure of the 1660s whose manuscript journals reveal that he gradually – but only gradually – became a highly competent navigator and seaman. But there were others who held to the older philosophy that a captain was essentially in charge of the military aspects of a ship’s operations alone, and in The Mountain of Gold (and then much more extensively in Blast) I’ve introduced the character of Matthew’s friend Captain Beau Harris, who is again based on several real people and who actually revels in his determination to learn nothing of the seaman’s art, in order to provide a sharper counterpoint to Matthew’s determination to improve. One of the key themes of the series of ‘Journals of Matthew Quinton’ will be the way in which ‘gentlemen captains’ like Matthew Quinton gradually won out, thus preparing the ground for the Jack Aubreys and their real-life equivalents in the future. But it wasn’t an overnight process, and during the 1660s many a young captain like Matthew Quinton might well have struggled with an inner conflict between received opinions of what should be beneath the honour of a gentleman and their own recognition of the qualities necessary for a successful ship’s captain.