J D Davies

To Sea or Not to Sea

I have a fairly extensive set of ‘Google Alerts’, and inevitably, these include the titles of my books. In part, this is so I can pick up quickly on any websites that provide, or purport to provide, pirated copies of my work – and may the providers of such sites. their extended families, their friends, their pets, the sports teams they support, and the best-loved celebrities in the former member states of the USSR from which they invariably hail, suffer a range of excrutiating Biblical fates, preferably all at the same time. But the alerts also occasionally bring up some new reviews from people who are coming to the Quinton series for the first time, and this was the case recently. The blogger in question was pretty complimentary overall, but evidently has clear expectations of what something classed as ‘naval historical fiction’ should be like, expectations that appear to be drawn – as is the case with so many readers of the genre – from the brilliant Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian. The most important of those expectations is, not unreasonably, that the vast majority of the action should be set at sea; and on that count, my new reviewer is clearly impatient for Matthew Quinton to spend as much time at sea as possible, and as little time ashore.

Sea: good

In fact, this touches on a dilemma I’ve wrestled with since I began writing the series. Part of me would like nothing more than to set an entire book or two at sea, and nowhere else – easy to manage in terms of the scene transitions, no complicated plot devices necessary to get the characters from A to B, lots of opportunity for character development, plenty of scope to wax lyrical on life at sea in the seventeenth century. And, indeed, all being well, there’ll be a Quinton book coming along in a couple of years time which will largely fulfil those criteria. (Spoiler alert – Matthew encounters pirates in the Caribbean. I wonder what I could call it?) But if I’d tried to do that in all the books in the series, I’d actually have been guilty of historical inaccuracy on a grand scale. As I’ve pointed out before in this blog, warships of the Restoration period spent much less time at sea, and went on much shorter voyages. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, for example, the main fleets generally only went to sea between April and October, and then only spent a few weeks at a time actually conducting operations before returning to port. The great historian J R Jones described this brilliantly as being akin to Bomber Command operations of the Second World War: brief, punishing, deadly sorties, returning to base, then repeating the exercise again, and I’ve tried to reflect this in my books. Frigates could be out for much longer, of course, but again, usually only in home waters or the Mediterranean. The first major long distance deployment by the Royal Navy was made only in 1662-3, when the Earl of Marlborough, who appears as a character in The Blast That Tears The Skies, took five ships into the Indian Ocean to take possession of Bombay/Mumbai. (For the record his squadron consisted of the Dunkirk (flag, Marlborough / Captain Arnold Browne), Leopard (Richard Minors), Mary Rose (Joseph Cubitt), Convertine (John Povey), and the ketch Chestnut (John Stephens)). So one of the great staples of those who write naval historical fiction set in the Napoleonic period, the lengthy deployment to distant waters, lasting perhaps for a few years, is largely denied to me.

No sea: bad

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my principal aims in writing the Quinton series has been to try and bring the Restoration navy, its dramas and its players, before a wider audience. There’s clearly a long way to go in this regard: the other day, I was moderately depressed to learn that a message emerging from the ‘focus groups’ that the National Maritime Museum is consulting to decide on the content of its new 16th/17th century gallery (more of which anon) is that hardly anybody has heard of the Anglo-Dutch wars. But one way of trying to pull in such people is surely to fit the naval events of the age into a context that they do know – and that context is exclusively land-based. But what a context it is! Who on earth would dream of writing a fiction series set in the Restoration period without including Charles II and the sexual politics of his court, Samuel Pepys, the Plague, the Great Fire of London, and all the other dramatic events and larger than life characters of the age? So for the time being, at least, I’ll try to continue to steer a middle course, even if that disappoints those who think that something categorised as ‘naval historical fiction’ should have a much bigger slice of the action set at sea.

That, though, brings me to my final point. I’ve never actually been happy with being lumped into a ‘genre’ called ‘naval historical fiction’; similarly, my last non-fiction book, Britannia’s Dragon, is invariably ‘genre-ised’ by bookshops as Welsh history, and hardly ever makes an appearance on the naval history shelves. It seems to me that this tyranny of genres imposes straitjackets on authors and readers alike, and invariably leads to much discussion and criticism at conferences – as I expect it will at the forthcoming Historical Novel Society conference in September. Publishers are often remarkably conservative and risk averse beasts, who feel a perverse need to exaggerate what they believe reader expectations to be by trying to fit the square pegs of every book they publish into the frequently round holes generated by ossified and often inappropriate ‘genres’. The same is true of periods in historical fiction, of course: don’t get me started on the f****** Tudors, and the lazy assumption that they’re all readers want to read about or that authors should be writing about. One wonders how authors of the past would have coped with the blinkered mindsets of many modern publishers, and vice-versa. (‘I’m sorry, Count Tolstoy, War is one genre, Peace is quite another.’ ‘Now, Mr Joyce, I think we’ll need just a few revisions before we can classify this as ‘historical fiction: Ancient Greek’. And so on.) I’m very fortunate that my own publisher, Old Street, has a rather more flexible attitude – and so for the time being, at least, I’ll carry on writing ‘fiction which happens to be set in the late 17th century, some of which happens to be set at sea’. Which, admittedly, is a ridiculous name for a genre; but at least it’s mine, all mine!