I have harboured ambitions to write a novel since my childhood. Until almost my fiftieth year, my experience was identical to that of many other potential authors; I would write two or three chapters and then grind to a halt, perhaps because of loss of interest, lack of time, or else because of a nagging sense that what I was writing was actually pretty awful. It took me a long time to make what with hindsight should have been the obvious decision to write about the subject that I had spent the best part of half my life studying in great depth. Gentleman Captain began as three separate scenes, very far apart in the final book, and it then took me another three or four years before I began to make a serious effort to join these up into a coherent story. Initially, I thought I would do so as a form of ‘light relief’ from the very intensive research and writing I was undertaking for my large non-fiction book, Pepys’s Navy. Soon, though, Gentleman Captain took on a serious momentum of its own, and I realised very quickly that The Journals of Matthew Quinton had the makings of a series.
One of my main motivations in writing the book[s] has been to bring the seventeenth century navy before a much wider audience. The genre of ‘sailing navy’ historical fiction has always been dominated overwhelmingly by ‘the age of Nelson’, and there are obviously very good reasons for this – not least the fact that the Royal Navy was usually victorious in the battles it fought, which was not always the case in my period, and because many more printed sources are available for potential authors to call upon as research tools. But the neglect of the seventeenth century navy means that there is often a lack of awareness of some of the largest and most hard-fought battles in the entire age of sail, while the navy of Cromwell, Charles II and James II fought against arguably a wider and more interesting range of opponents than that encountered by Nelson and his contemporaries: they included the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, the Danes and Norwegians, the Barbary corsairs, pirates of many sorts on many seas, and tragically, of course, against each other, in the British civil wars and their aftermath.
The other great advantage of working on the late seventeenth century is the wonderful array of characters available to an author. The inscrutable King Charles II, his mistresses and the intrigues of his court continue to fascinate. The fact that one of the most important people connected with the navy in the period, Samuel Pepys, is also so well known to so many people thanks to his wonderfully frank diary, is a particularly happy coincidence. The period also witnessed several events which feature on that ever-shrinking list of historical facts that ‘every schoolchild knows about’, most notably the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of the following year. It saw important political developments, beginning with the restoration of one king and ending with the deposition of another, and undoubtedly marked an important stage in the beginnings of democracy in Britain. It saw remarkable advances in science, epitomised by such careers as those of Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Christopher Wren. Therefore, I wanted to write books that were just as firmly grounded in events on land as at sea, and which are rooted in the wider history of the period.
To me, one of the most important aspects of bringing Matthew Quinton to life was to place him at the heart of a complex family history, not all of which he knows or understands. The huge explosion in interest in genealogy in the last two decades or so suggests that many people are becoming more aware of how their own lives and decisions are shaped to at least some extent by their ancestors and their closer relations, even if they are not always conscious or accepting of those influences, and I wanted to write about a character whose family and ancestry contributed almost as much to his development as the navy in which he served. Finally, the fact that the Restoration navy contained, and was ultimately dominated by, so-called ‘gentlemen captains’ – well-born young men with little or no experience of the sea before they were given commands – meant that Matthew would begin his journals, not as a fully-formed mariner trained to the sea from his youngest days (as were and are so many officers in the real and fictional ‘Nelson era’), but as a complete ignoramus. I hope that readers can learn with him, and through his eyes, about the sea, the ships and the naval warfare of the Restoration age.