[Ed Note. This post has been substantially updated. For a synopsis of the novel scroll down.]
Just finished reading Dewey Lambdin’s The King’s Coat. As this except from the opening paragraph will show you, Alan Lewrie is not Horatio Hornblower. Were he, Lady Barbara Wellesly would have had a much more interesting trip home.
In retrospect, perhaps, getting into his half sister’s mutton was not the brightest idea Alan Lewrie had ever had…Admittedly, he had suffered some pangs of concern that they were related, but since he was a Willoughby by blood if not by name, they had submerged wherever guilt pangs go when faced directly against Willoughby nature. Run shrieking for the nearest window, he surmised to himself, if they have any sense at all.
I tried the first of these books by Lambdin by chance and have been taken by the Lewrie character. The books are not Harold Robbins potboilers but rather owe a substantial debt to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, in character, Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe novels in style, and Frederick Marryat’s The King’s Own, in some of the plot.
The biographies of each of the well known fictional naval heroes of the Napoleonic era borrow significantly from factual characters. For instance, like Dudley Pope’s Lord Ramage, both Admiral Lord Cornwallis and Lord Cochrane descended from the nobility. Nelson and Horatio Hornblower are scions of the emerging middle class, Nelson’s father a minister and Hornblower’s a doctor. In “the Reverse of the Medal” as well as “Master and Commander” Patrick O’Brian appropriates events from Lord Cochrane’s life as central plot elements.
Alan Lewrie is a bit different. He comes, not unlike a large number of naval officers of the period, from the minor gentry. However, where most young men destined for a career as a naval officer joined the fleet at age 11 or 12 as a captain’s servant or as a midshipman, Lewrie is 17, spoiled, undisciplined, and an embarrassment to a rather embarrassing family.
While many online reviews of the book have focused on the sexual exploits of Midshipman Lewrie, I think the most interesting features are 1) a more accurate portrayal of life for the common seaman and midshipmen than we usually see, 2) the character study of Lewrie, himself, as he first sets about to master seamanship to avoid punishment but finds himself becoming a seaman in the process, and 3) the critical role played by the the senior hands in training young midshipmen to be officers.
Synopsis and major spoilers follow:
The novel opens in January 1780. Seventeen year old wastrel Alan Lewrie is taken in flagrante delicto with his half sister, Belinda, by the local vicar, his father, the family lawyer, and his half brother. He is informed that he is to be banished from England in return for his half sister not charging him with rape. A deal is cut to send Lewrie to the navy as a midshipman.
Lewrie has a rocky start on the 64-gun HMS Ariadne. He finds that the family’s solicitor has informed the captain that Lewrie is being sent into the navy as punishment. He is unused to living in close quarters with others of his own age, but not necessarily of his social standing.
He decides to apply himself to learning his trade as a means of avoiding beatings and ridicule. He was a good student while in school and finds he is slowly but surely able to master the basic skills of being a sailor. During a storm he is given a perilous task of securing some of the ship’s boats which are working loose from their lashings. He does the job well and moves up in the esteem of the officers of the ship.
However, the HMS Ariadne is not a fighting ship. Gun drills are done with no enthusiasm and this tells when HMS Ariadne looses several members of its convoy to American privateers because of terrible gunnery.
In the aftermath of an accidental death on the ship, Lewrie uses the incident to discretely discredit another midshipman who is widely regarded as a vicious bully. The incident goes too far and the man makes an attempt on Lewrie’s life which results in his being broken in rank and flogged. Lewrie is appalled at the quickness and severity of the judicial system aboard ship.
After a year of escorting convoys from England to New York and along the Atlantic Seabord, HMS Ariadne is reassigned to the West Indies. In transit to Antigua, she runs afoul of a Spanish ship of the line disguised as a Dutch merchantman. HMS Ariadne goes into action unprepared and a bloody battle ensues which nearly results in HMS Ariadne being taken. Lewrie assumes command of a gun deck after the senior officers there are killed and acquits himself well. In the ensuing court martial, Lewrie’s defense of his captain, even though he knows the man is culpable for the near loss of HMS Ariadne, wins him a good opinion from his cashiered captain and the members of the court martial panel.
The good reputation Lewrie earned out of his heroism on HMS Ariadne lands him a position on a schooner, HMS Parrot, operating independently under his mentor, Lieutenant James Kenyon who was also assigned to HMS Ariadne.
As the result of a party, Lewrie enters into a liaison with an older woman which will haunt him in the future and he learns a secret about the life of his mentor, Kenyon.
While HMS Parrot is transporting Lord and Lady Cantner, the ship is wracked by an outbreak of yellow fever. Kenyon is disabled by it, leaving Lewrie to act as an officer. Several of the crew die. While they are barely able to manage the ship they are attacked by a French privateer. Lewrie refuses orders to surrender and fights back. He does so after HMS Parrot has struck her colors. He wins the battle but earns the opprobrium of Kenyon. He is also stricken by yellow fever.
He is allowed to convalesce in the home of Rear Admiral Onsley Matthews, commander of the fleet in Antigua. There he meets Lucy Beauman, the admiral’s niece, and falls in love with her.
He finds that the saving of Lord Cantner from captivity has earned the approval of his superiors despite having violated the customs of war and joins he Rear Admiral Matthews’s staff as an aide.
An encounter with several army officers after a party results in a duel when Lucy Beauman is insulted. Lewrie kills his man and is quickly posted to HMS Desperate to get him to sea and away from the dead man’s friends.
The new assignment is aboard a frigate, HMS Desperate. The captain is titled aristocrat and one of the midshipmen is his favorite. The captain is skeptical of Lewrie because of the duel and Lewrie sets about applying himself diligently and wins the respect of the captain and the first lieutenant. The ship is efficiently run and very successful in taking prizes.
Lewrie’s run of good luck comes to an end when Rear Admiral Matthews is replaced by Rear Admiral Sir George Sinclair. At the reception to introduce Sinclair to his new command, Lewrie finds Sinclair’s flag captain is none other than the same Captain Bevan who took custody of him from his father and placed him on his first ship.
In short order, his history becomes known to his new commander and he finds himself relegated to insignificant activities and is promised that he will be turned out of the ship at the first opportunity.
HMS Desperate leaves Kingston as part of a small squadron tasked to suppress American smugglers in the Danish Virgin Islands. They take several prizes and Treghues pointedly assigns prize masters to them junior to Lewrie.
They engage in a brutal action with an American brig and take a French transport carrying troops and horses to Virginia. Lewrie finds secret orders among the captain’s effects among other things. He redeems himself, somewhat, in the eyes of Treghues and the novel ends with HMS Desperate en route to the Virginia Capes.