Portsmouth Lass

One of the interesting thing I’m encountering in this project is teasing fact out from fiction. In reality, we don’t know a whole lot about life on an man o’ war of the Age of Sail. Some accounts have come down to us but they don’t talk about a lot of the details because that information was self evident to people of the time. Novels by people like Frederick Marryat can provide us with a lot of insight but we are hampered by the fact that they are fiction and we know how well our own fiction reflects modern society and current events.

Obviously, a novelist writing of this period must use his imagination and knowledge to fill in blank spots much as a modern archaeologist works to fill in the historical record based on clues, intuition, and deduction. The better the author, the harder it will be to tell where the seams are between what is known and what is guessed. For an excellent example of work in this genre, read Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal

So where is this going?

When I was compiling my list of characters from the Dewey Lambdin’s Alan Lewrie novel The Gun Ketch I’d intended to link to an mp3 or similar of the sea chanty “Portsmouth Lass” because of this reference in the novel:

The ship’s idlers who played fiddle and fifes lurched into life, play and gay pulley-hauley chantey, “Portsmouth Lass,” the only one allowed in the Fleet…

I was intrigued. So I searched for the tune and could not find it. Odd. The only chanty allowed in the Fleet but no lyrics or tune on-line.

Then I stumbled onto this on a yahoo group devoted to discussing Richard Bolitho novels:

Dear James, Many thanks for your message. I’m sorry to have to tell you that I made up “Portsmouth Lass“! This reminds me of quite an early Bolitho novel, in which I couldn’t find an island that suited my purpose, so I invented one and put it where I wanted it. When the time came for the book to be reviewed, I was amused to read that, in the words of the reviewer, “This island has hardly changed since Richard Bolitho knew it”! It also happened with a tropical disease I had to have, the symptoms of which I invented. I was at a gathering of quite eminent medical people when one of them who was a specialist in tropical medicine came up to me and said, “I don’t know how you found out about such and such, as it’s such a rare disease, but you described the symptoms perfectly.” Amazing what the imagination can do. Best wishes and please keep reading the books. Douglas Reeman.

Reeman, of course, is the actual name of Bolitho author Alexander Kent.

There you have it.

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Filed under Age of Sail, Alan Lewrie Novels, Naval Fiction, Naval Life, Sea Chanteys

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