The Alan Lewrie Novels: A Perspective

I’ve recently finished working my way through Dewey Lambdin’s series of novels following the career of his character Alan Lewrie. I stumbled onto the first by accident, was captured in the first paragraph, back in November and to a certain extent that novel, The King’s Coat, crystallized some ideas that had been floating around in my head about providing a researched resource covering life at sea, particularly life in the British navy, in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

It seems that I have nearly a year to wait until the next installment arrives, so I’ll close this chapter with my perspective on the novel and the character.

I’ve read all the Hornblower novels, most of the Jack Aubrey, Lord Ramage and Richard Bolitho novels, and have just finished my first Thomas Kydd novel by Julian Stockwin. I find Alan Lewrie to be a much more interesting character than any of the others.

Lewrie goes to sea at age 17 and his priorities are much more in line with those of a 17 year old male than any of the other leading characters in naval fiction. In C. S. Forester’s Lieutenant Hornblower we learn that the usually controlled Horatio Hornblower can debauch with the best of them

It was perhaps an unfortunate coincidence that the height of his exasperation with this state of affairs coincided with the payment of prize money for the captures at Semana. A hundred pounds to spend, and a couple of days’ leave granted by Captain Cogshill, and Hornblower at a loose end at the same time — those two days were a lurid period, during which Hornblower and Bush contrived to spend each of them a hundred pounds in the dubious delights of Kingston. Two wild days and two wild nights, and then Bush went back aboard the Renown, shaken and limp, only too glad to get out to sea and recover.

There has been criticism of the Alan Lewrie novels by some reviewers over what is perceived by some to be overly prurient passages in some of the novels. There may be some justification there. While the sexual encounters in the first two or three novels did a lot to define Lewrie’s character and morality, arguably some of the later episodes added little to the story line or the readability.

Having said that, a man o’ war of that era consisted of several hundred young men, many of whom were pressed with no opportunity to go ashore. Describing life within England’s “wooden walls” without addressing the bottom rung of Dr. Maslow’s heirarchy of needs strikes at the authenticity of the narrative. As Rudyard Kipling observed in his poem, Tommy Atkins, “Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints”, the same surely applies to the foremast jack. Lambdin’s frank dealing with the whole concept of taking a ship “out of discipline” and bringing aboard wives, children, and prostitutes is a practice not, as far as I can recall, addressed by Dudley Pope or Alexander Kent and only touched on once by C. S. Forester in Ship of the Line.

In common with Hornblower, Lewrie suffers from impostor syndrome. Both are extremely competent officers, albeit Hornblower and Aubrey are much more reflective of the ideal of the period when seamanship was the be-all-end-all of the naval profession while Lewrie is much more the breed of officers in the mold of Philip Broke who saw the ship as a means of bringing the guns into action, yet both are constantly in fear of being found out as poseurs and incompetents. This is in stark contrast to the supremely confident characters of O’Brian, Pope and Kent.

Technically, the Lewrie books are as accurate as Pope’s and Kent’s and probably a little more accurate than Forester’s in a historical details.

To me one of the major delights of Lambdin’s books is that Lewrie is an 18th century man who happens to be a naval officer. He introduces us to the social structure of the time, the problems of inflation and food rationing, as well as plays, books, and music of the period. This places him in the company of a decidedly 18th century Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and stands in stark contrast with many other characters who are naval officers who happen to be in the 18th or early 19th centuries.

His progression as a naval officer is logical, including extended periods ashore on half pay, though I’ve come to dread his inevitably hostile and short sighted commanders. True, the British navy had its share of incompetents and general asses but given the fighting record of the navy one must presume that the majority of British flag officers were able and dedicated.

Strangely, for a man who is not averse to seriously kissing butt if need be, he seems to have neglected his patrons Hood and St. Vincent. In an era where interest was the determining factor in whether you stayed employed or languished on half pay, Lewrie pays precious little attention to corresponding with flag officers who have a favorable impression of him.

The first book of the series leads you to believe that one of the threads running through the novels will be Lewrie’s settling of accounts with those who were responsible for his being sent to sea. While he did settle his half-brother’s hash in grand style, he achieves a rapprochement, and sort of a friendship, with the mastermind of the scheme, his father. The rapprochement with his father was well underway by the time he took his revenge on Gerald Willoughby and it struck me as out of character for him to do so, especially with gleeful malice. The last remaining, and critical, participant in the scheme, his half-sister Belinda, has been absent other than passing mention of her two or three novels. One wonders what their next meeting will be like.

His progress of his marriage, to a certain extent, serves as a useful metaphor for Lewrie’s own increasing maturity and ability to be introspective. I’ve kicked Lewrie’s posterior several times over his casually callous treatment of a woman he certainly doesn’t desire, though I admit I am rooting for him to somehow work his way out of the hole he has dug for himself.

I think Lewrie buys into some myths of the time uncritically, for instance, the notion that British ships actually drilled at gunnery and the whole bad food theme, but the business of the novelist is to present his audience with as much familiar background as possible and not write a dissertation on why everything you thought you knew about the period is wrong.

On the whole, I highly recommend the series.

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3 Comments

Filed under Age of Sail, Alan Lewrie Novels, Naval Fiction

3 responses to “The Alan Lewrie Novels: A Perspective

  1. Pingback: A Misty, Moisty Morning « Age Of Sail

    • billcrews

      thanks for reading the blog.

      Cost and philosophy mitigated against live fire drilling. Powder had to be accounted for and powder fired outside combat could be charged to the captain when the ship paid off. Firing guns necessitated repainting the ship’s hull. The government paid for repainting at refits… within very meager limits… captains were liable for other painting. In an era where a captain’s reputation was made by a smartly turned out ship, this was non-trivial concern. Philosphically, the Royal Navy depended upon closing with the enemy and overwhelming their opponents with rapid and close ranged fire. In one of my blogs I write about an incident where Nelson was presented with a design with a gunsight and rejected it as unnecessary. Naval guns did not even have a dispart sight, the gun captain aimed along the side of the gun on a line that approximated the bore.

      Men like Broke of HMS Shannon believed in live gunnery. Broke purchased gunners quadrants from his own funds and had the decks scribed so he could focus a broadside on a particular point. He, however, was unusual. William James, in The Naval History of Great Britain written shortly after the War of 1812, intimates that over 2/3 of the British Navy did not fire live ammunition in training. Robert Gardiner in Frigates of the Napoleonic Wars writes about how sailing proficiency trumped gunnery from most of the navy.

      I would suspect that as the Napoleonic Wars lingered that many captains ceased to even dry fire their main batteries because of the issues of quantity and quality of manpower.

      In naval fiction, the Jack Aubrey novels address this the best with Jack being thought exotic for his practice of live firing his main batteries.

  2. Oskar Meadowfield

    Hello!
    Fantastic blog. I’m very much enjoying it as I work my way through the Lewrie novels. I’m hooked, though I’ve only just started.

    As a student of history, I found it interesting that these novels perpetuate myths about the era. Particularly, I wonder about this comment of yours: “I think Lewrie buys into some myths of the time uncritically, for instance, the notion that British ships actually drilled at gunnery.”

    Royal Navy ships practising gunnery at sea seems to be an image prevalent in almost every depiction of the age of sail that I’ve seen. Could you point me to your source that convinced you that gun drill at sea didn’t happen?

    Thank you kindly!

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