Mr. Midshipman Easy
Frederick Marryat

Review by Jean Anderson

This Napoleonic Wars era novel is a window on naval thinking in the early 19th century.

Easy's father is obsessed with the Equality of Man to the point of madness. Easy, whose family is very wealthy indeed, is brought up to regard everyone as his equal, and to fearlessly (and tediously) argue the point with everyone he meets.

A wise family friend sees good in Easy and cleverly persuades his father to let him go to sea, convincing both senior and junior Easys that equality reigns in the English navy!

Much of the fun in the book consists of how Easy is gradually changed by his naval experience into accepting authority and a hierarchical way of life. At one point Marryat, who had a long career in the navy before he started writing, argues against equality in a most un-Rousseaun and un-Tom Paine manner which obviously reflects the naval thinking of Jack Aubrey's time. Indeed, he defends the view that insists that officers be “gentlemen” by birth. Most curious to modern eyes!

Many of Marryat's positions are equally foreign to current thinking. At one point, Easy and a friend take passage in an Italian boat. Easy recklessly allows the captain to see his gold doubloons, and the captain attempts to kill him and his friend. They turn the tables on the piratical captain, and he and all his crew are killed in the process, save one, who is wounded. Easy and Gascoigne discuss whether to throw the wounded man overboard in a manner that strikes one as callous.

The question is solved when the man conveniently dies. Autre temps...!

There are a lot of other incidents that were undoubtedly hilarious at the time, but strike the modern reader as rather un-PC and illustrative of prejudices held by many Britons of that time against certain ethnic and religious groups.

But it's all meant in good fun, and Marryat is obviously sincere. A felicitous feature of the book, which has a striking parallel in real life, is Easy's friendship with “Mesty”, an escaped American slave, a former Ashantee chief, who is arguably the cleverest person in the book. Initially attracted to Easy when he overhears him talking about the equality of men as he performs his duties in the galley of the ship, he saves Easy's life, becomes his constant companion and advisor, and by the end of the book is major-domo of Easy's vast estates.

There is a real life parallel, and since it must not have been a common event, perhaps it was Marryat's inspiration: Lord Edward Fitzgerald, like Easy, had been raised under strict Rousseauan principles by his mother, the Duchess of Leinster, and his tutor, Mr. Ogilvy. The equality of man was stressed in the Fitzgerald home, as it was in the Easy household. Lord Edward was gravely wounded at the battle of Eutaw Springs in North Carolina in 1781. He was found on the battlefield, wounded and unconscious, by a runaway slave named Tony Small. Small had no idea who he was at the time. Small tended his wound and brought him to safety. Small accompanied him from then on, to Nova Scotia, across Canada to the Mississippi, and to New Orleans, and thence to Europe, where his became his friend and constant companion for the rest of Fitzgerald's life. After Fitzgerald's death in Dublin Castle, Small went to London, and died two years later in poverty.

Copyright © 1998 by Jean Anderson
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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