26 November 2009

8. Peter Simple by Frederick Marryat

It's hard to believe I haven't finished a book in nearly four years. It's hard to believe because it's simply not true, no matter what you hear on FOX "news." I have been reading. I'm teaching: Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite books; The Crucible, which I can't really express how bored I am of it; and Hamlet, which is so good, especially on this second reading. And I'm taking a course on Herman Melville, but until now, we have read all things that I've already read: Moby Dick, Pierre, and "Bartleby the Scrivener." For next week we are reading something new to me, Benito Cereno, one of the Piazza Tales, along with Bartleby and Billy Budd. SO far it has a very Joseph Conrad kind of feel to it. And I'm getting married in about three weeks, so there is that. I'm counting on the honeymoon's sitting around to end 2009 with a mass reading spree.

But, I've invited you here to talk about this book, Marryat's Peter Simple, published for the first time in 1834. The copy I have is from Dean King's excellent "Heart of Oak" series (Dr. Dogbody's Leg was another.). I can't recall where I heard it, but I understand that Marryat inspired Patrick O'Brian to write (and whose model for Jack Aubrey was Thomas Cohrane, an actual British Navy man).

Peter Simple is the son of a curate and is considered the fool of the family. His Uncle, Lord Privilege, is a rich baron nearby. Circumstances (that I can't recall, and really aren't that important) force Peter's father to send him to the Navy. Lord Privilege hooks him up with a position that allows him to follow the path of an officer, as opposed to serving before the mast, with the men. When he arrives at his first ship his country boy naivete is taken advantage of by his new shipmates. Quite badly. They trick him into insulting the captain, get him on the wrong side of the First Lieutenant, and all other smaller kinds of hazing that the good-natured, and rightly-named Peter Simple takes in stride. You'z guys are just funnin'!

Eventually, and ever so slowly, Peter gets the hang of the Navy. He finds his Garth/Ted/Han Solo/Louise/Stephen Maturin sidekick character in Terence O'Brien and they team up for pretty much the rest of the book: they have a good and kind captain, they fight some sea battles, they are taken prisoner, have to escape, fall in love, and then O'Brien gets his own ship. After that they fight some sea battles, remmet their loves, are caught in a hurricane, and get taken prisoner, are released, and then, sadly they are separated. O'Brien is sent to the East Indies and Peter is made First Mate on the Rattlesnake with the ineffective weasel Captain Hawkins.

And so here we must pause for a bit of a breather to explain the subplot.

Lord Privilege is Peter's grandfather. He's old and grey and full of sleep and nods by the fire. Peter also has an uncle. The uncle is a regular old Worm Tongue and has ingratiated himself into the grandfather's trust. And so he, the uncle, does a little tinkering of the grandfather's will, leaving Peter's father nothing, and himself everything. This destroys Peter's father. And puts Peter at risk in the service, especially once he is assigned to the Rattlesnake, where the uncle's friend Captain Hawkins is the commander. But before that there is much letter writing back and forth to England, and even Ireland (O'Brien tries to help, too) and many setbacks and dark days. Peter goes through many, many troubles - he even has to sit through a Court Martial! But, as Hamlet says, "Foul deeds will rise,though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes."

I'll leave the ending to you to figure out, of course, but if you have read much 19th C. Lit, you know there are a lot of happy coincidences and just-in-the-nick-of-timeses, and lots of karmic judgments to go around.

I definitely recommend you read it, especially if you're a Friend of Patrick O'Brian.