15 December, 2005Issue 5.1EuropeHistory

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An Admiral with a Star Quality

Matthew Nicholls

Roger Knight
The Pursuit of Victory:
The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson

Allen Lane, 2005
873 pages
ISBN 0713996196

The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar was celebrated in October this year. The publishing and museum worlds responded with a predictable broadside of Nelsoniana, ranging from great events of state to amiably eccentric local tributes by way of TV spectaculars, museum exhibitions, academic conferences, and much else. The Queen reviewed the Fleet at Spithead, the National Maritime Museum ran a large exhibition comparing Nelson and Napoleon, Nelson’s funeral procession was recreated on a choppy Thames, and a group of enthusiastic incendiaries immolated a huge scale model of his flagship, the Victory, at a charity bonfire in Devon. A range of books were published to catch the popular enthusiasm for Britain’s most famous admiral, among them the subject of the present review, Roger Knight’s first-rate The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson.

There is no doubting Nelson’s star quality. A captain by the age of 20, he rose rapidly in a Navy that recognised talent, and he achieved a series of major victories against France and Spain that culminated in his crushing victory over their combined fleets at Trafalgar, effectively ending Napoleon’s hopes of invading Britain. Knight’s account of his life rounds out the traditional picture of a saintly leader with an incomparable ‘Nelson touch,’ explaining how and why Nelson succeeded: he combined tactical brilliance with an ability to conceive and communicate workable plans; he was a master of both the big and small pictures (one letter displayed in the NMM exhibition, written aboard the Victory shortly before the Battle of Trafalgar, suggested that the Admiralty might consider serving sailors cocoa for breakfast to improve their morale); and he was a leader rather than a driver of men, genuinely devoted to his country and cause and bearing the scars of his service. He was, in Knight’s estimation, the first English flag officer personally to board an enemy ship in battle since 1513. His fellow-officers and men, for the most part, adored him; Knight’s account is peppered with winning tales of his leadership in the cramped wooden worlds of his ships.

As a result, Nelson was fêted in his lifetime with an unprecedented adulation which he sedulously courted and paraded to the discomfort of more modest friends. His beloved house at Merton became a shrine to himself and he would pace the Victory’s quarterdeck clanking with conspicuous medals and decorations. He even signed himself with his ducal title (bestowed on him by a grateful King of Naples) in otherwise touching letters to his four-year-old daughter.

This pride and self-confidence characterised Nelson’s greatest triumphs and also, in Knight’s account, carried him to the brink of disaster. At the Battles of Cape St Vincent and Copenhagen his deliberate disregard of orders carried the day; at Aboukir and Trafalgar his bold actions resulted in overwhelming British victories. On the other hand, his over-hasty execution of Neapolitan rebels in 1799, and especially the hanging of the Italian admiral Caracciolo, cast a long shadow over his career, ‘paralysing,’ as one contemporary put it, ‘all the energy and zeal which distinguished him in every other situation.’ Knight’s interpretation of the events at Naples is characteristically balanced. Nelson erred but the manner of his erring was consistent with his character, showing the risk of trusting to his ‘quarterdeck train of thought’ though the situation demanded deeper political judgement.

The second stain on Nelson’s character was his infamous cohabitation with Emma Hamilton, a socialite of ample charms but dubious origins. Nelson and Emma were both already married, and their cuckoldry of the elderly antiquarian Sir William Hamilton provided fodder for the wicked cartoonists of the age. Here too, Knight seeks to explain without the effacement or exoneration that colour many previous accounts. For Knight, Nelson’s abandonment of his wife Fanny in favour of an odd ménage-à-trois with the Hamiltons reveals, like his conduct in the Neapolitan crisis, his propensity to stick to his guns once his mind was made up—a propensity that, in other places and seasons, made his name. Once he had taken up with Emma, he treated Fanny with financial generosity but ruthless emotional coldness. The beginning of Nelson’s relationship with Emma was untidy, and one suspects that Nelson had to deceive himself as well as others. Readers will have to decide for themselves, but Knight’s interpretation is cogent and never obtrusive. He also makes a good case for Nelson and Emma having been genuinely in love, and for Nelson’s affection for his infant daughter Horatia and his home-life at Merton, snatched in all-too-brief periods between months and years away at sea.

Whatever Nelson’s faults, his death at the apogee of his fame and in the very moment of his greatest victory made his reputation beyond reproach. For example, Arthur William Devis’s famous painting of Nelson’s slow death in Victory’s orlop deck echoes paintings of Christ and the pietà, portraying the dying admiral as a more-than-human figure. Moreover, the epic spectacle of his state funeral was only the start of a series of public commemorations culminating in the famous column of Trafalgar Square in the heart of London.

Subsequent traditions rewrote and reimagined Nelson to meet the needs of the times, and the final section of In Pursuit of Victory sketches out the ways in which Nelson was portrayed throughout the last two hundred years. His life has represented different things to different people: he has been seen as a Byronic, Romantic figure of dangerous talent, doomed to destroy himself; as the last in a series of British maritime adventurer-heroes, sharing with Raleigh and Drake a certain swagger and élan that commanded respect, obedience and eventually adoration; as the country parson’s son who became a viscount; and an example (like Pepys, also the subject of an excellent recent biography) of the British navy’s ability to recognise great talent. In short, Nelson has often been portrayed as a warrior, lover, and national totem. In Knight’s pages, Nelson emerges as a figure of his times, the right man in the right place at the right moment: ‘had he been born even ten years later, Nelson’s advance would have been hindered not only by an increasingly aristocratic and hierarchical service, but by an organisation that also stifled individualism and idiosyncrasy. It is difficult to see the young Nelson ever getting to the top of the Victorian navy.’

The first biography of Nelson was written in his own lifetime; after his hero’s death the publishing industry swung into action and has been producing new treatments of his life ever since. The first post-Trafalgar biographies, and especially Southey’s Life of Nelson (1813), created a Nelson intended to improve and inspire, attributing to him a series of sententious stories with no reliable basis in fact and overlooking his flaws (Southey, for instance, wrote that Nelson’s feelings for Emma ‘did not pass the bounds of ardent and romantic admiration’). Interest was renewed in the 1880s and then in two world wars as new challenges to British naval and imperial supremacy created a need for heroes. At the same time, a revisionist strain of (continental) history criticised his handling of the Neapolitan revolt and precipitated a ‘vituperative controversy’ that extends into the present day.

The hagiographical strain of biography had a long life, and at times the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme to produce works concentrating on Nelson’s colourful private life to the exclusion of his professional achievements. A recent book (Andrew Lambert’s Nelson: Britannia’s God of War), seeks to redress this balance, dismissing criticisms of Nelson’s affair with Emma as ‘the mean-spirited carping of disappointed hostile witnesses’ and deploring the Victorian air-brushing of his private life. In short, Nelson seems to have suffered the common fate of the British hero, being alternately set on a pedestal and rudely knocked off it. We might compare Robert Falcon Scott, another naval man whose ill-fated polar expedition of 1912 epitomised either British stiff-upper-lip pluck at its best or hide-bound foolhardiness at its worst, and whom successive biographers and historians of the later twentieth century have tried to knock off his perch; there has been a recent, very readable, attempt at rehabilitation by Ranulph Fiennes. Amid all this to-and-fro, Carol Oman’s Nelson (1946) was the first biography—until the publication of the present volume one might say the only one—to take systematic account of documentary evidence.

All of which is to say that despite the seas of ink poured out in the two centuries since Trafalgar, there is still room for a properly researched, comprehensive, and authoritative biography interpreting the polyvalent figure of Nelson for our own times. Roger Knight’s The Pursuit of Victory fits the bill nicely. Knight eschews swashbuckling legends and rigorously checks every claim against documentary sources. His is a meticulous book. About a third of its substantial bulk is taken up by a range of appendices which provide additional information and act as a handy reference to navigate through the book’s dense array of characters, events, and ships. Knight gives us two chronologies (a biographical one for Nelson and a general historical overview); a gazetteer of all the ships Nelson served on in his progression from 12-year-old midshipman to Viscount, Knight of the Bath, and Vice-Admiral of the White; a series of brisk biographical sketches of other major characters; a glossary for readers who may not know what a lateen or a xebec is; primary and secondary bibliographies; and copious notes.

Knight’s thoroughness establishes The Pursuit of Victory as the leading scholarly account of Nelson’s life, though serious historians of the period will be looking forward to the publication of the second volume of John Sugden’s enormous Nelson: a Dream of Glory. Knight is an established naval historian and quondam Chief Curator and Deputy Director of the National Maritime Museum, and his fluency with the events and personnel of the period is evident. As it happens, he is also an accomplished yachtsman, and his descriptions of naval operations benefit from an immediacy and freshness that never descend into technical jargon. The set-piece battles are terrific, but equally good are the vignettes of ship-board life and the yawning longueurs that made up the bulk of naval warfare then as now.

Nelson’s eventual greatness and dramatic death overshadow the book, of course, allowing a sort of dramatic irony to colour Knight’s accounts of his early set-backs. Knight’s command of documentary sources is especially illuminating in these years, which have tended to confuse earlier writers. We have everything from Nelson’s wine bills and garden plans to family correspondence and letters seeking advancement. The constant reference to and quotation from contemporary documents and accounts, in both the peaks and troughs of Nelson’s career, produces a far more three-dimensional Nelson than we have known hitherto. It allows us to understand something both of how he saw himself and how he was seen by contemporaries.

This is a dense and detailed book, but an eminently readable one that allows the character of Nelson room to emerge. Despite Lambert’s unabashedly apologistic approach, the modern tendency is to find flawed figures more attractive and real, more believable, than the unblemished plaster saints of the Victorian and Edwardian biographers. Knight’s Nelson was ‘a driven, flawed, tough-spirited man of exceptional intelligence and talent,’ and is all the more interesting for that. Immaculately researched, crisply written, well-illustrated, comprehensive, and honest, this is an excellent biography with much to offer experts and novices alike, and deserves to become the standard account of its fascinating subject.

Matthew Nicholls is a Junior Research Fellow in Classics at The Queen’s College, Oxford.