Review: Seize the Fire

Posted on July 6, 2010 by

On Saturday I finished up Adam Nicolson‘s SEIZE THE FIRE: HEROISM, DUTY, AND NELSON’S BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR. It is not at all a minute-by-minute account of the battle–about which I knew beans and still know almost nothing–and more an analysis of the cultural, economic and emotional context in which it took place.

Nicolson talks about the forces that shaped Navy culture in this century–the long tradition of deep aggression and violence embedded within British culture, the profit motive (many of the officers, particularly, were in the racket to make fortunes that would let them buy homes in the country and live the gentleman lifestyle), the disciplined maintenance rituals that kept the ships in good shape and the immense amounts of money borrowed by Parliament to keep them so. The spending supported the navy in both a direct and an indirect manner: they bought up so much of the world’s available supply of ship materiel that other countries were hard pressed to get their hands on things like wood, canvas and hemp.

His prose is precise and lovely to read aloud. Here, he uses Jane Austen to illustrate how the idea of masculinity had evolved between the 18th and 19th centuries:

By 1805, the femininity of the mid-18th century was being left behind. Exaggerated sensibility had started to look absurd. Clothes, for both men and women, had become sober and simple…. one can see dramatised the shift in values between the 18th and 19th centuries arranged around the two potential heroes of [Pride and Prejudice]: Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley is 18th-century man: handsome, young, agreeable, delightful, fond of dancing, gentlemanlike, pleasant, easy, unaffected and not entirely in control of his destiny. Darcy is fine, tall, handsome, noble, proud, forbidding, disagreeable, and subject to no control but his own. It is a strikingly schematic division. Darcy is like a craggy black mountainside–Mrs. Bennet calls him ‘horrid’, the word used to describe the pleasure to be derived from a harsh and sublime landscape; Mr. Bingley is a verdant park with bubbling rills. Darcy is 19th century man, manliness itself, uncompromising, dark and sexy.

SEIZE THE FIRE isn’t light reading, obviously, but it’s also not dense or in any way a grind. It’s mostly about emotion–how people felt about war, their attitude toward battle, the vital cultural differences between the British and French-Spanish fleets that led to the victory at Trafalgar, and the way the ideas of heroism and honor were shaped before the battle and, afterwards, by it. Nicolson’s analysis is intriguing but never ethereal. He’s writing about a slaughter, and you never forget that; this is a humane book, and a really interesting one. Not only do I recommend it, but I expect I’ll pick up his book about the translation of the King James bible, GOD’S SECRETARIES, in the not too distant.

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