The remarkable life of Frederick Marryat, who saw wild adventure and indelible horrors at sea before, as a popular novelist, drawing on his violent past to bring thrills to generations of readers
Words: Glyn Brown
Illustrations: Matthew Hancock
Three Spanish Place is a handsome, narrow, five-storey townhouse, not big by Marylebone standards. Today, it’s home to several health professionals, including a physiotherapist offering acupuncture and massage. That’s something one of the building’s most illustrious past-owners could probably have done with.
Intrepid naval officer, traveller, hero of the Napoleonic wars, and a writer whose adventure novels made him so popular that he ranked alongside Joseph Conrad in importance—Conrad himself, with Virginia Woolf and Herman Melville, were fans, while Ford Madox Ford called him “the greatest of English novelists”—Frederick Marryat spent the happiest years of his life here. It was his sanctuary, where his busy mind could be stimulated by the bohemians and wits who lived close by and where, at a bachelor-style remove from the children he loved and missed and the estranged wife he didn’t, he could be himself.
It’s tempting to imagine him surveying the London rooftops through a telescope from the highest room, commanding the house like a ship: “Carriages at four o’clock! Man the tea urn!” But this makes Marryat sound charmingly eccentric, and he wasn’t that at all. Someone for whom the term ‘swashbuckling’ could have been invented, he was obsessed with exploration, marked by the life he’d had at sea, clever and witty, and occasionally violent and unbalanced. His writing (he was a caricaturist too) poured from a brain that needed occupation to calm it. He had various homes but couldn’t settle. He was urbane but would brawl in the streets. A restless, sometimes self-destructive ball of energy. Massage might’ve been just the thing.
Marryat was born in 1792 at Tower Hill, above the Pool of London with its crowded ships, his father in maritime insurance, his mother a celebrated American beauty. The trouble began when he was sent to a boarding school in Enfield run by a brutal headmaster. “Being of a genial temperament, he preferred play to lessons, and was constantly flogged for inattention.” Not just that. Frederick was intelligent, strong, self-assertive and cheeky—and he had a lisp, causing endless punch-ups while he fought off bullies. A natural rebel, he became difficult. His closest friend was Charles Babbage, who would become a great mathematician and a neighbour of Marryat’s in Marylebone. Babbage, a studious boy, would get up before dawn to creep downstairs and go over his work. Marryat begged to join him—and when Babbage agreed, Marryat brought his mates and started setting off fireworks. Just the kind of pal you want.
Hating school and saying he wanted to go to sea, Marryat repeatedly ran away. Finally, in 1806, when he was 14 and totally out of control, his father sent him into the Royal Navy. His rank was first-class volunteer on the 38-gun Impérieuse, commanded by the most famous fighting captain of the time, Lord Cochrane. So began a frantic and spectacularly brutal period in his life, beginning with the vessel’s very first departure, as his diaries recall. “The Impérieuse sailed; the admiral of the port was one who would be obeyed, but would not listen to reason or common sense. The signal for sailing was enforced by gun after gun; the anchor was hove up and, with all her stores still on deck, her guns not even mounted, in a state of confusion unparalleled from her being obliged to hoist faster than it was possible she could stow away, she was driven out of harbour to encounter a heavy gale.” Macho madness on the part of the admiral, and there was much, much more of that to come. If that’s leaving the harbour, it’s amazing any English ships were left to fight the French.
But there were, and the Impérieuse took centre stage. In the first three years of his life at sea, Marryat took part in 50 fights. It was a rebellious boy’s dream, if he could stay alive.
It got into his blood, and he loved “the rapidity of the frigate’s movements, night and day; the hasty sleep, snatched at all hours; the beautiful precision of our fire”. Survival meant getting even tougher. There were public school bullies onboard too, and he started to meet violence with violence. At the age of 18 he was already a man, seasoned by years of war. He’d be written about like one of his own heroes: five feet 10, “upright and broad-shouldered… firm, decisive mouth, forehead redeemed from heaviness by the humorous light that twinkled in his deep-set grey eyes.” The Kirk Douglas-style dimple in his chin made the fact he had to shave twice a day a pain.
He served on many ships and took part in campaigns across the world. There were insane, power-mad commanders, and Marryat, as a subordinate, helplessly watched sadistic floggings or often fatal keelhaulings. As he grew, his sympathy for younger sailors or those press-ganged—there were bakers, hatters and violinists enduring this life—increased, and he would later campaign not just against the press-gangs, but more widely for the disenfranchised and the poor. Meanwhile, he did what he could. A strong swimmer, he jumped into the sea repeatedly to save drowning comrades and even those who’d bullied him, causing himself future problems with haemoptysis, or bleeding from the lungs. But for now, there was much more to do.
Laid low by disease
Briefly back on land, ladies’ man Marryat out of the blue married Catherine Shairp. He was a good-looking, sociable naval hero; she was plain, prim and close to silent—perhaps, he was hoping, a genteel foil for him. Hmm. Almost immediately he was back at sea, now a senior naval officer on the huge ship the Larne in Burma and Rangoon, coping with fighting crews laid low by dysentery, malaria, cholera and scurvy—sometimes, with deaths and illnesses, there were only three officers and 12 men out of 200 left standing onboard. The scenes in Burma feel like something from Apocalypse Now: the bodies of captured British troops “crucified on rafts, were floated down among the English boats...”
In 1830, at the age of 38, he retired, having reached a captain’s rank. By now, Marryat had swapped, over a bottle of champagne, the large family home he’d had in London for a Norfolk estate. At first, he loved the acres of farmland and the rambling house, but soon he was frustrated by its remoteness. He installed his family in his elderly parents’ home in Wimbledon while he roamed from home to home in London, beginning to write, and editing the Metropolitan arts magazine. His naval temper still to the fore, he reminded one contributor about copy and finished, “Mind you don’t forget, or I’ll thump you when I meet you.” Lovely.
His debut novel, The Naval Officer, or Scenes in the Life and Adventures of Frank Mildmay, was heavily autobiographical. It did well, despite the savagery and general nastiness of its protagonist. Marryat gave up the Metropolitan, travelled through the USA and Canada and then, having officially separated from his wife and with his family now living in Paris, he settled in London, finally finding the home that fitted him best, the relatively modest Spanish Place. Here, he installed a few of the things he’d collected: weapons, a Burmese shrine, the tusks of a sacred elephant. There were stuffed animals and prairie curiosities, bear, buffalo and opossum skins. None had been properly cleaned; some were riddled with fleas. As his daughter Florence later wrote, “Many literary ladies honoured his rooms, stroked the panther, went into ecstasies over the great black bear and fell in love with the blue fox. But somehow, after the inspection, they all felt—how can their feelings be expressed?—irritated...”
In Marylebone, Marryat was right in the middle of convivial company. There was the eccentric, bibulous George Cruikshank, who engraved his caricatures; painter Edwin Landseer; composer Theodore Hook, with his jokes and conjuring tricks; artist Clarkson Stanfield. “It was here,” wrote Florence, “in the tiniest of houses, furnished according to his taste, a very gem in point of its adornments—rich in pictures and objets d’art, clothed in velvet and decorated with hothouse flowers—he received visitors and made the little rooms brilliant with their conversation and their wit.”
The man he wanted most to meet was his neighbour Charles Dickens, then 27 and living with his family on Devonshire Terrace, and when they met, they took to each other at once. Dickens didn’t see Marryat as a writing rival, but as someone who could present the reality of a life at sea in all its pain and humour, something he could only imagine. After reading Marryat’s latest book, he wrote, “I have been chuckling and grinning, and clenching my fists and becoming warlike for three whole days.” Other visitors sometimes flinched at Marryat’s temper and towering physical presence, which often had a hint of lurking violence. Then there remained the lisp, which no man dared mock. Apart from the unruffled Dickens, who, writing to a friend about a religious fresco he’d seen, observed, “I can make out a virgin with a mildewed glory round her head and... what Marryat would call the arthe of a cherub.”
By now, Marryat was an old hand at the adventure story, and his hugely successful novels included Mr Midshipman Easy (years later filmed by Carol Reed), The King’s Own and The Phantom Ship, based on the legend of the Flying Dutchman. In his heyday, it was said that “his books are read with breathless curiosity in the most refined circles”. Their lucid, pacey style was revered by the likes of Coleridge, Thackeray and Ruskin. At the time, the navy was still an emblem of power, full of romance, bloodshed and glory. Others tried to novelise the drama, but Marryat was one of the few writers who’d lived it.
But times change. Later, Virginia Woolf would ruefully analyse why Marryat’s fame wouldn’t endure. First, she observes, the themes are repetitive. There are terrific battles, awful deaths. And then more of those. But also, “some of the elements that go to make character are lacking.” She explains: “The intenser emotions of the human race are kept out. Love is banished; and when love is banished, other valuable emotions that are allied to her are apt to go too.” She thought now he was prudish, and he was. It’s was all about facts—“facts about yawls, and jolly boats and how boats going into action are ‘fitted to pull with grummets upon iron thole pins’.” Blokey, with no light and shade.
Marryat went on to write several books for children, including the still-read The Children of the New Forest. But Dickens had displaced him as the most successful British novelist. In 1843, at the age of 51, he retired to Norfolk. It wasn’t sad. His children came to live there, and he revelled in their company. He had a tubby piebald pony called Dumpling and a greyhound, Juno, “who would leap upon the author’s table and indulge in a wild scamper over his papers and, when rebuked, creep under his coat and lie there blissfully contented.” He grew his grey hair long and began to relax. When asked how he could exist so far from the excitement of the city, he said, “Ah, you see, but this is such a lovely time of year. It is sufficient for me to walk along the lanes and watch the green buds coming out.”
But he had internal haemorrhages, caused by those efforts at saving men overboard, and when his beloved son Frederick died at sea, he went downhill. He was laid on a mattress where he could see the garden, and pinks and moss roses were brought to his room. On 8th August 1848, at only 56, he dictated his diary. “’Tis a lovely day and Augusta has just brought me three pinks and three roses. I have opened the window and the air is delightful. I am lying on a bed in a place called Langham, on the Norfolk coast two miles from the sea. I am happy.” He was found dead at dawn the next day. The bunch of pinks and roses was found pressed between his body and the mattress. Love and intense emotion? There all the time, it seems.