At long last Sir Edward Pellew has a new biography. Stephen Taylor, Times journalist and author of Storm and Conquest: The Battle for the Indian Ocean, 1808-10 and The Caliban Shore: The Fate of the Grosvenor Castaways, has written a new biography of Admiral Lord Exmouth. Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain published by Faber and Faber in the UK and Norton in the USA. Commander is thoroughly well researched, impeccably referenced and the writing style is clear and concise. Taylor paints a warm and vivid picture of a man he has clearly come to respect, but whose faults and failings he makes no attempt to conceal or excuse.
Pellew has already been the subject of two biographies. The first by Edward Osler was published in 1834 with the blessing of Pellew’s elder brother Samuel, but against the express wishes of the rest of his family, including his wife Susan. Osler’s biography, written immediately after Pellew’s death, verges on the hagiographic and deliberately obscures aspects of Pellew’s background and upbringing. It is also quite incorrect in many places. A second biography was written in 1934 by C. Northcote Parkinson (also the author of the fictional biography The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower). Although Parkinson had access to the archive of Pellew’s correspondence, many of his highly questionable observations on Pellew’s character are based on little more than his own imagination. Taylor pulls no punches in criticising Pellew’s previous biographers, particularly Parkinson, who he describes as follows:
Parkinson had a prodigious intellect but the life of Pellew, written in haste, is wordy, condescending (particularly considering that it came from the pen of a 23 year old) and simply wrong in some respects, notably underestimating the difficulty of Pellew’s early years, his attitude to discipline and the nature of the resentment for which he became a target.
Taylor sets out to correct many of the common misconceptions about Pellew that have resulted from Osler and Parkinson, particularly in relation to his background and interest (or lack thereof), his partially justifiable reputation for avarice and nepotism, and the unfounded allegation that he was a harsh disciplinarian whose subordinates neither loved nor cared for him. Instead Taylor reveals a more accurate portrait of the man based on his own letters and log books, and the recollections and observations of his contemporaries, both friends and foes. Pellew’s painfully honest and deeply moving correspondence with his long standing friend Alex Broughton, which to some extent sets the tone of much of the book, is particularly revealing of Pellew’s character as a man.
Although very little correspondence has survived between Pellew and his wife Susan, the few letters that do exist in the archives show her to have been a strong willed and immensely capable woman, who managed her husband’s estate and cared for their extended family with the same competence, confidence and sensibility that her husband brought to commanding his ships. Despite the lack of surviving correspondence, Taylor never underestimates the importance of Pellew’s relationship with his wife, and it is to his credit that “the fascinating Susan” emerges as a vivid character in her own right.
Interestingly, in the introduction to Commander, Taylor identifies Pellew not with his most famous fictional junior officer, Horatio Hornblower, but with that other great fictional sea officer Jack Aubrey.
Biographers run the risk of identifying themselves too closely with their subjects, of imputing to them qualities and characteristics that did not exist, particularly when these might add to their appeal. I have therefore hesitated to make a connection with fiction and a character popular from novels set in the age of Nelson. Repeatedly, however, I have been drawn back to similarities between Edward Pellew and Patrick O’Brian’s creation, Jack Aubrey. Both were fighting captains sans pareil in single ship actions. Both were gunnery experts who drilled their ships for accuracy and speed of fire. Both happened to be strong swimmers with a penchant for going overbaord to rescue clumsy or drunken hands. Both sustained warm friendships with gallant enemy captains. Both nurtured entourages of followers who accompanied them devotedly from ship to ship. They were genial hosts at dinner in the great cabin, fond of wine and company, yet implacable and utterly single minded in battle. They were also unworldly fellows who made a hash of dealing with their superiors. Big men who tended to bulk in later years, they were loving husbands and fathers, yet with an eye that might roam.
O’Brian was touchily guarded about his inspiration for Aubrey. While openly drawing on the exploits of another frigate captain, Thomas Cochrane, he was disdainful of the man himself, insisting that the real model for Aubrey’s character was his own brother. Readers will judge for themselves whether O’Brian was ignorant of his character’s resonance with Pellew. Either way he deserves to be remembered, for a life of adventure in an age of sail, as as a man thought by his contemporaries to be the greatest sea officer of his time.
I wouldn’t like to comment on whether or to what degree O’Brian was influenced by Pellew, but this reader certainly judges that in terms of character, there is a striking similarity between Pellew and Aubrey.
Taylor does however compare Hornblower to one of Pellew’s historical junior officers; Jeremiah Coghlan, who Pellew first encountered on the deck of the stricken merchant ship Dutton. Pellew was so impressed with Coghlan’s gallant conduct that he invited him to join the Indefatigable as midshipman. Coghlan lived up to his early promise and went on to demonstrate courage, zeal and a mad streak that might have made even Hornblower baulk.
While there are one or two incidents in Pellew’s career that the book necessarily skims over, Taylor’s Commander is a comprehensive and revealing biography that will hopefully replace Osler and Parkinson as the authoritative account of Pellew’s life and service.