The Sea Officer Bentley Thrillers: A naval fiction box set
In the words of the fine old song, ‘We’re Off to Sea Once More.’
Or to put it another way, my four 18th century sea books about the troubled young officer William Bentley have just been brought out as a box set by Endeavour Press. Which means that for a ridiculously low price (eight quid I think, without being arsed to actually check) you can follow his adventures from a greenhorn to a captain, from a virgin to a haunted sexual being, from a believer in the nobility of his calling and the British Navy to a man of complex crises.
Like many young men – children? – of his era he was lucky enough to be turfed out of house and home to live with several hundred men in a floating murder-machine, trained and moulded by older officers who ranged from geniuses to psychopaths, turned into heroes or corpses for the greater good and glory of the noblest and most self-satisfied country the world had probably ever known.
It was indeed a signal privilege to fight and die for England. To forge the greatest and bloodiest empire of modern times. To set the guidelines for the way Pax Britannica came to be seen by the world today.
William Bentley, a Hampshire boy, was lucky enough to have an uncle, Daniel Swift, who would take him on his frigate Welfare as a midshipman. Swift was a natural teacher, with a view of the men and officers under his command that everyone admired. Until they tasted, and endured, it.
Men like Jesse Broad, a seaman and a smuggler, ripe to be pressed, and destined to be hated by his savage captain. His natural nobility was a magnet to the young midshipman – and a red rag to the bull that was Daniel Swift. The ending of the first book – A Fine Boy for Killing – is agreed by many critics to be truly horrific.
It also sets the scene for the long rise to maturity of Sea Officer Bentley, and his fight for some sort of honourable survival. The survival and honour, also, of the woman he is born to love. Deborah – Deb – the Portsmouth slavey, the seagoing whore, the Spithead Nymph.
The books are too bleak for some, but I can’t help that, can I? I started writing them as a alternative to the gung-ho delights of the great books of the tradition, and as my stories developed, my view grew bleaker. I do mean great, however. Hornblower was my first love, Aubrey when he came along.
They stirred my blood, I read them passionately. But I somehow felt I owed it the poor sods who actually did our bloody work for us that we should maybe taste the blood as well. Nelson came home pickled in brandy, and Emma Hamilton, who had to sell her body for the first time at fourteen or so, died a penniless alcoholic in France. Their daughter was acknowledged as Nelson’s only in her name, Horatia.
To us British, some forms of honour are more important than others, aren’t they?