Commander of Sea, Myth and Tea Towel
By CHARLES McGRATH
Published: January 2, 2006
The many celebrations of the bicentenary of the battle of Trafalgar last fall were a reminder that Horatio Nelson, who died from a sniper's bullet while leading his fleet to victory, is the greatest of all British heroes - the inspiration for more tea towels, pottery figurines and ceremonial spoons than anyone else not a member of the royal family. The closest analogue Americans have is Nelson's near-contemporary George Washington, 26 years older, but the comparison almost immediately falters.
The Pursuit of Victory
The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson
By Roger Knight
Illustrated. 874 pages. Basic Books. $35.
Nelson was the better commander, an inspired strategist, but a hopeless politician. He was also vain, never appearing in public without his medals and decorations, moody and a little ruthless, especially when it came to furthering his own reputation. ( "If it be a sin to covet glory," he wrote to his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, "I am the most offending soul alive.") And Nelson was sexy; women found him immensely attractive even (or perhaps especially) after he lost his arm, and he had the kind of seductive public appeal that is the mark of true celebrity.
Horatio Nelson - or Horace, to use his baptismal name - came out of nowhere, one of 11 children of a colorless Norfolk parson and the only one who distinguished himself. He went to sea at 12, and his talent was quickly recognized, but his advance also depended upon luck and a judicious amount of bootlicking. The British navy in those days was in part a civil service bureaucracy, where many promotions were automatic and based on seniority, and in part a political rat's nest where having a friend in high places counted for a great deal. The whole enterprise was underwritten by a prize system, entitling officers to a share in the cash value of enemy vessels they seized, that was both Byzantine and corrupting. At his death, for example, Nelson was still locked in a lengthy court battle with his own superior over who had the better claim to some ships captured years before.
The way to make your mark was to succeed in battle, and when opportunities came, Nelson seized them with a sureness and boldness that have seldom been equaled, and that have made him among the most biographied of British heroes. Idolatrous accounts began appearing within months of his death, the most famous being Robert Southey's, which contended that Nelson's notorious relationship with Lady Hamilton, the wife of the British minister at Naples, did not go beyond "romantic admiration." His reputation underwent an adjustment when the Victorians took a dimmer view of that relationship and, in particular, of Nelson's unconscionable treatment of his wife, Fanny.
Lately there has even been a little surge in anti-Nelsonians, who claim that he was a sadist in the treatment of his men and a war criminal because of his role in putting down a revolution in Naples in 1799, when he allegedly violated a truce and allowed republican prisoners to be illegally jailed, tried and even executed on British ships. The Naples incident has also figured in two first-rate novels "The Volcano Lover," by Susan Sontag, and Barry Unsworth's "Losing Nelson," about a re-enactor of Nelson's battles who eventually loses faith in his idol.
Into these crowded waters, Roger Knight's huge new biography sails like a triple-decked ship-of-the-line, so stately and imposing, so well-provisioned with sources and footnotes that it is hard to quarrel with. Mr. Knight, who used to be the chief curator of the National Maritime Museum in London and is now a professor of naval history, is both judicious and formidably well-informed (benefiting from access to hundreds of brand-new sources), and among other things he dispels a lot of the old mythology: Nelson did not, regrettably, engage single-handed with a polar bear in the Arctic; he did not ignore the signal to withdraw from the battle of Copenhagen by clamping a telescope to his blind eye; his body was shipped back to England in a cask of brandy, not rum, and sailors did not reverently swig from it.
On the Naples incident, Mr. Knight changes what is usually assumed to be a black mark into a gray one, arguing that Nelson was, strictly speaking, within the letter of the law, but that he acted hastily and thoughtlessly, in part because of his slavish devotion to Queen Maria Carolina and the Neapolitan royal family. He mentions without much conviction the theory that Nelson had become irrational because of a head injury he sustained at the battle of Aboukir, but allows that the affair with Lady Hamilton, which was just then beginning to heat up, might well have distracted him.
In general, Mr. Knight seems to regard that affair as an embarrassment, as did most of Nelson's friends and colleagues, and he never wonders what it was that drew the couple so powerfully together that Nelson was willing to risk scandal. (For Lady Hamilton scandal was not a big deal; it was how she had made her reputation.) Nor is he curious about why, after the birth of their daughter, Horatia, Nelson was driven nearly mad with jealousy, imagining that the Prince of Wales was sneaking into Emma's bed. At times, the book is a little like that brandy cask; it pickles Nelson, instead of restoring him to life.
But for most Nelsonians the great test of a biography is the battle scenes - the descriptions of Cape St. Vincent, Aboukir, Copenhagen and Trafalgar - and here Mr. Knight does not disappoint, recounting these now familiar encounters with an exactitude that is also thrilling. And the book's account of Nelson's rise and success is persuasive, perceptive and likely to be the last word, at least for a while. Mr. Knight reminds us, among other things, that part of Nelson's genius was to surround himself with younger officers in the same mold, creating, in effect, a modern management style that delegated authority and encouraged initiative. It did not outlast him, sadly, and except for the monuments and the tchotchkes, Nelson's legacy quickly faded. In the Victorian navy, which became even more bureaucratic, more aristocratic and less tolerant of eccentricity, Nelson would have been a failure.