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October 21, 2010



Well done, Mr. P.

I started in on Line Upon A Wind but put it down because there was something about the writing style that irritated me. This was about two years ago and I can't remember what the problem was, and I'd also been on a bit of a nautical bender so was perhaps a bit, ah, water-logged, so perhaps I'll have to pick it up again.

Mr. P

Same here. I liked the book very much but the style--or rather, lack of style--irritated me no end. I wanted to know the period better, however, so I persevered. Then I penned this review for Amazon, which goes into our mutual difficulties a bit deeper:

4.0 out of 5 stars A Somewhat Choppy Crossing, October 6, 2010
By Mr Bennett - See all my reviews

This review is from: The Line Upon a Wind: The Great War at Sea, 1793-1815 (Hardcover)

This book deserves all the praise other reviews lavish on it. Starting with the genesis and evolution of naval warfare, before Nelson ever sets foot on his first brig we know why the ship was designed as it was, from the topsail to the keel. Questions that have lurked in the back of the mind for years (who first had the idea of cutting ports for guns below deck? The French, surprisingly) are answered. Yes, as one reviewer has mentioned we swing from the lethargy of expository detail to gripping, dramatic action--much like life must have been for the men aboard those ships. And when I say "lethargy of detail" I'm not complaining. Every detail is worth knowing--they just pass less swiftly than the chases and battles.

My reservations--and the reason why this review lacks a fifth star--stem from the author's style. Odd, even confounding, word choices, the deletion of definite articles where there should be definite articles, thus tripping up the reader many a time and oft, are all part of it. Convoluted sentences when the author, to his credit, strives to articulate sensations and emotions that are largely evanescent are another factor. But overall the fifth star is reserved because of the fluctuating perspective of the narrative.

We start with what could pass for the usual Politically Correct version of the development of Eastern and Western maritime traditions. We are treated to a rather sniffy quote from a prominent Indian historian to the effect that we should not be surprised that the aggressive use of ships for the domination of trade routes would be a Western invention. At this point I'm bracing myself for another 700-odd pages of predictable head shaking and eye-rolling. But once the real story begins, all that is forgotten. Words like "courage", "honor" and "heroism" are used without a blush. Several times the author explores the phenomenon of human courage and comes up with answers that are illuminating. He even goes so far as to admit that we moderns can find the examples of raw courage with which this era abound "intimidating". He's right, we can.

But always there lurked at the back of my mind the first few chapters wherein Western aggression was so dramatically contrasted with Eastern pacifism. Granted, by the time the two fleets are closing off Cape Trafalgar we are a long way from those early pages, but the disconnect remained with me throughout.

Finally, the ending seems enigmatic and unsatisfying. After, as the Walrus said, taking us out so far and making us trot so quick, we should find more at the end of all our travels than a rather pedestrian observation about how the author feels (and presumable we, too, would feel) on a visit to St. Helena. Yes, the brooding presence of the exiled emperor pervades the place and one gets a sense of all the history that passed there. (Wouldn't a more apt description be the history that was reviewed by the man who made it happen?) But the same is true of a visit to Gettysburg or Monticello.

Wouldn't a more apt ending be the observation--especially in a book that set up the dynamic from the start--that the final end of Napoleon, the master of Land, was to be imprisoned by the element that ultimately frustrated all his grand designs, Sea?

Re-reading it now, the only thing I could add is that we also never discover where the poetic, heroic title of the book comes from. A letter? A quote? It is never revealed.


By Jove, I think you've got it!

As for the title, it reminds me of those passages quoted by PO'B in the Aubrey/Maturin series concerning the mathematical formulae for finding leeway and so forth, so I always assumed it was probably a quote from some contemporary manual on seamanship. "Let XY represent a line upon a wind..." and so on.

Mr. P

Never thought of that. A very good guess.

My assumption was that, at some point in the 700-plus-page Odyssey, I'd run across someone reflecting on how the fate of England (and, by extension, all Europe) relied upon a slender line of wooden ships at the mercy of the shifting winds. An exhilarating and chilling thought, but now utterly without foundation.

Old Dominion Tory

A stunning post, Mr. Peperium. Allow me to raise a belated glass and make a toast to The Immortal Memory.

Mr. P

Thank you very much. There are aspects of the fight I ignored that I wish I hadn't--Schom points out that Villeneuve actually foresaw Nelson's attack plan, for example, giving that unhappy man some badly-needed credit. And yes indeed, I too will be doing the same toasting this evening with the best rum in the cupboard--belatedly, as there was a lot of homework to see to last evening.

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