Friday, February 18, 2005

Good Book: The Privateer, by Josephine Tey/ Gordon Daviot

Henry Morgan (1635-1688) was larger than life without any help, but (according to Josephine Tey’s account) he also seems to have been the victim of his disgruntled ex-surgeon, who went to Europe and wrote a sensational book which portrayed his ex-boss leaving destruction and despair in his wake wherever he went, and killing without provocation or quarter. Of course, the pack of lies sold like hotcakes and forever inflated and twisted Morgan’s reputation.

Tey, in The Privateer, rescues Morgan from that vengeful legacy and presents him as a man who generally was as decent as he should be under the given circumstances. No saint, this; but no brute, either. In own, inimitable way, he likely did change the course of history, helping to push the Spanish out of key portions of their American empire.

I have the Signet mass market edition, 1970, which has a cover that would not have lured me, and jacket copy that I find misleading after having read the book. (I think perhaps they had the ex-surgeon’s book in mind instead of Tey’s.) But I read it on the strength of a recommendation of a friend and the fact that after reading The Daughter of Time I will give anything by Tey at least a go. And I found it every bit as good as The Daughter of Time, if not, perhaps, a little better.

This is not strictly a book that is suitable for mixed company. This is battling for survival and supremacy in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century, after all. The descriptions of men just released from Spanish dungeons are not designed to spare the feelings of readers, but to explain the rage and despair of their rescuers and the reality of what they were up against.

For military history buffs, there are battle plans that worked, and those that didn’t. For hopeless romantics, there is the story of the woman who was not going to get married, much less to a privateer who was pulling himself up by his bootstraps, so to speak, after having served time as a bond servant.

And there’s wit, too, and humor. Henry’s first attempt to seize a ship goes much better overall than can be expected, but…

…he bowed to Henry and said: “You have come too late for supper, but the madeira is good, monsieur Sansouliers.”

Even a conqueror does not feel at his best in his stocking soles; and Henry was a very young and new conqueror, and a Celt to boot. The flick stung him…

…raising his voice a little, he said: “Bluey! Come down here…This gentleman is going to lend me his shoes," Henry said. "Will you assist him to remove them?”

For anyone who shies away from historical fiction because of all the prithees and ‘I am vastly gratified’s, etc., this book has none of that. As Tey says in the Author’s Note, and I quote, “…If the characters in the story did not sound quaint to each other, then they have no right to sound quaint to us…”. She writes accordingly.

The book was published in 1952, shortly after the author’s death. Josephine Tey was one of the pen names of Elizabeth Mackintosh (MacKintosh in some references), born in 1896. The Privateer was originally published under another of her pen names, Gordon Daviot.

UPDATE: Sunday, February 20, 2005. For those who like their history straight up and not wrapped in fiction, Tey wrote that in her view The Life of Henry Morgan by Brigadier-General E. A. Cruikshank was the definitive biography.

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