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The Phantom Ship
Capt. Frederick Marryat
McBooks Press, 351 pages

The Phantom Ship
Capt. Frederick Marryat
Born in London on 10 July 1792, Marryat was educated privately. In 1806, at the age of 14, he entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman aboard the Impérieuse, a 38 gun frigate, commanded by Captain Lord Cochrane, the real-life model for Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey. Marryat married Catherine Shairp in 1819 and together they had four sons and seven daughters, including the novelist Florence Marryat. After over twenty years at sea and over fifty naval battles, having reached the rank of captain, he resigned his command in 1830. While on his last ship, the Ariadne he wrote and published a 3 volume novel The Naval Officer; or, Scenes and Adventures in the Life of Frank Middlemay. He settled down to a literary carreer, producing 4 more books between 1830 and 1835: Newton Forster; or, The Merchant Service (1832), Peter Simple, (1834), Jacob Faithful (1834), and 1001 Nights-inspired The Pacha of Many Tales (1835), while also acting as editor of the Metropolitan Magazine, where his novel Mr. Midshipman Easy first appeared in 1836. In 1836 he moved to Brussels where, with his fluent French and fund of humorous stories, he was very popular. For the next two years he travelled in Canada and America, producing six volumes of a diary.

On his return he lived in or near London until, in 1843 he moved to Langley, a small farm in Norfolk. In spite of the money he inherited from his wealthy father and the large income from his writing he seems to have been extravagant and the failure of property in the West Indies had put a strain on his resources. He found it difficult to continue producing two or three long novels a year but found a new market with books for children. Two of these, Masterman Ready and Children of the New Forest being the best known. The disappointment at the refusal by the Admiralty of his return to sea-service in 1847, which he thought would revitalise him, led to a pulmonary embolism. This was followed by the loss of his eldest son, Frederick, in the paddle frigate Avenger off the north coast of Africa on 20 December 1847. He died on 9 August 1848. In 1891 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, according to tradition on account of his skill in drawing caricatures. Capt. Marryat's writings are credited with having influenced Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, to go to sea.

Biography: 1, 2, 3
E-TEXTS: Masterman Ready
Portraits of Capt. Marryat
French ed. of The Phantom Ship

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

The legend of the Flying Dutchman (1, 2) is a story which has inspired:

Capt. Marryat's The Phantom Ship (1838-39)
Brian Jacques' recent Castaways of the Flying Dutchman,
William Clark Russell's The Death Ship (1888),
An opera
Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer (1843),
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1952)
The Flying Dutchman (2000),
and even a board-game
The Flying Dutchman
. I must admit to having had a number of preconceptions about Marryat's The Phantom Ship. Given its designation as "Weird" in Crawford, Donahue and Grant's 333 and the fact that it was published at the tail end of the Gothic period (1838-39), I was sort of expecting William Hope Hodgson's Sargasso Sea tales meet the convoluted sentence structure of Ann Radcliffe -- not even close. The supernatural horror elements are minimal, no ravenous fungus-engulfed ships drifting crewless in becalmed waters, and only rare glimpses of the lost souls aboard the Flying Dutchman. The Phantom Ship is far more a tragedy (in the classical sense) and a morality tale than a horror novel. There is only the oft-excerpted werewolf tale ("The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains") which would qualify as sustained conventional supernatural horror. Compared to Marryat's other nautical works, where a great deal of good humour is apparent, The Phantom Ship shows graphically the toll of greed, religious/cultural intolerance, human brutality, in short of man's inhumanity to man. Unlike many of his other novels, The Phantom Ship does not have a happy ending.

Marryat spent close to half his life at sea, and it shows in his writing. The "feel" of ship life, of the camaraderie and feuds among the tough men who make up the crews, the details of foreign trading posts, the political issues facing the merchant marine of the time, these are all clearly written from personal experience. Marryat's writing, similar to that of his contemporary Philip Meadows Taylor (Confessions of a Thug, 1839) almost completely avoids the convoluted and adjective-laden prose of the Gothic novel, opting instead for a simply written straightforward adventure narrative, which once it gets going doesn't let up. This isn't to say that The Phantom Ship reads like the latest Clive Cussler novel. Certainly the scenes of courtship between the hero, Philip Vanderdecken, and his soon-to-be wife Amine need to be taken in their historical context. Lines like

"Indeed, Amine! who could have expected such courage and such coolness in one so young and beautiful?" exclaimed Philip, with surprise.
might grate on some.

The Phantom Ship tells of Philip Vanderdecken's promise to his mother, on her deathbed, to bring a piece of the "True Cross" to his father, captain of the Phantom Ship who is doomed to sail and torment sailors until the Judgment Day, after murdering his ship's pilot. He meets the lovely Amine, a girl of Middle Eastern origin and they are married. Philip's attempts to reach his father are unsuccessful and he is continually finding himself in the presence of the seemingly unkillable Schriften, an emaciated one-eyed gargoyle of a sailor. When Amine becomes a victim to the Inquisition, Philip breaks down, and it is only many years later that he finally meets his father and the role of Schriften is finally revealed.

What most impressed me in The Phantom Ship, particularly given the date it was written, was Marryat's strong message for religious tolerance. Given that Simon Ockley's 1708 work The History of the Saracens, a work which viciously denigrated the Moslem faith and its practitioners, would have remained the authoritative work on Islam in Marryat's time, it is pretty clear that Marryat's opinion of Moslems was one based on personal interaction and not religious or "historical" conventions. The religious persecution of his Huguenot ancestors by Roman Catholics may have contributed to his portrayal of Roman Catholics as intransigent sadists, and in particular the Inquisition as far worse than anything a follower of Islam or any ancient traditional "magic" could be. Amine's final indictment of the priest whose evidence sent her to the stake

"'Unhappy woman!' you say?" replied she, "say rather, 'unhappy priest:' for Amine's sufferings will soon be over, while you must still endure the torments of the damned. Unhappy was the day when my husband rescued you from death. Still more unhappy the compassion which prompted him to offer you an asylum and a refuge. Unhappy the knowledge of you from the first day to the last. I leave you with your conscience - if conscience you retain - nor would I change this cruel death for the pangs which you in your future life will suffer. Leave me -- I die in the faith of my forefathers, and scorn a creed that warrants such a scene as this."
sums up Marryat's views.

All this is not to say that The Phantom Ship isn't action-packed, but it certainly is not a mere piece of escapist literature. It is also not a happy novel, indeed there is a feeling of ultimate doom which hovers throughout the novel, and when the hero does discover the key to his father's redemption, he doesn't get to enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of toils, tribulations and heartbreak. If it hadn't been written 100 years before Cornell Woolrich's "Black" novels it might even have been termed a "noir" novel. Given the intercultural and inter-faith hatred of the current days it is good to think that there were men, even some 160 years ago, with sufficient life experience and independent thought to see through the religious/cultural prejudices of their time and be open to diversity.

Copyright © 2002 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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