What Series Runs Longest?
A notable aspect of nautical fiction are the number of series inspired by the sea. From Nordhoff and Hall's Bounty trilogy in the 1930s to the work of Tom Macnamara in the 1990s dozens of authors have attempted serial works about centered around an event, a character, or a family. Of all of these series, which covers the greatest chronological span of time?
Some definitions before we proceed. A series is two or more books, sharing the same fictional characters and events. They do not have to have the same characters throughout the series, but some continuity is needed. For example, in Jon Williams's Privateers and Gentlemen series, Malachi Markham, the hero of the first book, dies at its climax. Nevertheless he is present in spirit, if not in body, throughout the series.
On the other hand, Victor Suthren's Edward Mainwaring and Paul Gallant books comprise two separate series, even though they take place during the same time period -- The Wars of Jenkins Ear and Austrian Succession. The characters from one series do not appear in the other. While both share the same historical background, the fictional events of one do not appear in the other.
Surprisingly, the best known series are not even close to being the longest. The seventeen books of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series are squeezed into but 15 years -- 1800 to 1815. Ramage first appears in 1796, and by Ramage and the Dido has only reached 1807 -- eleven years.
Bolitho, Drinkwater, and Hornblower run longer. Bolitho's adventures begin in 1771 with a hard stop at 1815 -- when he dies -- 44 years. Drinkwater's adventures span 1779 (and Rodney's Moonlight Action) through 1814 -- but 35 years. Hornblower appears as a middie in 1794, and makes his final bow in 1848, when he meets Napoleon III in "The Last Encounter" -- 54 years. Fittingly, Hornblower covers a greater period than any other series focused on an individual. Peter Blood, Phillip Horatio Hazard, St. Vincent Halfhyde, and Archie Buller, all have shorter careers.
The only "series" about an individual that covers a greater time span than the Hornblower series is Nicholas Monsarrat's Master Mariner. This slim two-book series takes Matthew Lawe -- certainly nautical fiction's most incurious and least introspective protagonist -- from the Spanish Armada in 1588 through Great Lakes shipping in 1966, a period just shy of four hundred years. This series has a touch of fantasy. The protagonist gains immortality as a result of a witch's curse. Other than this motivating premise, it is solidly nautical. It is a ripping yarn, too, despite Lawe's total lack of wonder at his own immortality.
It would take the prize -- if we consider it a series. Unfortunately, Monsarrat died before his nearly immortal protagonist. Monsarrat finished the first book Running Proud -- which ended at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and wrote but one chapter of the second book, Darken Ship. That chapter ends in 1808. The rest of the book is outline and author's notes, complete with two separate conclusions. One book is not a series. One chapter and author's outline does not constitute a novel. If we want to be generous, and include only the sections Monsarrat concluded, this ""series" ran from 1588 through 1808 -- 220 years.
This leaves generational series. Privateers and Gentlemen is one example. It covers the nautical adventures of the Markham family -- Jehu, Joshua, and Malichi in the American Revolution, Gideon and Favian during the 1790s through the War of 1812. If we disregard the coda at the end of Cat Island (which takes Favian Markham from the end of the War of 1812 through the rest of his life), it runs from 1776 through 1816 -- 40 years.
Douglas Reeman has written two generational series. One chronicles the Von Steiger family, father and son, in WWI and WWII -- 30 years. It consists of the books The Last Raider and With Blood and Iron. Many other single protagonist series set in the two World Wars have that one beat. The second, the three book Blackwood series covers the adventures of the Blackwood family's service in the Royal Marines. The first book, starts in Africa in 1843, the last book ends in Flanders in 1918 -- 55 years.
What is left?
Perhaps fittingly, a little known series by a well-known nautical writer -- Dudley Pope's Yorke series. The series starts with four novels centered around Royalist Ned Yorke. Forced to flee Barbados to escape capture by the Parliamentarians in 1657 or 58, he turns buccaneer, and eventually becomes the Admiral of the Brethren of the Coast. The series concludes with two novels set in World War II. Another Ned Yorke, the last surviving male of his line, encounters Ramagesque adventures fighting U-Boats. These books end in 1942. Squeezed in between are guest appearances by Sidney Yorke as a supporting character in two Ramage novels, Governor Ramage and Ramage's Prize. Sidney Yorke is the fabulously wealthy owner-operator of a shipping line.
The Yorke series spans 280 plus years, beating the Monsarrat-written
portion of Master Mariner. It raises another question: could a descendant
of Nicholas Ramage appear in a WWII Yorke novel. Unfortunately, that question
may never be answered because Dudley Pope is in ill-health. Still, perhaps
another careful reading of the series may reveal the answer. And if it
does not, it offers a good excuse to do so.
Copyright 1996 by Mark N. Lardas
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.