The Borderlands of Historical Fiction

Occasionally, I get fooled. Bruce Trinque of Niantic, CT, pointed out in an e-mail to me that a genuine HMS Surprise was the prototype for Jack Aubrey's ship. Built in 1794 as the French 24-gun Unite, she was captured two years later by the Royal Navy and rearmed as a 28-gun frigate and used as such until being sold in February, 1802. This HMS Surprise was the ship that recapture the Hermione in 1801.

What fooled me was Aubrey's statement that he served on the HMS Surprise as a midshipmen -- an impossibility for the real ship, because it was not captured until after Aubrey had his lieutenant's commission. And there was a real 36-gun HMS Surprise that was commissioned in 1809.

It is not the first time O'Brian has played this sleight of hand with real ships, either. HMS Surprise starts with Jack Aubrey as the "job captain" -- substitute captain -- of the HMS Lively, an actual frigate of the period. Its permanent captain at the time was a Member of Parliament, and did require substitutes to spell him while he attended sessions.

Desolation Island finds Aubrey commanding "the horrible old Leopard." It was the same 50-gun two-decker that seized three British deserters from the US Navy frigate Chesapeake in 1807 -- the famous Chesapeake affair that almost precipitated war with Britain. Following that cruise the Leopard was sent to the Cape of Good Hope, and served as flagship there until 1810. It was converted to a troopship in spring of 1811, and (during the period in which it was supposedly under Aubrey's command) served at Leith, and during 1812 to 1813 in the Mediterranean, and around the Iberian peninsula.

Jack Aubrey's command in The Commodore and The Yellow Admiral is HMS Bellona, a 74-gun ship-of-the-line. A Royal Navy 74 named Bellona actually existed during this period. The real Bellona, launched in 1761, served in the Royal Navy through 1814, when it was finally broken up. It was present at Copenhagen in 1801, although it ran aground at the opening of the battle -- serving as a shoal warning and target for the rest of the day.

Still, O'Brian does little violence to history by assigning Jack command of the ship. Bellona led an otherwise undistinguished existence following Copenhagen. Substituting Jack Aubrey for the Bellona's real skipper during 1812 to 1814 -- Captain McKinley -- may change the destiny of the ship, but does not alter the canvas of events during that period.

O'Brian is not the only author to mix reality with fiction. Virtually every Tall Ship author has introduced real ships into the plot. Some, like Alexander Kent, do so only very infrequently -- a cameo scene on a real flagship, like HMS Victory. Many others mix in the hero's fictional ship with the actual ships present in a battle. Dewey Lambdin, in his Alan Lewrie series, is particularly skilled at this. It is occasionally entertaining to read Lambdin's books with a detailed history of the period covered -- to determine who really was there and who was not. It is a challenge because Lambdin stitches the fantasy into reality with great skill.

Rarer still is the author who has a serial hero present on an actual vessel in a famous sea fight, except if the historical event is the theme of the book. Tom Macnamara's Henry Lunt series and Harvey Haislip's Tommy Potter series both revolve around John Paul Jones's exploits, for example. Without Jones -- and the events in Jones's career -- neither series would exist.

Eliminate such cases and the examples are much scarcer. Jack Aubrey is present as a supernumerary aboard the battles where the Constitution beat the Java and the Shannon took the Chesapeake. Adam Hardy placed George Abercrombie Fox at the Battle of the Nile -- aboard the ill-fated Culloden. (With Fox's typical luck, it ran aground at the battle's onset, depriving him of a chance for glory.)

C. N. Parkinson had Richard Delancey serving as Saumerez's sailing master at the Battle of Algeciras Bay in Touch and Go (a battle into which O'Brian also interjected Aubrey -- as a French prisoner). Richard Woodman's Nathaniel Drinkwater was also a prisoner on a French warship in a famous battle. He was aboard the Buccanteur during Trafalgar.

Finally, Hornblower aficionados may recall that Horatio spent his midshipman days aboard Pellew's famous Indefatigable -- the 44-gun razee. Unfortunately, Pellew did not take command of the Indefatigable until after Hornblower had been promoted to Lieutenant. During the period covered by Mr. Midshipman Hornblower Pellew commanded a smaller 36 -- HMS Arethusa.

The grand master of historical interjection is not Patrick O'Brian, however. It is Jon Williams. Whereas O'Brian is content to interject actual ships changing the details of their service, Williams uses actual ships that disappeared from history just before the events described in his stories.

He starts The Raider with Favian Markham as the first lieutenant of the USS United States, during the period in which the 44-gun frigate captures the Macedonian. Decataur's real first lieutenant, William Allen, was killed commanding the Argus in 1812.

But where the real Allen was given command of the Argus, the fictional Markham got the 12-gun Experiment -- a sister to the "lucky little Enterprise" of Barbary Wars and War of 1812 fame, and a poor catch even for a newly-promoted Commander. In actuality the Experiment had been sold out of the service in 1801. Markham commanded a real ship of the period -- but one no longer in existence when the events described in The Raider took place.

Williams topped that by having Markham literally steal the Macedonian, now an American warship at the opening of the next novel, The Macedonian. In actuality, the real Macedonian was never used during the War of 1812, scrapped near the end of the war, and replaced by a 38-gun frigate of the same name that survived until the early years of this century. (Trust me on this one -- The Chronicles of the Frigate Macedonian is flat wrong when it asserts the ship that burned in New York Harbor was the ship captured by Stephan Decatur.)

The final touch is provided in the climactic battle of the series's last novel, Cat Island, fought between Markham's Macedonian and Royal Navy frigate, HMS Forte. The Forte was, indeed, a French prize captured under circumstances described in that novel. It was also one of the few 24-lbr frigate in the Royal Navy, making the battle a neat reversal of the typical frigate duel of that war - by having an 18-lbr US frigate fighting a 24-lbr Royal Navy ship. The real Forte, however, was lost in the Red Sea in 1801, when her captain ran it onto an uncharted reef.

A fictional Favian Markham and a fictional Royal Navy captain fighting in two real ships, neither of which was in service at the time of the battle. Truly a battle fought on the border between history and fiction.

Mark Lardas
Palestine, TX

Copyright 1997 by Mark N. Lardas
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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