Nelson: A Dream of Glory by John Sugden

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Nelson: A Dream of Glory by John Sugden

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: The early life of Nelson provides a particular insight into what made him the man to command at Trafalgar. More than a biography, this book is a sharp insight to the life and times of the various ranks in the navy during the late 18th century.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 788 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 9781845951917

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I will admit that I didn't know what I was letting myself in for when I saw Nelson: A Dream of Glory sitting on the Bookbag shelf, but I had just come back from Portsmouth and a wander around on the Victory, so it was a bit hard to resist.

The person who, purely on dimensions I hasten to add, called it a brick of a book got it slightly wrong. House bricks are smaller than this. And weigh much less.

Make no mistake: Sugden's offering is a mighty tome. At some 788 pages, plus illustrations, notes, index etc it isn't one to while away a quiet couple of hours.

Fortunately, it is a mighty tome in the other respect as well. The near 100 pages of notes (I have had to economise) speaks of the degree of research that has gone into this work and the seriousness with which it has been undertaken.

Sugden's interest in Nelson started early and continued on as he lapped up all he could find on the naval hero. And as he admits, there is a lot to be found on Nelson. If England ever had or still has a genuinely national hero, it is Nelson. Even in these anti-war days, he stands out as the romantic figure (dashing, good looking in his youth), something of a rogue (abandoning his wife for a mistress or two, one of them famous and famously enduring), a brilliant strategist, a true leader of men, and like all good heroes dying a perfectly tragic early death in the hour of victory.

It is no wonder that there has been more Nelson memorabilia produced over the centuries than souvenirs of or tributes to any other Briton. There are monuments all over the world. Bridgetown, Barbados and Montreal, Canada have spoken about moving their statues to less prominent positions, but so far the hero continues to stand proud.

Much has been written. Sugden lists some 15 pages of published sources in the select bibliography, in addition to the vast archives located around the globe. So was there really any more to be said about him?

The consensus from those who would know far better than I, would seem to be that yes, there was. In particular this first volume, which takes us through the early career, covers much neglected territory.

It's generally reckoned that you shouldn't know how a book ends before you start it. In this case, I'd argue the opposite. It is easy to assume that in settling down with the weighty object, that you are holding the whole life in your hands. If you don't know from the outset, then it would be easy to get disheartened, when you realise that this is not going to take you on to those glory days of Trafalgar. It takes you only to the very first realisation of the 'dream' and to its almost immediate quashing by defeat and will leave you wanting more.

Be prepared therefore. This isn't a ripping yarn of daring-do on the high seas (although there is quite a bit of that, quite a bit of the same on land as it happens, which was all new to me). It is a scholarly biography that looks at the man, his origins, his influences, his strengths, and, yes, his weaknesses. It puts them all the context of his time and of his personality, and gives us a very balanced view of a human being who was blessed with a mix of good and ill fortune , but knew how to exploit the former, and though often tormented and made despondent by the latter, equally quickly resolved to get over it.

That the child known generally as Horace in his youth, rather than Horatio, was born to a humble Norfolk parson is well known. Often overlooked however is that, this wasn't quite so humble a background as might be imagined. True, there was no inherited wealth, which was to dog Nelson in his early days as he rose slowly up through society, but he wasn't born without connections or as it was known at the time interest.

The Church was a traditional occupation on his father's side and conveyed a certain standing in society, but on his mother's he was related to the Sucklings – a line of military men with connections of their own – and through her mother to the mighty Walpoles. They may have declined since the glory days of Sir Robert, but they were still one of the most influential families in the country. It wasn't enough to buy young Horace an easy passage through life, but at least it gave him a start, and an insight into how the world worked. It gave him access, a means by which he could justify calling upon people who might otherwise have simply overlooked him.

Similarly on the financial side, it was clear that all of the Nelson siblings would have to shift for a living, but they would be able to do so with a bought and paid for education that would enable to use the intelligence they were born with, after attending local schools which, even if you got in on a bursary, would expect you to turn up in uniform, pay for your books and – if your family lived away – pay for your accommodation. Edmund Nelson held great store by education. He wasn't wrong.

Young Horatio was probably never going to be the great academic, but by all accounts though of an adventurous spirit he does seem to have had an inbred respect for authority and a very personal sense of honour. In any event his schooldays would be over by the age of twelve. With his mother dead, his father absent over a lonely Christmas, the prospect of a war with Spain in the offing and an uncle in the navy, our hero decided he wanted to go to sea. Uncle Maurice wasn't quite so keen, Horace being possibly the weakest of the boys, wouldn't have been his first choice when it came to exercising his promised patronage.

Still, it's always good to have a willing victim, and if a cannon ball didn't soon take off his head and do for him at once he might even make something of it.

They really had no idea!

And as a reader. Neither did I.

I started to mark pages to quote when it came to writing the review. I was sparing with the post-its but with over a dozen by the half-way point, I realised that I didn't need them. I could quote endlessly from this book. (Ask my other half who listened to me do so for over a week, before saying you are going to let me read for myself, aren't you?) I'll spare you.

In terms of Nelson himself, what comes across is a boy growing into a man, and making huge, catastrophic mistakes along the way. He was quite the egotist. Not driven by a need for wealth, other than insofar as it was necessary to give him access and ability to hold his own in society, he was desperate for fame and glory. He rationalised this to himself as glory for England (it was Britain by then, but to Nelson, always, England). But it was personal. He was a shameless self-publicist. He exaggerated his successes and down-played his failures.

On the other hand, he credited those successes where credit was due, and suffered on deeply on a personal level when things didn't go right. If the one of the marks of a true leader is that it matters! – then Nelson was that man. To him it did matter. Deeply.

Leadership is the current buzzword in what used to be management training circles these days. If I thought any of them could spare the time, I'd recommend today's business leaders read this book. Above all, Nelson was a Leader. He inspired his men. He led from the front. He shared the spoils. He shared with his 'next tier managers', his captains, what his ideas were if this happens, or if that happens, so that they could know his mind and do what he would want. He would take orders – but only up to a point – if the mission looked likely to fail because of the orders, well, the mission would come first, and he would break rank and go for it, and be forgiven. At the time these were revolutionary ideas. They're not yet universal even now.

In terms of the navy of the day, Sugden gives us detail and drama. The battles are told with all the verve of a fiction writer, for those of us who don't care to follow the detail, but with all minutiae available for the strategists who want to understand. My personal interest is in the social aspects of life at sea, and the author doesn’t fail on this slate either. He quotes lavishly from the records of lives and deaths lived a-float. The punishment records are put in context of 'the going rate for the day'. He looks at food supplies. He talks about the boys from the Marine Society and what became of them. He looks at 'class' aboard and ashore. There is insight into the kinds of injuries and illnesses suffered and the treatments available. Press-gangs and mutinies are contextualised and both seem less reprehensible as a result.

We're taken outside of the navy into domestic life. Nelson's early love-affairs aren't well-documented, but there's enough of a picture to show the young gallant having a good time. His married life wasn't what either party had been hoping for, and in a modern age, would not have survived. Did she love him or stay for duty we'll never know. That he honoured and betrayed her in unequal measure is well known. Away for years at a time, it is no wonder. The greater wonder is that she stayed faithful. |(Or maybe not, for the age.) His first betrayal survives in the letters of others. Nelson at least had the decency to destroy his own records of it. Meanwhile husband and wife wrote. He told of heroism and boredom (the ever present aspects of a military life). She told of family and fashions, the pre-occupations of a bored woman at home.

Politics skirts around the edges. Revolution in France. The worsening relationship with Spain. The triangular trade with Africa and the West Indies. Changes of government. The economy.

I came to this book not so much because of Nelson, but because of an interest in life at sea. I came away from it with a balanced respect for the man, and for wanting to know more of the detail about what happened next, to him, for him.

And also for those around him. For those using the work as a reference book, it is full of the careers of the officers who served under, over and with him… and vignettes of the lives of the ordinary men who followed him from ship to ship and claimed themselves proud Agamemnons decades after his first command.

It is a long read, but a deeply satisfying one, one that leaves you waiting for the next tide, and the next volume. It's one of those books that will not grace your bookshelves, it will wear its age proudly in battered covers and turned down corners as it gets re-thumbed searching for half-remembered snippets.

For ficitious renditions of the time you might enjoy Under Enemy Colours by Sean Thomas Russell or for another biography giving insight into the way society and thinking were changing, check out Thomas Paine: His Life, His Time and the Birth of the Modern Nations by Craig Nelson

I'm deeply grateful to the publishers for my copy of Nelson, and eagerly look forward to having the story completed.

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