Frederick Marryat (MAR-ee-uht), born in Westminster, London, was the second son of Joseph Marryat, a wealthy banker and member of Parliament. He was not well educated, and both his home and school life made him miserable. After repeated attempts to run away—each attempt ending in capture and caning—he was allowed to join the Royal Navy at the age of fourteen. Strong in body and favored by social status, he saw combat in the Napoleonic and Burmese wars and soon became a commander. In 1819 he married Kate Shairp, daughter of a diplomat.
His articles against flogging and impressment were frowned on by the Admiralty, but his important Code of Signals became the standard manual of communication by the navy and maritime services for many years. Promoted to post-captain in 1825, his interests turned to writing fiction.
Marryat tried to be both man of fashion and man of letters. Always in debt, he worked rapidly. From 1832 to 1835 he edited Metropolitan Magazine, and during that period five of his best novels appeared in its pages. Influenced by Tobias Smollett, most of Marryat’s novels were comedies that often went into farce. The major theme was the initiation of a young man to the brutality and humor of life aboard a man-of-war.
Marryat’s significance is twofold. First, he was the earliest major novelist of naval life. Second, his novels helped build the patriotic belief in the Royal Navy as the world’s best fighting service and the myth that it was the English destiny to rule the globe. Marryat was a writer of good descriptive power, and his characters were sharp portraits of men who had responsibility but little ability and of youths who were loyal. His stories for children fit the mode of Victorian times: One should follow proper religious teachings and consider the home the center of life. Though he became an individualist because his father could not see him as an individual, he always wrote with an eye for the market; it was his catering to the mass market that caused Edgar Allan Poe to claim that his very success proved his mediocrity as a writer. However, his style is pleasingly simple, his humor often delightful, and his pathos genuine. Mr. Midshipman Easy is generally considered his best work.