Frederick Marryat is a spinner of yarns. Unafraid of coincidence, sentimental or wildly improbable actions, he wrote a “few million” words that still live despite the puerility of his stories of the contrivance of his plots. His secret is energy, the indefatigable energy of a man who had experienced most of the incredible adventures he recorded in his fiction.
Like Conrad (the writer of the sea who eventually eclipsed Marryat’s reputation), Marryat spent twenty years at sea before he took to fiction. Largely because of the range of his actual naval experiences, Marryat’s work has an even greater ring of authenticity than Conrad’s for Conrad had never tasted the warfare and violence that Marryat had known intimately in the Napoleonic Wars. Marryat’s realism established the robust, humorous, and “steel-nerved” themes and tones associated with fiction about the sea. Conrad himself credited Marryat with the creation of the modern myth of the sea; for example, the sea as a test of man’s courage, virtue, and endurance. Certainly the works of Kipling and even Hemingway attest the justice of Conrad’s judgment.
One of the most engaging traits of Marryat’s fiction is its readability. The limpid style keeps action alive from page to page despite the contrivance of the plotting. Without relying on arcane mariners’ terminology, Marryat succeeds in depicting with unusual clarity the most intricate actions involving ships, the sea, and men in struggle. He is a master of verisimilitude: readers see in detail, as well as with panoramic scope, all the things he wants them to see. The real measure of his achievement is the fact that illustrations to his works are superfluous. Even young readers, and they have always been his principal audience, will not complain of the lack of pictures. They are there in the words.